Silence overtook the stadium. Hushed tones set in as the seriousness of the injury suffered by dynamic Texans rookie wide receiver Tank Dell fully set in. His teammates knelt in prayer beside Dell, who was in visible severe pain, physically and emotionally.
In a jolting medical development, Dell broke his left fibula near the ankle, according to league sources, as X-rays during the game revealed a tough diagnosis. His electric rookie year is over.
Dell, who’s one of the smallest players in the NFL at 5-foot-8, 165 pounds, got his leg caught underneath a pile of much larger bodies while blocking on running back Dameon Pierce’s touchdown run.
Texans rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud, Dell’s close friend, needed a few moments to gather his emotions before speaking about the speedy third-round draft pick from the University of Houston.
“I’m lost for words, I honestly don’t know what to say,” Stroud said. “You see your brother put in so much work and be so helpful, and one thing about Tank he’s very unselfish. To see him go out, the game of football is tough. We fight our tails off every day to make people happy. We put our bodies on the line, time and time again. To see that happen, it’s cold. It’s not easy. I got to be there for him. More so than anything, forget football, Tank as a person, I know it’s going to be tough for him to get out of that.
“I’m hurt. I can’t sugarcoat it. I can’t come up here, lie and say we’ll be all right. No, it’s not. I love him to death. I told him that. Seven and three (their jersey numbers) will be a great, great duo for the next couple years, when he gets back. I love my brother to death, I’m praying for him, and I’m here for him no matter what.”
Dell could be heard yelling when the injury happened.
He finished his outstanding season with 47 catches for 709 yards and seven touchdowns. He was on track for 73 catches, 1,096 yards and 11 touchdowns. Dell previously broke tight end Owen Daniels’ rookie franchise record for touchdown catches.
Stroud passed it 12 times to wide receiver Nico Collins, the Texans’ leading receiver, and he caught nine passes for a career-high 191 yards and the game-winning touchdown.
It will take much more than Collins to make up for Dell’s loss. They’ll lean on Collins heavily along with tight end Dalton Schultz when he returns and wide receivers Robert Woods, Noah Brown and others.
“No one replaces Tank, Tank is his own man,” Texans coach DeMeco Ryans said. “Nobody replaces Tank, but everybody around him just has to step up and just do their part – be their best in whatever role, whatever area we ask them to. We just ask them to be their best. It takes everyone. When you lose a guy who brings that emotional lift to your team, it’s going to take everyone to dig a little deeper and pick it up and do a little bit better.”
At 7-5, the Texans are a legitimate contender in the ultra-crowded AFC playoff race.
Without Dell, they’ll need a lot more production from everyone to make up for his loss.
“You see the hard work he put in every single day, and to come out like that, it hurt,” Collins said. “I can’t really say much on it. Hate to see one of our brothers go down like that. He will be missed, most definitely. So, now it’s time to step up, everybody.
“We can’t skip a beat. When one goes down, we all need to step up and continue to be us. Hate to see my dawg go down like that, but we’ve got to keep going.”
For Stroud, this injury was reminiscent of how center Jarrett Patterson was placed on injured reserve with a broken fibula. Stroud said “I send 1,000 angels to Tank right now.’
As emotional and important as the win was to the Texans’ turnaround from last season from a 3-13-1 record a year ago, Dell’s energy and positive attitude were unique traits that set him apart. Not having him on the field is extremely difficult for the Texans to absorb.
“Really hurt us losing Tank,” Ryans said. “Tank has been very valuable to our team. He has provided a spark to our team each and every week that he’s on the field. Everybody is just waiting for that moment. You know it’s going to happen when he shows up and he makes an explosive play for us or he’s scoring a touchdown.
“So, to lose Tank there with a leg injury it hurts our team really because of what he means to our team. Not only on the field, but off the field Tank always has a huge smile on his face, always full of energy. Just really hurts losing Tank.”
Dell will devote himself to getting healthy again and making his second NFL season even better than his first one.
“That’s my dawg, he’s going to be all right,” tight end Brevin Jordan said. “He’s a soldier. He’s a man of Christ. He’s going to be good, he’s going to get back to work.”
Aaron Wilson is a contributor to Sports Talk 790.