The hit came early in the third quarter, like a thunderclap, hushing what had been a raucous crowd at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. Ellis Hobbs, a cornerback and kick-returner for the Philadelphia Eagles, crumpled to the ground, motionless.
Just moments earlier, he had scanned the field for the most dangerous tackler, as he'd done countless times. He cut left and bounced off one defender, then cut right strafing off another. “I broke a tackle and then lost my balance, and I lost that dangerous guy,” Hobbs said. “Then I just braced for the impact.”
He said he was paralyzed when he hit the ground. Medical staff rushed to the downed Hobbs, hoisted him onto a gurney and rolled him off the field.
“It was pretty quiet and I couldn't hear anything,” Hobbs recalled. “It was a clear night and the stars were out and it was just so quiet. I could hear the wheels on the grass and then I heard the wheels click on the concrete, and then the whistle blew. That's when I knew the game had moved on without me.”
“I closed my eyes and started crying,” he said. “I knew exactly what that moment meant. I knew it was over."
Hobbs, 28, was a rising star whose career included stints with the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles and a record-breaking 108-yard kickoff return that landed him in the annals of NFL history. Then in that November 2010 game against the rival New York Giants, he suffered a neck injury. At the time, Hobbs vowed to play again. But as the NFL owners and players settled into a labor standoff, Hobbs, a soon-to-be free agent struggling to recover physically, said his future became clear.
A few weeks ago, Hobbs publicly announced his retirement, officially ending his career as an athlete. But he was beginning a new career -- as a film producer.
Through his production company Outer Stratosphere, Hobbs teamed up with director Mathew Cherry -- himself a former pro player -- and his partner Scott Hebert's Transparent Films to produce "The Last Fall," a film that not coincidentally chronicles the life, loves and struggles of a professional football player who is forced into early retirement after being cut from his team.
"The Last Fall" -- which began humbly with a $16,000 budget that has grown tremendously since Hobbs joined the team -- boasts a cast of notable actors including Lance Gross, Nichole Beharie, Vanessa Calloway and Keith David.
The film's main character, played by Gross, is based mostly on Cherry, who spent three years bouncing between NFL teams before deciding to step away from the game for good.
“It's really about transitions and perceptions versus reality,” Cherry said. "But how, more than anything else, it's family that is most important. It's not about the money.”
That transition from pro athlete to former pro athlete is a complicated one, Cherry and Ellis said, especially when a player's retirement isn't by choice. There are financial pressures to deal with, as well as expectations from family and friends, not to mention the need for a backup plan.
Cherry, who played briefly with the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Cincinnati Bengals, the Carolina Panthers and in the Canadian and arena leagues, said that after his retirement he decided to put to use his radio and television degree.
He moved out to Los Angeles, where he started out as a production assistant on the CW sitcom "Girlfriends" and then the NBC show "Heroes" before trying his hand at directing music videos. "The Last Fall" is his first feature-length film.
“It's about getting past titles and being secure with who you are as a person,” Cherry said of the move to "civilian" life.
Hobbs said he's turned what could have been the worst time in his life into something of a beacon. During the last few years, he says he has become closer to God. He also said he became smarter with his money and left behind the immaturity and brashness he often displayed on and off the field.
“This thing is so much bigger than me,” he said. He has his wife, Monique, and his young son. Monique is the person who heard of Cherry's film and brought the idea back to Hobbs, who agreed to help fund the project.
Every now and then, though, Hobbs said he remembers that day last November and the play in which he was injured. He imagines how his life would be different now had he been late to the game that day or stubbed his toe during practice and been unable to play that week.
“I don't think you learn how to cope with it, you just learn how to battle," Hobbs said of losing football. "[It's] not having the opportunity to walk away the way I wanted to," he said. “It's almost like somebody died and you don't believe they're gone.”