, N.Y. — Until he injured his left knee, Jim Santa was a pretty good linebacker, the second-leading tackler on the 1972 Maryland team that featured future N.F.L.
players like Randy White and Ken Schroy.
Then the Duke quarterback tossed to the tailback, a sweep to the left. Santa closed in until he was leveled by what he remembered as a wonderfully vicious, clean block “in my ear hole.” He blacked out momentarily and was helped to the sideline. His cleat must have stuck in the turf because the inside of his knee was in twisted ruins.
But that was then, and this was 37 years later. Santa, 56, was about to have knee-replacement surgery. His right knee was fine, but his left knee bothered him for years until he could barely climb stairs. As an anesthesiologist went to work, a nurse told Santa that he seemed a little young for a knee replacement. She asked what happened.
“Mark Johnson,” Santa replied.
“Hmmm,” the nurse said. “I wonder what he’s doing today.”
That was the last thing Jim Santa remembered. And when he awakened, it was something he could not forget.
There are countless violent collisions, maybe millions of them, every year in football, involving professional players, grade-school first-timers and everyone in between. Two people come together for an instant, then go their separate ways, usually to line up and take their chances again.
Most of the time, no one is hurt, and no one remembers.
Santa has carried his reminder in a worsening limp. And as he recovered from December’s surgery, he wondered: Is Mark Johnson alive? Does he remember the block? Did it elicit cheers in the film room? Does Johnson tell his buddies about the time he leveled a Maryland linebacker who never saw him coming?
There are, after all, two sides to every story.
“I remember lots of things from that game in 1972,” Mark Johnson said from the other end of the phone line.
Including your block on Jim Santa?
“I don’t remember that at all,” Johnson said, almost apologetically.
What Johnson did remember about Oct. 21, 1972, was being a sophomore quarterback making his first collegiate start. Fittingly, it was against Maryland, the university not far from his hometown, Oxon Hill, Md. He remembered the bright sunshine and the homecoming crowd. He remembered rushing for 114 yards, including a 68-yard touchdown. He remembered Duke scoring on its first three possessions and the 20-0 halftime lead. He remembered Maryland’s comeback behind quarterback Bob Avellini. And he remembered running a quarterback draw late in what became a 20-14 Duke victory.
“Randy White came from one side and Paul Vellano came from the other, and they met at me,” Johnson said. “I think it was the hardest I was ever hit in my entire life. It was one of those things where I was kind of happy they arrived at the same time, because I’m pretty sure if they hadn’t, body parts would have come out the other side.”
So he remembered getting hit. He does not remember hitting Santa.
“I’m sure if you talk to other athletes, they might say the same thing,” Johnson said. “I don’t remember the plays where I was successful. I remember the plays where I failed.”
Santa, too, was a sophomore, a scrappy kid from Rye, N.Y. He had knee surgery after the injury and returned to play the next two seasons, starting in the 1974 Liberty Bowl in his final game, but he was a step slower and never the same. He spent about “half a minute” with the Giants in training camp in 1975 before he was cut. He went home.
Had he stayed healthy, Santa said, he might have barely made the Giants. He might have bounced around the lower rungs of professional football, maybe played in Canada. He would never have finished college. He is sure of that.
Instead, Maryland Coach Jerry Claiborne called. He invited Santa back to Maryland to work as an assistant and finish his education. Santa’s life spun in a different direction.
That is why Santa teared up talking about Claiborne. That is why, with the perfect vision of hindsight, Santa sees his injury as a blessing.
“I think Mark Johnson did me a huge favor,” Santa said. “I’d be at the local bar listening to ‘Glory Days.’ ”
Santa stood in his large home, with an office in the basement, a grand piano in the living room and a red-felt pool table upstairs, surrounded by framed photographs and memorabilia.
Hidden under his left pant leg was a short, faded scar on his knee, next to a much longer fresh one.
He is a fan of the 1998 film “Sliding Doors,” in which Gwyneth Paltrow’s character lives parallel lives, one successful, one not, depending on which subway car she enters.
“If I don’t get hurt, this wall doesn’t exist,” Santa said, pointing left of the window.
There were pictures of Santa as a boxing referee, standing in the ring among champions like Larry Holmes, Riddick Bowe and Roy Jones. During that extra year at Maryland, while earning a business degree, he worked as a security guard. He was assigned to the 1976 Muhammad Ali-Jimmy Young heavyweight bout at the Capital Centre near Washington.
He found a new sport and eventually became a licensed referee in New York, often assigned to the biggest televised bouts at Madison Square Garden.
The business degree led to a job at Proctor & Gamble, then another with a food-service company. For 25 years, Santa has been a salesman for Ungerer & Company, a New Jersey-based flavor and fragrance company.
He has a 20-year-old son in art school, a 14-year-old daughter in prep school. He has a wife, Sylvia, who was born on Christmas Day. Their home features a Christmas tree that remains decorated year-round.
Whenever the subject of his injury came up, Santa never mentioned who dished the hit. He was embarrassed. So was his mother, Irene, an 87-year-old football fanatic. Santa told her last week.
“You should be ashamed,” his mother replied. “The quarterback? And from Duke?”
Johnson, actually, was the biggest player in the Duke backfield, 6 feet 2 inches and 220 pounds. He won the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Brian Piccolo Award for courage in 1972, overcoming a preseason shoulder injury to make his first start against Maryland. He was a team captain the next year. But the Blue Devils struggled and Johnson lost his starting job. His senior year, Johnson was moved to strong safety.
He had no football aspirations beyond college. He graduated, then returned to Duke for a master’s degree in health administration. He is the president of US Bioservices, a pharmacy that specializes in low-volume, high-cost drugs, based in Frisco, Tex. He has been married for 30 years, and has a 29-year-old son and a 25-year-old daughter.
On Thursday, Santa and Johnson met — on the phone — for the first time since their brief college encounter.
“The last time I heard your voice, I think you were saying, ‘Hike,’ ” Santa said.
They shared a few stories. They talked about getting together in Dallas in a couple of weeks. And Santa thanked the man who knocked him out of the game 37 years ago.
“I’m really grateful for the way everything turned out,” Johnson replied.
Santa beamed. He had his answer. He knew what happened to Mark Johnson. But even after he hung up, he could not help but wonder: what would have happened if Johnson had run the sweep in the other direction?