Violence like this isn’t supposed to happen on a high-school football field.
Teenage players aren’t supposed to collide with such velocity. Helmets aren’t supposed to fracture on impact. Apparently, it depends on the intensity of the impact.
It’s been more than 20 years, but I can still see Mack Merritt streak into the backfield from the corner of my eye and launch himself into Darren Davis. I can see Darren's body drop like a gunshot victim and roll on the ground as though it were clinging to life's last precious moments. I can hear the crowd roar like blood thirsty Romans at the Coliseum.
You could say the incident gave me PTSD, except in this case the S stands for smile. It was a traumatic event whose memory makes me grin. A disorder of sorts, I know. But that's football.
What took place on October 27, 1994 at Miami’s Tamiami Park in the fourth quarter of a game between the Southridge Spartans and Palmetto Panthers was nothing short of the most ferocious hit I’ve ever scene on a football field at any level of play.
Don’t take my word for it. Judge for yourself:
Let me put some context to the grainy loop above. For the record, yours truly is #59 in blue (who sheds a block from future NFL running back Sedrick Irvin and stands over the carnage at the play's conclusion). The team in white is Southridge, then the #1 ranked team in Florida and riding twenty-one game winning streak that included a state championship the previous year.
The team in blue is Palmetto, a district rival whose talent in 1994 caused experts to circle this game on the schedule as a potential game of the year in Dade county. The contest wouldn’t disappoint. An above-capacity crowd packed into Tamiami Park and was treated to one of the most electric regular season games of the 1990's in Miami.
The ball carrier is Darren Davis, one of the most storied running backs in Dade history, who led the county in rushing yards in 1994 and would later do the same in the Big 12 in 1999 as a member of the Iowa State Cyclones. He is one of the greatest players to ever carry the ball in Miami and a legend in Iowa. Google him and you can learn all about his stellar career.
The hitman is Mack Merritt, one of Dade’s greatest (albeit unknown) playmakers. Googling his name won’t reveal much.
Football fans (especially from Miami) will understand when I say that Mack Merritt was the original Sean Taylor—a two way talent with freakish physical skills. Legend has it he was dunking on 10-foot basketball goals in the sixth grade. By his junior year, he ran a 4.3 forty yard dash.
He was a weapon on offense (a QB with Cam Newton-like ability) and a pure assassin on defense (see the clip above for proof).
To help me track down the star of this famous play, I sought the help of another football legend from Dade: Markeith Cooper, former Palmetto teammate and Auburn running back who set the Dade county single season rushing record in 1995.
Catching up with Mack after all these years proved to be…eventful. The playmaker’s skills didn’t take him to Division I success and NFL glory. Instead, he’s spent most of the last 18 years at Glades Correctional Institution in Palm Beach County, Florida.
Coop told me over the phone, “Hold on, Fred.”
I waited for what I guessed was the standard amount of time needed to connect with a third party in prison. After a minute or so, I heard Mack’s unmistakable baritone voice over a background that sounded like a cafeteria chatter.
“Mack,” Coop interjected to push the conversation along, “tell him about the hit.”
“The one on Darren?”
“Like he’s got so many big hits he needs clarification,” I said. “Yeah, the one on Darren.”
“Man, you remember they was driving on us. And coach [Steve] Johnson (Palmetto’s defensive coordinator) called a safety blitz. I timed the snap just right, and got by Sed (Sedrick Irvin—future 3rd round draft pick of the Detroit Lions) so fast. Then I just laid into Darren and, you know, the rest is history.”
This piece of history took place a decade before YouTube and social media asserted their dominance on how we judge everything from sports to politics to parenting and every fad in between. This hit’s legend grew and spread they way lore was meant to—by word-of-mouth storytelling.
I’ve told the story about this play a lot over the years. Each time I reach for a higher level of mythology. Today, a little online multi-media goes a long way to recruiting believers.
I can see how the ancients would have struggled to describe Hercules slaying the Nemean Lion. What words can describe such a feat if you weren't there to see it for yourself?
If only the ancients had game film.
Just how hard a hit was it? Understanding physicality with physics.
In his book The Physics of Football, physics professor Timothy Gay asserts that the football tackle is a pure example of classical physics as defined by Isaac Newton in the 16th century.
The tackler’s force (F) exerted on the running back, according to Newton’s Second Law of Motion, is calculated as the mass (M) of the running back multiplied by his acceleration (A).
F=M x A
The crucial part of Newton’s second law of motion as it pertains to a football collision is how acceleration is defined. Acceleration is simply the time rate of change. In football terms, it’s the change in velocity (𝚫V) the player experiences for the entire duration of the hit (𝚫T).
Now let’s look at Newton’s Second law of Motion applied to a football hit:
F=M x A (where A= 𝚫V x 𝚫T)
Consider the collision between Mack and Darren and note the rarity on display. Mack, who at 180 pounds ran a 4.3 40-yard dash in 1994, is on a safety blitz. Darren, a 4.5 speedster at 165 pounds, had just received a hand off and is making his move toward the line of scrimmage. Both players are as prepared for impact as any player on the field. Both are essentially running right at each other at full speed.
Mack’s force exerted on Darren is equal to Darren’s mass (165 pounds or roughly 75 kg) multiplied by Darren’s acceleration, which is calculated by multiplying his speed (nearly 27 feet per second, assuming he's running at or near full speed) with the change in velocity he experiences as he’s tackled.
In this case, the tackle takes place over the course of about 150 milliseconds (.15 seconds). This is an estimate Professor Gray suggests is the typically associated with “big hits.” This hit certainly qualifies.
Now let’s put the entire formula together and determine the force Mack exerted on Darren.
Mack’s Force = 75 kg x (27 feet per second)/(0.15 seconds)
The total force Mack exerted is roughly 13,500 Newtons, which translates to 3035 pounds or 1.4 tons of force.
The resulting collision is one whose magnitude of force is seldom seen in high school football. That's because unlike most big hits in football, this one is almost a head on collision with both players moving at full speed. We won't get into the math, but it's worth noting the force Darren exerted on Mack was enough to scare most physicists back to the lab to play with crash dummies.
Had Issac Newton been in the stands at Tamiami Park that October night in 1994, he might have marveled at seeing his own law on display. Violent collisions between two bodies in motion like that simply aren't supposed happen. Not in high school anyway.
From 1992-94 Fred Smith played with and against some of the greatest football players in history as a member of the Palmetto Panthers. These days he writes books, makes, movies, and occasionally drops the nasty funk on the drums. You can check out some of his handiwork on this site. Stick around. Have a few rounds on the house. Then, you know...buy something.