— The cross-over dribble, the grace and speed, the leaping ability, the step-back jumper, they were all there Saturday inside Mercy High School's gymnasium.
"I was pretty good at basketball at Xavier," Amari Spievey said after helping lead his team to the finals of the St. John Paul II Catholic School 3-on-3 fundraiser tournament. "But I think people will tell you I was way better at football."
He ran for 3,606 yards and 50 touchdowns in his career at Xavier. He caught 53 passes for 858 yards and eight touchdowns. He had 16 interceptions. He was the 2005 Connecticut Player of the Year. In 2010, Aaron Hernandez wasn't the first player from our state taken in the NFL draft. Spievey was, in the third round by the Detroit Lions. Yes, it's fair to say Amari Spievey was better than good in football at Xavier High and at Iowa.
It's also a sport Spievey, 26, said Saturday that he no longer will play.
"I'm done playing football," said Spievey, a free agent since the Lions released him last August. "It's my health. I've got a daughter. I have a whole life ahead of me. To me, it's not worth risking my health and my brain to play. I did it. I played all my life. I think it's time to move on."
The Middletown native sustained a concussion against the New Orleans Saints in a 2011 playoff game. A safety, he took the blow in the first half, didn't report it and kept playing.
"That one wasn't as bad as the second one," Spievey said. "I recovered quickly. The second one was a big one. I was, like, knocked out for four hours. My cousin [Chauncey Hardy] had died. I had some severe depression. They told me the symptoms from that just made the concussion even worse and last longer. The combination of the two was a bad situation."
He remembers the date and place of that second concussion. It was Oct. 22, 2012, at Soldier Field.
"I remember hitting [Matt] Forte on the flare and I was a little woozy," Spievey said. "Then I hit [Michael] Bush up the middle. That's all I remember. I was basically out until we were landing in Detroit and the hit happened in, like, the beginning of the third quarter. I was conscious, but I wasn't there for at least three, four hours."
What followed were many days of tests, he said, and even more severe headaches.
"I just had the worst headaches every day," Spievey said. "Obviously I wanted to play. It's a tough situation. Sometimes you've just got to decide if it's worth it. Ultimately, I've decided it's not worth it anymore."
Hardy, who played basketball at Sacred Heart, was attacked and killed in a bar fight in Romania in October 2011 after his game in a pro league. A night after finding out about Hardy's death, Spievey had a game for the Lions. The two grew up and played sports together. Spievey and Middletown Police Chief Bill McKenna described them as more like brothers than cousins.
"I've been through a lot," Spievey said.
Yes, he can give you the date of his concussion, but after appearing in 35 games and starting in 26 for the Lions, he cannot give you the exact date when he decided enough was enough. Spievey had gone back to the Lions' training camp last year and was cut. There was a subsequent flirtation with another NFL team.
"I decided this year I was done," he said. "Nobody was really calling ... well, I did get some interest. I could tell teams were worried about me getting another concussion Everybody is suing nowadays over concussions. I understand the situation. They don't really want people who have concussion history to play. And I thought it was time."
The time is his now. After St. Mary's and St. John's schools merged last year in Middletown to form St. John Paul II, the need arose for new athletic uniforms. McKenna, who has children at the school and like Spievey played at Xavier, called about participating in the tournament.
"Within three seconds, he said, 'I'm in,'" McKenna said. "He said Xavier was the best four years of his life and he's interested in giving back to the community."
Spievey, who has made a few other charity appearances recently, did one better than play in the tournament. He went to John Paul II on Tuesday to speak to the kids during a pep rally for the event. He told the students that he was told he was too small to make it in football. He told them that whatever dream they want to chase, keep believing and keep practicing.
"It was a great time," the 5-foot-11 Spievey said. "The kids were very happy. That's what it is about. Put a smile on their faces, inspire and encourage them and give them a little advice. I want them to know that just because you are from a small town doesn't mean you can't make it big."
Football is a violent game. Nobody knows that better than Spievey. In August, the NFL reached a tentative $765 million settlement over concussion-related brain injuries among its 18,000 retired players. Since then, seven retired players, not part of the initial litigation, have filed a motion to intervene in the litigation, claiming the settlement doesn't sufficiently represent the interests of all. The concussion story may be the hugest that faces professional sports. There are a number ways this all could go legally, and Spievey is among those who must decide how they will pursue those legalities.
"I feel like no matter what, if you are an aggressive player, you're going to get a concussion," Spievey said. "Football is a very dangerous sport. You've got to be smart. If you get a concussion, don't try to be a tough guy and play it off. Be serious about it. Tell somebody. What I tried to do, my whole career, was play through injuries. I wanted to play. But at the end of the day, you still have a long life ahead of you after football. You've got to be smart about your body. You only have one body."
That body is in good shape. He doesn't pound weights anymore, but he does run.
"I'm not as big and strong as I used to be, but I still can run forever," Spievey said.
Like UConn coach Bob Diaco, he became an All-Big Ten defensive performer at Iowa. On Saturday, he sat there and watched one of Diaco's players, quarterback Tim Boyle, participate in the slam dunk contest. Like Spievey, Boyle played on state championship teams at Xavier.
Several years older, Spievey doesn't know him personally, but he got a kick out of watching Boyle — who has gained 10 pounds and looks much bigger than last year — dunk with authority and some creativity.
"He is one big guy," Spievey said.
Big guys, small guys, football is a lesson in punishment. He played corner at Iowa, but because of his fearless tackling, he was switched to strong safety in the NFL. With the Lions, he had five interceptions. He also had 117 tackles; that's 117 times he left his brain open to punishment.
Despite that, of course he misses the game.
"I think about football every single day," Spievey said. "It's sad. These kids in Middletown look up to me. It hurts for them not to see me on TV, to see me play. That's what bothers me the most. I have a daughter. She came to a couple of games, but she was very young. I wanted her to see me play as she got older. It's sad. But I've got film to show her as proof More importantly, though, I want to be there for her, invest my money wisely, watch my daughter grow up and enjoy life."