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Folktales: Nine More
Safety Rashad Johnson makes big sacrifice in effort to make tackle for Cardinals
By Kyle Odegard, special to azcardinals.com Dec 09, 2021
Photographs By Arizona Cardinals

The jolt of pain coursed through Rashad Johnson's body, like it had countless times before.

Injuries in football are as common as touchdowns, and a five-year veteran like Johnson had long ago accepted it as part of the bargain.

But as the Cardinals' safety jogged off the field against the Saints on September 22, 2013, he quickly realized this was no ordinary stinger.

"My hand was just throbbing, and I was trying to shake it off," Johnson reminisced this spring.

"But as I'm shaking it, there's some fire on the tip of it. What is going on?

"The pain is getting worse. I look down, and before I know it, my white glove is fire-hot red. Blood's everywhere. I come off the field thinking maybe I lost a nail. Before I know it, I can feel my heartbeat in my hand. It's like my hand is beating at the same rhythm as my heart. All I can say to the doctor is, 'Hey, man, I need some drugs. I need something.'"

As a rotational safety, part of Johnson's role in 2013 was to play special teams.

When the Cardinals went to New Orleans for a regular season game in Week 3, he was on punt coverage duty. It was not an easy task, as the Saints boasted the dangerous Darren Sproles back deep.

Just before halftime, Johnson raced downfield to track the elusive returner and forcefully pushed a blocker to create separation. As Johnson moved away, the middle finger on his left hand didn't.

"We found out later that he got his finger stuck in this little small hole in the side of the guy's helmet," said head athletic trainer Tom Reed.

As Johnson retreated to the bench, he knew something was wrong, but had no idea the severity of the situation until his glove came off.

"That's when things got ugly, literally," Johnson said. "They take the glove off, and from my nail portion up on my left middle finger, it's completely severed. The blood is spewing off onto the wall, and everyone is running and trying to wrap my finger, inject it and get it numb so we can assess the damage. I turned my head and I'm like, 'Now can I get some drugs? We have fully evaluated the situation here.'"

The trainers knew there was a possibility the tip of the finger could get re-attached, so they went looking for it. Johnson's glove had been tossed in the trash after it came off his hand, and there was a good possibility the missing portion of the finger was still in it.

"When assistant trainer Jim 'Machine' Shearer was dumpster diving, I started to get the feeling this wasn't your normal hand injury," sideline reporter Paul Calvisi said.

Johnson, still in intense pain, watched on as the training staff searched frantically.

"Machine had the interesting question that no one seemed to be asking in the moment: 'Where's the rest of the finger?'" Johnson said. "They looked down in the trash can, they're digging, and they pull it out. The glove is still intact, normal, so they're like, 'let's just cut up the finger and see.' And it just falls right there on the table. From that point he was like, 'Do we put it on ice? I was at the point where I was like, 'Let's just shave it back. I don't think I want to try and reattach.'"

When Johnson holds up his left hand, the middle finger is roughly the same length as the index and the ring.

Time has helped heal the wound, but surprisingly, Johnson wasn't fazed much in its immediate aftermath. He had designs of getting the finger protected enough to play the next week against the Buccaneers, but the training staff wisely held him out.

But just three weeks after the injury, Johnson was back on the field in a Week 6 matchup against the 49ers, and even came up with a catchphrase to downplay the injury.

"'Nine more' is a mindset," Johnson said. "The question was asked, 'Hey, man, you lost a portion of your finger. What are you going to do? I'm like, 'I got nine more.'"

Jerraud Powers, Johnson's close friend and former teammate with the Cardinals, laughs at the way the situation was handled.

"The guy made t-shirts saying that he's got nine more fingers," Powers said. "Everybody wore it under their shoulder pads for the rest of the year."

The Cardinals' marketing team played its part.

After the contest, Orlando Avila, the team's director of marketing and broadcast services, opened Photoshop and created a foam hand that was flashing a peace sign – and then cut off the top of the index finger.

"The first thing that came to my mind was the fact that he's not ever going to be able to put a peace sign up without it looking a lot different," Avila said. "It's horrible to think that, but from there, I thought about the foam finger."

Avila jokingly sent the image to the team's beat writer, Darren Urban, never planning for it to see the light of day.

"I thought it was hilarious," Urban said. "I thought it was Orlando being Orlando, but then we started talking about it a little bit like, 'Do you think we can put that out there without essentially offending anybody, including Rashad?' This was kind of a serious injury. You don't want to goof around with it too much. But the more we talked about it, the more we thought about, you know, Rashad is the kind of guy that would maybe appreciate it."

The Cardinals sent a text message to Johnson, who found it similarly humorous and approved its appearance on social media. The Tweet was picked up by several national outlets, including SportsCenter.

"That's when it hit me, that, wow, this got out there," Avila said. "It started as an inside joke, and to see it grow to what it did was funny. Some people did think we were going to actually make these."

Johnson sent out gruesome photos of the injury to friends via text, and later posted them on Twitter. It led to a comical exchange with Powers, who told him not to shave more of the finger off.

"He is still doped up… and I remember literally laughing and telling him, 'Hey, man, your finger is going to grow back,'" Powers said. "Tell them not to do anything. I said, 'It's just like any other extremity on your body. Your finger is going to grow back.' We literally get into an argument about, 'What is he going to do with his finger?"

Johnson smiles when recounting Powers' plea.

"He was partially right but partially wrong," Johnson said. "I actually do have a nail that is continually trying to grow back. So maybe if I didn't go through the whole process, it may have grown back in some sort of deformed kind of way and given me my full function. But it definitely wasn't going to grow back (all the way)."

Johnson wasn't hindered in the slightest by the injury.

Before it happened, he accumulated three career interceptions over four-plus seasons. Johnson nabbed three more through the rest of 2013, then four in 2014 and a career-best five in 2015.

"He was legit," former Cardinals cornerbacks coach Kevin Ross said. "He was telling the truth. He only needed nine (fingers) and still caught the ball well."

Johnson's quick return from the amputation drew parallels to Ronnie Lott, the 49ers safety who chose to amputate the tip of his left pinky finger in 1985 because bone graft surgery would have forced him to miss games.

Lott called Johnson after his injury and also relayed a message to him over Twitter.

"Fear doesn't stop us. Life keeps us going."

While not the most physically gifted player, Johnson used his mental acuity and toughness to carve out an eight-year career in the NFL. Few were surprised that he handled such a brutal injury so well.

"There are certain players that love the game so much, that they're not thinking about what this may cost them financially, or what may happen a year from now, or 10 years from now," Cardinals radio announcer Dave Pasch said. "They just love the game, and all that matters is right here, right now. 'What do I have to do to play?' And that was Rashad Johnson.'"

It's now been eight years since the injury, and judging by the perma-smile on his face during this interview, Johnson has no lingering disappointment.

He wears the battle wound as a badge of honor and has learned to improvise when needed.

"I reach with my other hand if I need to get something out of the corner of that pocket," Johnson said.

Images around former Cardinals safety Rashad Johnson and his infamous lost fingertip trying to make a tackle in New Orleans in 2013.

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