National Columnist

Tough to put a finger on best (or worst) part of Rashad Johnson story

Rashad Johnson on handling his freak injury: 'I just roll with it. ... I'm blessed to be in the NFL.' (USATSI)
Rashad Johnson on handling his freak injury: 'I just roll with it. ... I'm blessed to be in the NFL.' (USATSI)

The grossest part of the Rashad Johnson story was when, well ... jeez. You know what the grossest part was. It was the tweet that revolted 'round the world. Johnson is the safety for the Arizona Cardinals who removed the glove from his left hand after the Cardinals' loss to the Saints on Sept. 22 and discovered part of his finger was missing.

Naturally, Johnson grabbed his cell phone and took a picture.

And put it on Twitter.

People gagged. This is why God created the Internet, and Johnson's missing finger became the amputation that launched a thousand blog posts. The one here at CBSSports.com advised readers to "stop scrolling right now if you're weak in the stomach."

Because it was the grossest part of the Rashad Johnson story. That picture. OK, those pictures, plural. Johnson posted three, and those pictures went viral because that's what we do on the Internet. We look at the terrible things that happen to other people and then, after we're done looking, we go on with our lives.

Here's the thing:

Rashad Johnson isn't so different from you and me.

The weirdest part of the Rashad Johnson story was when the tip of his left middle finger started hurting him, and the damn thing wasn't even there anymore. It's called "phantom pain," and it's a phenomenon that dates to the 16th century when French surgeon Ambroise Pare noticed soldiers complaining of pain in limbs that had been amputated in war.

Rashad Johnson doesn't know anything about Ambroise Pare, but he knows the tip of his middle finger was bothering him for a good month after the tip of his middle finger was gone.

"Definitely I had those sensations where [the finger] was there -- but it wasn't there," Johnson said. "Kind of crazy. Now the nerve endings have died or something, and it doesn't feel like that anymore."

Reattachment was never an option, although Johnson had the missing finger part. A trainer found it shortly after Johnson walked into the training room after the game, wondering why blood was dripping from his glove. Although adrenaline and endorphins were coursing through his body, shielding him from whatever pain was lurking inside his glove, Johnson knew the pain would come soon enough. He figured the finger was dislocated, with the bone sticking out of the skin, so he wanted a trainer to carefully cut the glove off his hand. That's what the trainer did, throwing away the glove and focusing on the blood spurting from the tip of the finger.

"Another trainer came in and said, 'Where's the rest of the finger?'" Johnson said.

Oh, right. The glove. A staff member pulled the glove out of the trash can, shook it, and out fell part of Rashad Johnson's finger.

Which, come to think of it, might be the grossest part of this story.

But the story gets better. Like it could get worse.

Truth is, the story could have gotten worse. Johnson came back too soon, practicing a few days after a surgeon shaved down the bone sticking out of the finger and banging that hand -- inside a cast and everything -- on a teammate's helmet. The finger became infected, and doctors told Johnson he had to stop practicing until the wound healed. Any more infections, and he could lose more of the finger.

Or worse, depending on how deep the infection ran.

Johnson missed two games, and when he came back his starting position at free safety was not returned to him. In his place the coaches had inserted dynamic Tyrann Mathieu, and Mathieu was paying immediate dividends. Johnson became a reserve, one who started to play his best football of the season.

Missing finger and all.

Neatest part of the Rashad Johnson finger story? Maybe what happened on Oct. 27 against Atlanta when Johnson intercepted Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan two times in the Cardinals' 27-13 victory. Or maybe it's what has happened since then, which is to say, nothing but victories. That game against the Falcons started Arizona on a three-game winning streak, which the team will try to push to four on Sunday against the Colts.

Johnson has been a sure tackler since the injury, averaging the same number of tackles per game -- four -- in fewer snaps, and he has recorded both of his interceptions and all three of his passes defensed in that time as well.

Teammates have noticed the way Johnson returned to the team as quickly as he could, and the way he has taken to mentoring Mathieu, passing along tricks of the trade he learned from former teammate and Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson.

"Respect," teammates have said to Johnson in recent weeks. "Respect the way you've handled all this."

The most uplifting part of the Rashad Johnson finger story? When he received a call from Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott, who famously elected to have part of his finger amputated after the 1985 season rather than risk a bone-graft surgery that could force him to miss part of the following season.

"My cell phone rings -- I normally don't answer calls from numbers I don't know -- and I looked down: California?" he said. "I answer it. It's Ronnie Lott. He tells me the process of when he lost his finger, how to handle it. It was really encouraging to hear from him, how he was able to go through the situation -- people being negative, asking him why he would choose to continue with that. He was saying, 'People live in fear. We don't.'"

The most annoying part of the Rashad Johnson finger story? When he can't get his glove on just right. Gloves are designed for the middle finger to be the longest, of course, and Johnson's isn't. His middle finger is now shorter than either of the two surrounding fingers, and so the glove ... it just doesn't fit right. So Johnson spends time working the glove down, farther than it's meant to go, so the glove doesn't flap emptily when he reaches for the ball.

The funniest part of the Rashad Johnson finger story? Probably when he makes a play in practice and linebacker Daryl Washington bellows something like, "Good play, Nub! I see you, Nub!"

"I just roll with it," he said. "Life's good. I'm blessed to be in the NFL, coming from where I came from -- Sulligent, Ala., probably 1,800 people in the whole town. Three red lights, Piggly Wiggly. That's it. So I just hope to play as long as I can, win some more games, hopefully go to the playoffs and do something special."

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