Coaches told him to think about making a play before he fell asleep, so in his hotel bed Saturday night, Deshazor Everett pictured turnovers.
"Just lying there, thinking about different ways of getting an interception, just visualizing it," he later said.
The first time Carson Wentz threw at him Sunday afternoon, the young Redskins safety -- playing his first defensive snaps of the season -- got inside leverage on Zach Ertz in the end zone, just as he had practiced with Josh Norman. Everett snagged his first career interception. It was, literally, the sort of play he had dreamed about.
Not included in those dreams: that Everett would later get penalized for brutally bulldozing Eagles returner Darren Sproles before he could field a punt. That he would set off an on-field melee. That Eagles fans would salute him with middle fingers and throw debris at him as he left the field. That national websites would put his name in headlines -- and not because of the interception. That Eagles players would insinuate he was a dirty player: "I've honestly never seen the guy before, didn't know who he was going into the game, and if that's how he wants to make a name for himself, then so be it," Ertz told ESPN.com after the game, calling the hit an "obvious cheap shot."
Everett didn't imagine that the biggest media crowd of his NFL career -- "by a lot" -- would gather around his locker to ask how he could have made such a vicious mistake. Or that strangers on social media would spend the rest of the day bombarding him with the vilest insults imaginable. "A sad excuse for a human being," read one of the few printable examples. "You are just a bad person," read another.
"I'm happy about my interception. I'm happy about the way I played," Everett told me after the crowd of reporters dissipated. "But if I could have taken that split second back, I definitely would. It's too late. You can't take it back. You can't rewind. It's not a video game. You make choices out there on the field, and you've just got to live with it. Unfortunately, it was a bad hit."
No matter which team you support, the moment was hard to watch: Sproles coming up to field the punt, Everett lowering his head and smashing into the smaller man, Sproles collapsing as outraged Eagles players stormed the field. Everett -- who spent 12 minutes answering every question that was presented to him -- had seen Sproles raise his hands to field the ball, and said he thought he had timed it perfectly, even after he made contact.
He didn't fight back with the furious Eagles, and when he went to the sideline, he still "felt like I did the right thing, made the right play," he said. Then he watched the replay, how the ball hit his back, how Sproles never had a chance.
"Dang," Everett remembered saying. "I hit a guy that didn't have the ball, basically hit a guy that was vulnerable."
These past few months have been a good lesson on how hard it is for any of us to transcend subjectivity, but sports has taught me that for years. How many NHL playoff series have we seen in which fans, players and media members in one city defend a borderline hit, even as their out-of-town counterparts just as earnestly denounce it?
On Sunday, one Philadelphia columnist decried Everett's "half-apology," wrote that he "crossed the line," wrote that if the league "wants to maintain any credibility in its ostensible attempts to deter head injuries, [it] ought to suspend Everett for at least a game." Another said he was "done with the NFL" after watching the hit. A Philadelphia radio host offered to "start a GoFundMe for a bounty on Everett." And Eagles players wondered whether Everett had any respect for the veteran Sproles, who suffered a concussion on the play.
"I mean, I have the utmost respect for the guy," Everett was saying at virtually the same moment.
"I wasn't trying to take anyone out of the game; no malicious intent behind the hit," he said. "People are gonna see it how they see it, but I know in my heart that I wasn't trying to take the guy out of the game. If he would have caught the ball and I miss the tackle, then I'm laughed at and on ESPN. Since I hit him too early and he's out of the game, now I'm the bad guy."
I cringed when I saw the hit live and went into the Washington locker room thinking he was indeed the bad guy, especially after he previously knocked out Brent Celek with another high hit. Then I talked to the men who best understand Everett's job on punt coverage, such as Chris Thompson, a longtime special-teamer who idolizes Sproles and hated to see him get injured but said Everett "plays ball the way it's supposed to be played."
"You're running down there, you don't see him calling a fair catch but you see his hands [coming up to catch the ball], and you're thinking 'Okay, the ball's about to fall.' And it was just bad timing," Thompson said. "P eople don't realize how violent special teams really is. Like, that's how they make their money. Deshazor makes his money by being a gunner on special teams. ... He was thinking about trying to make a play. He wasn't thinking 'I'm going down here; I'm gonna just knock this guy out.' That's not him."
Or Nick Sundberg, the long snapper, who described Everett as "a back-end-of-the roster safety that made the team because he's a baller on special teams."
"We're literally talking about the difference of a tenth of a second," Sundberg said. "He was doubled on that side, he had two guys cover him, beats them, and is just trying to make a play. If the ball comes down a tenth of a second sooner, that's not a penalty, and everybody's jumping up and down like it's the greatest thing that ever happened. But because it had a tenth-of-a-second more hangtime, now he looks like a [naughty word]."
You don't want to defend brutality or recklessness. You want the game to fix its concussion problem, even if that might be impossible. And if that had been Jamison Crowder prone on the ground, the hit would have played differently in Washington. That fact wasn't lost on the Redskins players. Heck, it wasn't lost on Everett.
"If it happened to one of our guys, we would expect the same thing out of our team," he said. "You can't tell whether it's intentional or not if a guy is out there and he hits your guy illegally. And it was definitely an illegal hit."
But on the busiest day of his NFL career, the second-year player was also getting congratulated by teammates for his interception and wondering whether he was going to get that football back. After the Philly reporters left, Duke Ihenacho asked his teammate what the interception felt like; "I was filled with joy like the Christmas spirit," Everett said, until another question made him toggle back to remorse.
It's a brutal sport played at an impossible speed. When you make a mistake, you will look like a heartless villain, and strangers will tell you they hope your mother "is burning in hell." Which probably isn't something you visualize the night before a game.
"I definitely am not happy. I hope [Sproles] is OK. I hope he's gonna be all right. But it's part of the game," Everett said. "It was really a split second. ... I saw him prepare to catch the ball -- I see that every week -- so I took my shot. That's what Coach teaches us: Take a shot. And I took my shot."
Dan Steinberg writes about all things D.C. sports at the D.C. Sports Bog.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Dan Steinberg