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David Ramsey: Case of Air Force's Weston Steelhammer raises more questions

September 26, 2016 Updated: September 27, 2016 at 8:43 am
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Utah State's Ron'Quavion Tarver gets tackled by Air Force's Weston Steelhammer during an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016, in Logan, Utah. (John Zsiray/Herald Journal via AP)

In the football case against Air Force safety Weston Steelhammer, he's not completely innocent or completely guilty.

He is completely banished from the first half of Saturday's crucial football clash with Navy.

Steelhammer is struggling, as we all are, to understand the contradictions of football in 2016. We are spectators. And, well, he's been doing a lot of spectating, too.

He was ejected Saturday night for his role in a frightening collision with Utah State quarterback Kent Myers. It was Steelhammer's second ejection in Air Force's past four games. He will watch the first half of the Navy game as punishment.

We, as a society, are seeking to make football safe. We will fail. Football is not safe and never will be. It's a collision game played at high speeds by massive young men. The game is highly entertaining, highly dangerous and highly resistant to those who seek to cleanse it of danger.

Danger resides at the heart of football.

Still, those who run the college game strive to eliminate a slice of the savagery. They seek to eradicate helmet-to-helmet contact, and they place all burden for this quest on the shoulders - and helmets - of defensive players.

On Saturday night, Steelhammer met Myers near the Utah State sideline. Their helmets crashed, and Myers crumbled to the ground. Utah State coach Matt Wells was shouting for justice, or his version of it, and officials responded to the call.

They called Steelhammer for targeting. His supporters, who pledge allegiance to Air Force's football program, insist Steelhammer led with his shoulder, not the crown of his helmet. They say he's a solid young man, a high school valedictorian who never would seek to injure anyone. They believe he was punished too severely.

Let me offer my take on targeting. Players on your favorite college team sometimes are victims of targeting, but players on your favorite team never practice targeting. Players on your team only accidentally bang helmets. Players on opposing teams maliciously go head hunting.

A decade ago, Steelhammer would have traveled through his college career without being bothered by ejections. He's a classic big-hitting defensive back, in the same mold as beloved Broncos Steve Atwater, Dennis Smith and John Lynch. He never backs down from contact. He makes receivers, running backs and quarterbacks regret entering his territory. Inspiring fear is part of his job description.

My, but he can hit. On a freezing November afternoon in 2014, Steelhammer laid out Nevada receiver Hasaan Henderson with a legal hit. Henderson spent the next two nights at a Colorado Springs hospital. He couldn't move his legs, and his career was in jeopardy. Henderson, now a senior, recovered and has caught 107 passes since his vicious encounter with Steelhammer.

Let's face it; Steelhammer labors in a strange football world. Air Force coaches and fans want him to deliver punishment to ball carriers, but officials are always lurking, ready to punish. The essence of the game clashes with the rules of the game.

High-level football moves so fast, and ball carriers vary so much in size. A high hit on Myers, who is 5-foot-11, would be a sanctioned hit on a 6-4 quarterback.

Air Force coach Troy Calhoun was upset after the Utah State game. He believes Steelhammer deserved to remain in the game, which is no surprise. Football coaches almost never believe their players practice targeting. It's the other guys who are guilty.

"We've got all these interpretations and there's nothing clear cut," Calhoun said of the targeting rule.

This is clear cut.

These are perilous times for Steelhammer, and big hitters like him. They once enjoyed praise for their ability to punish ball carriers with brain-rattling hits. Now, they are encouraged to be violent, but not too violent. Wicked, but careful about their wickedness.

Calhoun is confused by the current state of college football. His reaction is entirely logical. America's Game never has made less sense.

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