- Associated Press - Thursday, October 20, 2011

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Sean Payton played quarterback through high school, college and even as a replacement player during the 1987 NFL strike.

Yet it wasn’t until he was wearing a headset, not a helmet, and holding a flip card, not a football, that he was seriously injured in a game.

Now he is another casualty of sideline dangers during football games.

“I’d never really been hurt,” said the Saints' head coach, who broke his left leg when he was caught in a tackle along the sideline last Sunday. “This is the first time I’ve ever been really injured at all. It’s just unfortunate when it happened.”

Now monitoring practice in a golf cart with his leg elevated, Payton is among many in football who can attest that it’s not always safe to assume the sideline is an injury-free zone.

“It is a very dangerous place,” former NFL coach Jon Gruden said, adding that his worst sideline hit came at a high school game.

“If you get too close to the fire, you will get burned and that goes for all of us,” Gruden said. “You have the headset on or you are looking at your sideline sheet and thinking about the next play and then, boom. You might not even know what hit you.”

Payton needed surgery to repair a torn meniscus and a fractured tibia on Monday morning. He remained in the hospital until Wednesday. When he finally got back into his office on Wednesday night, he found cookies, balloons and cards in his office, along with a fragile china doll on his desk.

It was a measure of good-humored payback for the coach’s use of the same motivational prop in the lockers of players who are rehabilitating injuries. With the doll was a note reading, “Return to sender.”

Payton was hurt on a passing play to tight end Jimmy Graham, who was tackled out of bounds by a pair of Buccaneers defenders during New Orleans’ 26-20 loss at Tampa Bay.

Punts have proved dangerous to sideline observers as well.

Gruden said that’s what he always worried about most because of the gunners on the coverage teams who are trying to use their speed to squeeze past blockers along the edges of the field.

“They are trying to beat two guys down the field and they are coming right down the sideline and it’s such a bang-bang play,” Gruden said.

That is precisely what happened last season at the Superdome, when a member of the chain crew, Al Nastasi Jr., was flattened by the Saints’ Courtney Roby during punt coverage. Nastasi initially was given intravenous fluids on the sideline, then was taken to a neuro intensive care unit, though he eventually recovered and returned to the chain crew late in the season.

In 2008, then Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis tore knee ligaments when a player was blocked into him on a punt. Weis is now the offensive coordinator at Florida, where his head coach Will Muschamp, said he, too, was once leveled on a punt, though lucky not to be hurt.

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