GREEN BAY, Wis. – Jerry Fontenot spent the last five seasons coaching from the press box on game days, far removed from the action. This season, though, the Green Bay Packers' tight-ends coach moved down to the sideline, where he’s able to do more hands-on coaching during games.
Yet he felt equally helpless on Sunday, when he walked to the middle of Lambeau Field during the fourth quarter of the game against the Cleveland Browns and saw Packers tight end Jermichael Finley unable to move after the hit he took from safety Tashaun Gipson.
“By that point, they had already taken off his facemask, so I knew it probably wasn’t good,” Fontenot said Thursday. “Again, I just tried to console him as best as I could in that moment. Anybody that knows Jermichael, he’s very a competitive and extremely enthusiastic person, and he was a little shaken by the whole thing.”
Finley, who sustained a spinal contusion and faces an uncertain future, was released from the hospital on Thursday.
Fontenot, who has been Finley’s position coach the last two seasons, played 16 NFL seasons as an offensive lineman. He was in the same draft class (1989) with Dennis Byrd and Mike Utley, both of whom sustained career-ending neck injuries that left them paralyzed. Byrd learned to walk again. Utley did not.
“Unfortunately you get visions of injuries like that occurring and it’s always tough to see,” Fontenot said. “Whenever it’s one of the guys in your family, it’s really hard. We’ll all be here and be supportive, and hopefully there’s a gold pot at the end of the rainbow here. Sometimes through hardships good things come out of it.”
Fontenot might have the toughest job on the Packers’ coaching staff these days. He wants to be around Finley – and he has done that, visiting him in the hospital, where Fontenot said Finley “could laugh and joke and we would break down and cry a little bit” – and Finley’s wife, Courtney, who he said was “obviously very shaken” but “really did a great job; the whole family [did] supporting Jermichael.”
But Fontenot also is charged with preparing the remaining tight ends to play Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings – and beyond.
Fourth-year pro Andrew Quarless likely will step into Finley’s starting role, but the Packers don’t have another tight end on their roster with the kind of dynamic athleticism Finley possesses. The 6-foot-5, 247-pound Finley ranked third on the team with 25 receptions for 300 yards and three touchdowns.
Sunday’s performance against the Browns was one of his most impressive. He caught five passes for 72 yards and a touchdown. On his 10-yard scoring play, he caught a short drag route and broke four tackles on his way to the end zone.
“All week long we talked about the most important thing that we are in control of is yards after the catch and yards after the contact,” Fontenot said. “And you know, obviously he was on pace to do some really big things.”
As for Quarless, he showed some flashes in 2010 after Finley sustained a knee injury. As a rookie that season, Quarless caught 21 passes for 238 yards and a touchdown. His playing time decreased in 2011 before he blew out his knee, an injury that kept him out all of last season.
“I told [Finley] the way he was playing, I was inspired and that was one of the things I told him that night in the hospital, 'the way you’ve been playing the last couple of games really inspired me,'” Quarless said. “All I can really do as far as that is just try to match what he was doing for my teammates, for him, just for everybody, really try to match that intensity. The way he was playing was amazing, so I’m just going to try to match that.”
The remaining tight ends – Quarless, Brandon Bostick, Ryan Taylor and Jake Stoneburner – have combined for six catches and 39 yards this season. Taylor isn’t expected to play this week because he is still recovering from knee surgery.
The 6-3, 250-pound Bostick, a former college receiver, is perhaps most like Finley in terms of body type and athletic ability.
“I view myself as like a younger Jermichael, but I don’t try to mimic him,” Bostick said. “I just try to do the best that I can do. I don’t try to match his game. I just try to be the best Brandon Bostick I can be.”