Half of the players, maybe even three-quarters, didn't know there was a serious problem, didn't realize that one of their own, linebacker James Harrison, was flat on his belly on the Heinz Field grass, unable to flip over, apparently unable, at least for a few torturous seconds, to move any part of his body.
"I was already started to the locker room," guard Alan Faneca said. "When I saw one of the doctors walk in a little later with a helmet with the face mask cut off, I knew someone was in trouble. That's when I started asking questions."
The answers were agonizingly sketchy at first. Harrison went down and didn't get up on the final play of the first half yesterday after trying to tackle Buffalo Bills running back Marshawn Lynch. No one could say for sure that he would be OK. Everyone immediately thought of Bills reserve tight end Kevin Everett, who was injured making a tackle a week earlier and still is facing the possibility of paralysis.
The Steelers' defensive players were so concerned about Harrison as they struggled to keep their minds on their halftime adjustments that they sent inactive linebacker Arnold Harrison back on the field to see what he could find out. It wasn't until he reported back that Harrison was able to move his arms and legs that some degree of normalcy returned.
The story would get better -- incredibly better -- a little later when Harrison, still in uniform after undergoing all the precautionary tests, walked back to the Steelers' sideline early in the third quarter and pleaded with the medical staff to go back in the game. They basically laughed at him and sent him back to the locker room. When last seen, he was trudging off angrily, ripping the tape off his hands.
"You have to understand something about James," fellow linebacker Larry Foote said after the game. "He's nuts. He's definitely a little off."
It was easy to laugh at that point. Harrison appeared to be fine and the Steelers had won, 26-3, to take first place in the AFC North Division. But that didn't make the halftime scene any less chilling. It had to be the most frightening moment in the six-year-plus history of Heinz Field.
The big crowd, though thrilled about the Steelers' 12-0 lead, was uneasy as the medical people worked on Harrison on the field for nearly the full 15-minute intermission, carefully rolling him over and putting him on a body board before carting him to the locker room. As per standard procedure, they cut off his face mask but left his helmet on before they strapped his head securely to the board to prevent any movement of his neck and spine.
The fans and players weren't the only nervous ones. Members of the Steelers' Legends Team, who were honored at halftime as part of the franchise's 75th anniversary celebration, bounced from one foot to the other on the sideline as the doctors tended to Harrison. They played the game. They know how brutal it is, how, as current Steelers cornerback Deshea Townsend would say later, "All of us are just one play away from it all being over."
"After what happened last week," Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith said, "you instantly think of the worst and pray for the best."
Everett was hurt when he ducked his head as he tackled the Denver Broncos' Domenik Hixon on a kickoff. Just as the Steelers did with Harrison, the Bills waited anxiously to get a thumbs up from Everett or word from the doctors that he was OK. Neither came. Everett had emergency surgery only hours after the game and, though there's hope he will walk again, it's not a certainty.
Everett watched the game yesterday from his hospital bed. Imagine what he must have been thinking. Here's guessing he said a prayer for Harrison. Then, after seeing Harrison back on the sideline, he probably asked, "Why couldn't I walk back out there like that?" He wouldn't be human if he didn't.
"All of us have been there, have hit someone with our head down or been hit in a certain way," Smith said. "But for the grace of God ... "
The Steelers will be eager to see how Harrison is feeling this morning when the team reports back to work at its South Side headquarters. He was sent home to rest soon after he was shooed from the sideline. It's too early to say if he'll be able to play against the San Francisco 49ers Sunday, although his teammates aren't betting against him.
"If he had had a screwdriver in his game pants, I'm sure he would have put on a new face mask and played today if it was up to him," linebacker Clark Haggans said.
"I'm telling you, he was really ticked they didn't let him go back in," Foote said. "Those doctors and trainers had better look out when he sees them."
The man was kidding, of course.
No one needs to worry about the Steelers' medical people.
They'll gladly take Harrison's abuse.
They're just thankful they don't have to go through the same kind of nightmarish Monday that the Bills' staff did last week.
Ron Cook can be reached at email@example.com .