Demaryius Thomas could only pretend to be OK.
After the Denver Broncos wide receiver found himself on the wrong end of one of Kam Chancellor‘s greatest hits — a tone-setting moment early in Super Bowl XLVIII — he popped up off the turf, trotted back toward the huddle and casually tossed the ball back to an official.
But he was feeling it.
“Kam Chancellor broke my ribs,” Thomas would later say, presumably in exaggeration. “My first catch, I got decleated. I got hit probably from here, back 3 yards the opposite way. And I got up quick because I wanted to feel like it didn’t hurt, but it hurt bad.”
If Chancellor, the Seattle Seahawks‘ iconic strong safety, is indeed done playing football after being released by the team on Thursday after missing the 2018 season with a neck injury he suffered in 2017, then it will have been an innocuous-looking hit in the closing minutes of a victory over the Arizona Cardinals that ended his career. But it was the massive, devastating hits like the one he put on Thomas that helped define it.
Here are, in no particular order, five of the most significant moments of Chancellor’s career.
‘Wow, I just got hit by a very big man’
Chancellor had already established himself as one of the NFL’s most punishing defenders by 2012, his third professional season and second season as a starter. Still, the hit he laid on 49ers tight end Vernon Davis in Week 16 of that year was enough to make your jaw drop. Davis leapt to catch a Colin Kaepernick pass near the front corner of the end zone and was met on his descent by Chancellor, who launched his 6-foot-3, 230-pound frame directly into Davis’ chest, knocking the ball loose and leaving Davis with a concussion.
“It was crazy, man. He just hit me so hard, I just got up, I didn’t know where I was going,” Davis later recalled in an interview with the Washington Post. “I kind of lost my memory a little bit. I just got up like this, my face was just like aaagh. I just didn’t know what happened. I was like, ‘Wow, I just got hit by a very big man.’ He hit me hard. You know what he told me? He said, ‘Shake it off. It’s all right. Shake it off.’ I’m like, ‘I can’t remember anything. You tell me to shake it off? How about you go shake it off, buddy?’ That was quite a hit. That was probably the hardest hit I had.”
This wasn’t the first big hit Chancellor delivered nor did it have the biggest effect on a game. But arguably none resulted in a more impressive collision than this one. And this play, which came during a Sunday night walloping of the eventual NFC champs during a stretch of three consecutive blowout victories, might as well have unofficially marked the Seahawks’ arrival as contenders.
‘Worthy’ of leadership
Chancellor became the voice of Seattle’s defense, the alpha in a group full of alphas, but it didn’t happen right away. After Chancellor signed his latest extension last summer, Pete Carroll was asked to think back to when he started to realize that the Seahawks had something special in Chancellor. The coach revisited a conversation he had midway through Chancellor’s rookie season in 2010 in which Chancellor expressed some reluctance to assume a leadership role.
Carroll had seen how Chancellor handled himself and saw in him the type of player others would follow, so he pulled him aside one day and encouraged him to start asserting himself whenever he felt comfortable.
“‘You’re the real deal, you’re busting your tail, you do everything we want,'” Carroll told him.
But Chancellor was backing up veteran Lawyer Milloy at the time, playing primarily on special teams and only occasionally on defense. He didn’t feel he had earned the right.
“He said, ‘Coach, I can’t do that,'” Carroll recalled. “And I said, ‘Come on, you can,’ trying to urge him on. And he said, ‘I’m not doing enough yet. I’m not doing enough playing to be able to say anything or take that position,’ which I thought was perfectly admirable.
“When it came back around in the middle of his second year, it started to happen. He is such a natural leader that he took over. I thought that was a real good statement that he wanted to be worthy when he took the lead to it. The point is, you could see it early. He has all the right stuff.”
Chancellor’s leadership weighed heavily into Seattle’s decision to extend him a second time in the summer of 2017. The Seahawks knew they couldn’t keep their star-studded secondary intact forever, and they figured Chancellor was the type of veteran they wanted around to help mold the youngsters whenever the youth movement arrived.
Kam bests Cam
Chancellor didn’t reach four Pro Bowls and earn two lucrative contract extensions just by knocking ball carriers and pass-catchers (and occasionally offensive linemen) silly. Sometimes lost in his well-earned reputation as one of the NFL’s hardest hitters was his playmaking ability. Perhaps no Chancellor play was bigger than his pick-six of Cam Newton to seal a divisional-round win over the Carolina Panthers in January 2015.
The Panthers had driven into the red zone and were threatening to cut Seattle’s 14-point fourth-quarter lead in half when Chancellor stepped in front of a Newton throw and returned it 90 yards for the clinching touchdown. It put the Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game, where they beat the Green Bay Packers to reach their second straight Super Bowl.
In an impressive display of athleticism earlier in the victory over Carolina, Chancellor cleanly jumped over Carolina’s line, trying to block a field goal attempt. When the try was nullified by a false-start penalty, Chancellor did the same thing on the next play.
“He’s a freaking monster,” Richard Sherman said afterward. “And I think everybody’s getting surprised each time he makes a huge play like he hasn’t done it before.”
No accounting of Chancellor’s legacy would be complete without mention of his ill-fated 2015 holdout. He never publicly said anything of substance about his motivation during or after the ordeal, leaving much open to speculation.
Perhaps he was trying to get what he could when he still could knowing that the Seahawks could potentially move on from him after that season. After all, he had no guaranteed money the final two years of his contract. Maybe he was taking a page out of Marshawn Lynch‘s playbook, having seen Lynch hold out the year before, returning only once the team had moved up some money in his contract. It’s possible that Chancellor’s conviction stemmed from playing through several injuries, including what Carroll described as a “superhuman” effort to make it through Super Bowl XLIX against the New England Patriots on a torn MCL from a few days earlier.
Whatever it was, Chancellor’s resolve was strong enough to miss the first two games — both losses — of what turned out to be a 10-6 season that ended with a wild-card berth and a divisional-round exit. Carroll said at the time that the situation was particularly disappointing given everything Chancellor meant to the organization.
In his second game back, he saved a Monday night win over the Detroit Lions when he punched the ball out of Calvin Johnson’s hand at the goal line. Chancellor made his fourth Pro Bowl after that season. But there are some veteran teammates who resented whatever impact Chancellor’s holdout had on their attempt to win another Super Bowl.
‘I just thought after that hit that our offense just went flat’
It was fitting that the MVP of Super Bowl XLVIII went to one of Seattle’s defenders. The Seahawks held the highest-scoring team in NFL history to all of eight points. Linebacker Malcolm Smith won the award after returning an interception for a touchdown and recovering a fumble, but many felt it should have gone to Chancellor instead.
He matched Smith with an interception and 10 tackles, and his hit on Thomas was the first stroke of Seattle’s defensive masterpiece.
Five minutes into the first quarter, with Denver driving toward midfield, Thomas caught the ball on a crossing route, a staple of Denver’s record-setting offense. Chancellor, seeing the play the entire time, met Thomas at the 40-yard line and sent the 6-foot-3, 230-pound receiver into the air. By the time Thomas landed and rolled over, he was 7 yards back at the 33.
That play foreshadowed what the Broncos were up against that night: Seattle’s defense was going to be a step ahead of everything, and it wasn’t going to let up.
“I just thought after that hit that our offense just went flat,” Thomas said. “It went flat. I just kept playing because I was like man, I might not never get this chance again, so I’m going to go out … and I just kept getting hit hard. That’s the hardest I’ve ever got hit in my whole career. That whole game, oh man, I felt the worst.”
Thomas was asked if he felt like the game was over at that moment.
“I didn’t think it was over, but I was like man, they coming to hit today,” he said. “I’m telling you man, he hit me so hard. So hard. That’s the hardest I got hit in my whole career.”