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Run it Back: Down Goes Gallman

A reflection on the injury that shaped NC State vs. Clemson, 2016

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NCAA Football: North Carolina State at Clemson Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Run it Back, a series that revisits noteworthy moments in the long history of Clemson running backs.

Wayne Gallman was down.

It was 2016, and the no. 3 Clemson Tigers were six minutes into a brawl with the NC State Wolfpack. Homecoming was that weekend, with all its attendant floats and festivities. The alumni were in town, more than usual, and the kids were in tow, sporting oversized old jerseys and clutching at their parents’ jeans. I was on the Hill, two rows back from the fence. Clemson was undefeated. Despite a slow start to the season, the team had championship aspirations.

When I saw Gallman lying on the ground, still, to the edge of a pile of large, squirming football bodies, I knew something was wrong. I squinted at the video board, hoping to steal some glimpse of his condition. It didn’t look good.

The moments before the hit were promising. Clemson was moving the ball, and had just crossed midfield. It was second and two, and the Tigers were driving toward the student section. Gallman caught a quick screen, made the best of some middling blocks from Jordan Leggett, and easily made his way past the marker. Then, in dogged search of more yards, he curled his way inward, toward the center of the field. There, the Wolfpack converged. A nickel corner lowered his head and made contact with Gallman’s upper body. I cannot say with certainty whether the point of contact was the head or the shoulder. I do not know. I cannot speculate in good faith.

The corner was no. 8, Dravious Wright. He had a reputation as a hard hitter. He was the kind of player who walked the line between hard, legal play and hard, illegal play. Wright was a divisive player, the sort of guy who, in previous decades, would’ve been romanticized as an outlaw type, the sort of player who would get the home fans fired up, one way or another. He still, surely, had his supporters. I can’t blame them. It’s easy to root for the hard-nosed players, whatever their foibles might be. And I won’t blame the player, who was probably taught from a young age that the big, crunching hits made him different, made him dangerous in all the right ways. The violence in our sport is troubling, yes, but it requires a continuous institutional reckoning instead of a condemnation of individual actors. This ongoing reckoning may not solve a thing; nevertheless, we must encourage the process.

When Wright made contact with Gallman, the running back went spinning. The ball left his hand, floated out and downward. For half a second, Gallman seemed to hang in midair, suspended above the playing field. It was a perverse spectacle, a scene of horror. There was a collective intake of breath in Death Valley. Then, Gallman crashed to the ground. His head bounced hard against the turf. He passed out.

After the game, Gallman said he didn’t remember the period between being hit and waking up in the training room.

Despite his later protests to the contrary, it was clear that Gallman was concussed. The stadium was eerily quiet in those intervening minutes of waking sleep, except for the few seconds in which the running back made his way off the field and into a tent with the assistance of Clemson’s medical staff.

The running back did not return to the field that day. Wright was not penalized.

Clemson went on to win after a miraculous missed field goal and an impressive overtime interception by Marcus Edmond, a skinny, unheralded cornerback who had once been an NC State commit.

In the wake of the game, Clemson sent a video of the hit to the ACC league office, believing that the play may have merited a targeting call. The league backed up the referees. Gallman, meanwhile, deemed the play a dirty hit. He revealed that, at the time, he hoped one of his teammates would exact revenge. The notion was understandable, coming from a player who thought he had been the victim of obvious targeting, but ultimately misguided. A head for a head would’ve left the whole division concussed, or worse, paralyzed. There are already too many head issues in the college football world. We don’t need more.

I don’t think there’s a good moral to take from the story of Gallman getting knocked out. I’ll always remember the moment, though. I’ll remember how the breath left the stadium and how I feared the worst had come to claim the running back. It could’ve been a tragedy, if the angles had been slightly different. It also could’ve been nothing—just another physical tackle in a game full of them.

An old cliche tells us that football is a game of inches. The cliche is correct.

Read more Run it Back:

Part 1