Last Sunday, a five-foot-nine St. Louis Rams football player named Tavon Austin caught a punt on his team’s twenty-five-yard line and ran it all the way down the sideline as the Seattle Seahawks’ entire vaunted defense fell helplessly behind him. His seventy-five-yard touchdown return helped the lowly Rams beat the Super Bowl-favorite Seahawks in week one of what is likely to be the most scrutinized N.F.L. season in history. It was a “highwire act” and the result of Austin “switch[ing] on the afterburners,” in the parlance of Twitter and “SportsCenter.” Austin’s own take: “I jumped off the porch and went north!!”

One week earlier, a sixteen-year-old freshman football player in Winnsboro, Louisiana, was fatally injured during a punt return in the fourth quarter of a Friday-night high-school game. His neck was reportedly broken when an opposing player hit him. “He loved his family, his team, and the game of football. He will be missed,” his school’s Facebook page read. It was Tyrell Cameron’s first and last high-school football game. His coffin was decorated with the colors of his Franklin Parish Patriots.

“Sure, it’s one of the more dangerous positions,” the Atlanta Falcons return specialist and receiver Devin Hester, who holds the N.F.L. record for punt-return touchdowns and total return touchdowns, told me recently. Football is thrilling and dangerous at every level, as fans of the game are increasingly aware. A 2013 study by the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research found that a dozen high-school and college football players die each year during practices and games. There hasn’t been a death during an N.F.L. game since 1971, but the league itself expects a third of all its retired players to develop some form of long-term cognitive problem, such as Alzheimer’s or dementia, as a consequence of head injuries endured on the gridiron. And a new independent report conducted by researchers with the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University found that chronic traumatic encephalopathy—or C.T.E., a disease caused by repeated head trauma, which can result in depression and dementia—affected ninety-six percent of N.F.L. players and seventy-nine percent of all football players whom researchers examined. (The researchers have examined the brain tissue of one hundred and sixty-five former players.)

No position is safe, but some are less likely to endure harm than others. Quarterback, center, and fullback are the “safest” positions, in terms of the risk of concussions. The most dangerous offensive positions: running back and wide receiver. Depending on the offense’s scheme, both can require relentless pounding, play after play. But, at those positions, there is usually little time to contemplate the next hit: it’s arriving now.

The scariest job in the scariest professional sports league may belong, instead, to the punt and kickoff returners. These are frequently the smallest men on the field, often shorter than six feet and less than two hundred pounds. (Typically, people with shorter legs and modest body weight can accelerate more quickly than taller, heavier people. Hester is listed as five-eleven, though he appears to be shorter.) A good punt takes four to five seconds to soar through the air before it strikes flesh or turf. In this time, the returner may contemplate his particular fate as no other player has time to do. Will he signal a “fair catch”—that rare, sympathetic gesture of the rulebook allowing him to receive the ball without fear of an immediate, skull-rattling hit? Or will he take his chances and try to catch and run the ball through the swarm of men racing his way at fifteen to twenty miles per hour?

“When you’re waiting to catch a punt, you’re leaving everything you have completely open,” Hester told me. “You’re vulnerable to anybody coming at you full speed ahead. That affects you, thinking about them. It can make you miss the catch. You need a lot of confidence.”

Hester’s favorite passage from the Bible, tweaked slightly on his Twitter page, is Isaiah 54:17: “No weapon formed against me shall prosper.” Playing for the Chicago Bears, as a rookie, he ran the opening kickoff back for a touchdown in the 2007 Super Bowl, the only time that has ever happened. He had five return touchdowns that season, six the next. He even returned a missed field goal for a score. “They all feel different,” he said. “But it’s always special. Especially when you’re within ten yards of the goal line with no one in sight.” On these occasions, Hester has been known to “high-step” like another great returner, Deion Sanders, who held the total-returns record before him. (“I tried to get the football for you,” Hester said to Sanders in front of TV cameras after breaking his record, “but they said it’s probably on its way to Canton,” the home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.)

Great athletes are often averse to analyzing the foundation of their greatness—how they hit the home run or connected with the uppercut. But Hester, now thirty-two, tried: “I think you’re born to be a returner more than learning it. If you don’t have a guy with instincts, he’s not going to be successful. The most important thing is to have good vision. You have to be able to see things before they happen, holes before they open, pathways before they’re there. That comes from instinct and experience. I have vision.”

Hester doesn’t get nervous anymore—“My biggest concern is, are they gonna kick it to me or not?”—but he knows that each time he makes a catch and heads downfield, or “downhill,” anything could happen. “I ask God to watch over me from my toes to the crown of my head. I’ll wipe my feet and come all the way up to the top of my helmet before a kick sometimes. I need all the protection I can get.”

When young returners ask for tips, Hester does his best to help, he said. But listening to the advice he offers, the image that comes to mind is an old bird telling a baby bird how to fly. “Remember that you’re back there for a reason,” he said. “With athletic punters being able to place the ball all over the field now, one of the hardest things back there is chasing down the ball and catching it at the same time. So secure the ball. Then use your natural instincts. It should be easy for you.” He paused, then, acknowledging that there is, in fact, cause for anxiety: “Five seconds is a long time to be looking up.”

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