-- His trajectory, considering the physics involved, is startling.
Detroit Lions inside linebacker Stephen Tulloch, at 5-foot-11, 245 pounds, is actually ascending, approaching 2 feet off the ground but lower than the impressive 33.5-inch vertical leap he knocked out at the 2006 NFL combine.
In a Sept. 21 game against the Green Bay Packers at Ford Field, Tulloch had man coverage responsibility for the running back, but when Aaron Rodgers dropped back to pass, he charged, flushing Rodgers left and out of the pocket. Tulloch tackled the quarterback at the Packers' 29-yard line, then madly scrambled to get up. Looking toward the sideline, he launched himself and, as he began to descend, spread his legs, crossed his arms at the waist and arched his back. Finally, as he landed heavily -- like a superhero after a good deed -- Tulloch thrust out his pelvis and unfolded his arms with a "Look at that!" flourish.
The force of impact shredded the index-finger-thick, braided, collagen structure of the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, and, after the split second the pain needed to flash north to his brain and back, Tulloch lifted his left leg, almost involuntarily, and fell awkwardly.
For more than eight seasons -- 131 consecutive games, the league's longest active streak for a linebacker, the past 75 of them starts -- Tulloch was indestructible. He produced 835 tackles, 25 pass defenses, 13.5 sacks and 5 interceptions and, despite all the violent collisions, cut blocks, brutal blows to his head and torso, limbs and organs, never suffered a serious injury. In retrospect, his sheer exuberance, the adrenaline-fueled height of that joyful leap after sacking the game's best quarterback is what impaled the 29-year-old on his own petard.
The Lions won the game 19-7 but lost Tulloch for the season. That was more than three months ago. On Sunday, when Detroit meets those same Packers in a game with monstrous postseason repercussions, it will be without one of the best players on the NFL's No. 2-ranked defense.
And so, Stephen Tulloch's 15 seconds of fame turned out to be horribly infamous, the most recent addition to the list of most embarrassing football injuries ever that had already tainted the legacies of Bill Gramatica and Gus Frerotte. "Too Funny" was the headline on one YouTube video that captured the grisly sequence.
But beyond that silly slice of sensational, there is, unquestionably, the Man in Full whom novelist Thomas Wolfe imagined. Tulloch, who grew up in a tough neighborhood in Miami, is a three-time finalist for the NFL's prestigious Walter Payton Man of the Year award as the winner of the Lions' Robert Porcher Man of the Year accolade in 2012, '13 and '14. He's also the CEO of SMT Investments of Miami LLC. And you won't find it in his official team bio, but Tulloch has helped thousands of children, providing them with school supplies, dental and vision care, and game tickets. He has comforted the family of a murdered policeman, moved kids into foster homes and visited with cancer patients days before they died. He's paid for funerals, too.
Tulloch, after much contemplation, agreed to sit down with ESPN on a wind-chilled day last month for a feature story that airs Sunday on "NFL Countdown." He's clearly nervous about being embarrassed, but submitted to an interview when it was agreed to include the work of his foundation. He came into the studio at the Lions' Allen Park facility wearing a brand-new Miami Heat varsity jacket but, at the suggestion of his publicist, Sherrie Handrinos, reluctantly agreed to replace it with something more sedate.
"What are we doing here?" he said harshly as he sat down.
There was an edge in his voice, and he challenged the reporter with a hard stare. A week after the injury, he told the Detroit Free Press he had no regrets.
"Hell, no," he said at the time. "I'd do it again, brother."
Now, some six weeks after surgery, there is a trace of remorse. Maybe something approaching regret?
"If I knew that I could get hurt doing this jump," he said, measuring his words, "then I wouldn't have done it. You know, it's a freak accident and I can't change that."
And if he could?
"Yeah," Tulloch said, "obviously."
Did he -- or didn't he?
The play, obviously, is burned into his brain.
"The running back was supposed to key me up, and I was able to beat his block and get inside," Tulloch remembered. "To be able to sack a top-notch quarterback like that, and have the momentum swing in the direction that it swung in, I jumped up [with] excitement that we were able to get off the field on third down, make a big-time play against a big-time team."
It never occurred to Tulloch that his season was over, that the MRI -- and a Sunday night phone call from the team doctor -- would reveal the disturbing damage. He jumped on a stationary bike to stay warm and returned to the game on the next series. When he tried to react to a block that took him laterally, he couldn't plant his foot and drive with any power, and came limping out of the game.
According to Tulloch, he bumped into Rodgers on his way to the locker room at halftime
"He said, 'What's going on with you?'" Tulloch said. "I told him it felt funny when I came down on the jump. He said, 'I hope you get back in there soon.' That's just the guy he is. He's a real cool guy to be around."
Perhaps, but most observers thought Tulloch was mocking Rodgers with a gesture that looked suspiciously like the quarterback's championship-belt celebration that has become a staple of his State Farm Insurance "discount double-check" commercials.
"See, that's the thing everybody thought," Tulloch said when the question was raised. "Everybody thinks it's a discount double-check. It wasn't."
Really? He wasn't channeling Rodgers?
"No," Tulloch said. "I wasn't mocking him."
Rodgers himself seems to be in the not-insubstantial skeptics' camp. In a Week 14 win over the Atlanta Falcons, Rodgers completed a 10-yard touchdown pass to Jordy Nelson and followed it up with his signature move -- something that usually happens only after Rogers crosses the goal line on foot. He explained it a day later in his weekly appearance on Milwaukee's 540 ESPN Radio.
"I just wanted to remind people that you can do that celebration and not hurt yourself," Rodgers said. "It wasn't even really a big one. It was just a little one."
Tulloch, who is savvy in the ways of social media, was quick to deny the charge. But there is a piece of history that might provide some useful context: Late in the first quarter of a 2011 Week 8 game against the Denver Broncos, Tulloch sacked Tim Tebow. He immediately got down on one knee and, hand gently placed on helmet, mimicked the quarterback's praying "Tebowing" pose.
Despite his community outreach, his generosity and drive to do good, Tulloch knows there is a widespread perception that he is just another football-playing knucklehead.
"Yeah," he said, jaw tightening into a grimace. "See, and that's the thing for me, is I know who I am as a person and who I am as a player.
"Football is what I do for a living, and it's provided a good lifestyle for my family, for myself. But what I do off the field is dear to my heart, and that's giving back to people that are in need."
Deteriorating, but not defeated
Against most realistic odds, the Davison Elementary-Middle School is a national blue-ribbon school, with some of the best standardized test scores in Detroit.
In a pair of century-old brick buildings, hard by Route 75 and on the border of the Hamtramck and Highland Park sections north of Detroit's downtown, there is an improbable energy for education from the faculty, administration and the 745 students, who range from pre-kindergarten 4-year-olds to eighth-graders. In white lab coats situated along the hall inside the front door, the best and the brightest welcome visitors with direct eye contact and enthusiastic greetings. Outside in the neighborhood, burnt-out, boarded-up houses seem to outnumber functional residences, and more than one-quarter of the families fall below the poverty line. Inside, well, they're screaming at the morning appearance of Tulloch in the intimate auditorium. There's even a DJ. It's a shrill but soaring sound.
How bad are things at Davison, which services a student population of predominantly African-American, Arabic, Bangladeshi and Polish descent? In their wish list to Tulloch's foundation, one of the things the school asked for was basketballs. Tulloch, who wheeled in a cart filled with those balls, tablets and school supplies, was surpassed only by the presence of "Roary," the Lions' popular mascot.
One of the silver linings in Tulloch's playbook is that his schedule has opened up and now he can more aggressively implement one of the many offshoots of his foundation. The program's name, Operation 55, is a nod to his jersey number. Its mission is a nod to his mother, Mercedes, who taught him to give back, even when she was a single mother of two and didn't have much to give.
Tulloch, with the help of sponsors and private donors, has adopted 55 Detroit public schools. He plans to visit all of them before next season.
"Some things in life don't go the way we plan," he told his Davison audience. "We don't plan for adversity. Things happen. Obviously, I'm dealing with that now. I was injured a couple weeks ago, where adversity struck me and I had to face it head on and realize there's a bigger picture -- getting healthy and being able to come back.
"In class, you may not get the grades that you want, but you have to work hard and get back on track. Whatever it is in life you want to do, you just have to stay focused, stay determined and things will go your way."
Hours earlier, when the darkness was still giving way to dawn, Tulloch was staying determined, working out in the Lions' weight room. Six weeks after surgery, he was already going through some jaw-dropping drills, pushed, sometimes goaded, by the Lions' intense physical therapist, Steve Scher. Even wide receiver Calvin Johnson, working the elliptical machine nearby on this players' day off, seemed impressed.
Tulloch, who signed a five-year, $25.5 million contract before the 2012 season, says he feels so good, he'd like to come back if the Lions make the playoffs. But the doctors are pointing to the 2015 season. He knows the nature of the NFL. Tahir Whitehead, primarily a special-teams player in his first two seasons, has been a revelation in Tulloch's spot, starting 12 of 13 games and producing 61 tackles -- second on the team.
Tulloch, unlike some players undergoing serious rehabilitation, has remained close to his team. He's an almost daily presence in the facility and attends meetings. He also travels with the Lions and works closely with the linebackers on the sideline during games.
But that smooth, 4-inch scar on his knee isn't the only one he seems to carry away from that game against the Packers.
"Freak things happen, and unfortunately, it happened to me at a time that I didn't expect it," Tulloch said. "It's something that I move on past. For people to make that judgment on me, that's cool. I mean, they have their opinion. But I know who I am as a person."