I played organized football for 13 years of my life. I started playing when I was ten, and played five years of Pop Warner football before high school. I played four more years in high school, then based my decision on where to attend college based, in part, on which schools recruited me to play. I then played four years of college football. Mind you, I was not a highly recruited player coming out of high school, 5' 9" quarterbacks rarely are (unless they are as talented as, say, Doug Flutie or Russel Wilson). But I had a handful of the Ivies and Small Ivies come my way, and settled on playing at my alma mater, Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.
I started one game in college. We won, no thanks to me. When we scored the go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter, I had been pulled from the game, and our starting quarterback, playing with a severely sprained ankle, had returned to action and gamely led us to victory playing basically on one leg.
Playing football throughout my formative years provided me with friendships, life lessons, and memories that I will carry with me the rest of my life. It helped forge my identity, it opened doors for me, it provided me with a sense of discipline, structure, and teamwork. But as I sit here now, at the age of 36 and with a young 18 month old son, for a variety of reasons I wonder, no, I fear, the day he asks me if he can play the game his father once played, still loves, and misses playing to this day.
The first thing I feel every morning I wake up is pain. (Before I continue, please do not interpret this as some "woe is me" drivel. The pain I feel is nothing in comparison to the pain felt by those fighting life-threatening diseases, or those who have been injured in severe accidents, or at war, etc.) The pain I first notice is my back, from my neck down into my right arm, which is numb or tingling most of the time, down my spine into my legs. Pain due to numerous herniated discs and bulging discs, pain caused by blind side hits, head on collisions, and other violent impacts incurred in 13 years of playing this sport.
The next pain I feel is in my knees. First the left (a torn meniscus would do that) and then the right, which numerous MRIs and cortisone shots have failed to diagnose/cure even as I sit here today.
I next feel the pain in my right shoulder, courtesy of a torn labrum that requires surgery. But since my playing days are over, doctors have advised me that the pain and rehabilitation of the surgery might be worse than just living with the pain.
Finally I look at my hands. Numerous broken fingers, and a surgically repaired right thumb.
Injuries are a part of football. The problem is, the culture of football demands that players never admit to being injured for fear of losing their spot. The game demands that you play through pain. That torn left meniscus? Happened right before halftime during my homecoming game my senior year in high school. The backup quarterback took my spot for a series of plays before halftime, and even though I could barely walk and could not put any weight on my left leg, I told the coaches that I was okay. When the doctor examined me, I lied. Every test he gave my knee caused me pain, but I didn't flinch and told him I was "good to go."
Why? I didn't want to lose my spot.
That surgically repaired thumb? Happened the opening game of my junior year in college. Our starting quarterback was hurt, I was in the game, and I was playing well. I was scrambling towards the goal line and dove forward with the ball in my right hand as the opposing team's free safety (curiously enough, that backup quarterback on my high school team) dove at my legs to tackle me. The ball landed on the one foot line, and landed first with all of my momentum and body weight on it. My thumb couldn't handle the force, and popped out of place, tearing ligaments in the process. For the next two seasons, I lived with a thumb that would pop in and out of place, rather than tell anyone about it. I dealt with it the next week, which was the one game I started in college, without telling anyone. Why? I didn't want to lose the chance to start that one game. Now, I cannot blame the two interceptions I threw in that game, which forced me to the bench, on a dislocating thumb, but I am sure it did not help. And what does it tell you about the culture of the game that rather than turn to the third string quarterback, our coaching staff inserted the injured starting quarterback who had one good ankle?
I think about this now as I read the news here in the city where I live, Washington D.C., as fans of the Washington Redskins are in fear that their talented young quarterback, Robert Griffin III, may have been playing with an injured knee. That he may have been playing with an injured knee that worsened while he was trying to play, and now may face serious surgery, rehabilitation time, and perhaps even face worse. The coaches claim that the player told them he was "hurt," not "injured." The distinction was in the 1993 movie "The Program," Omar Epps, a freshman running back at a fictional Division I football powerhouse, fumbles the ball after a big hit in preseason practice. James Caan, the coach, comes over to him and the following exchange occurs:
Caan: "Are you injured, or are you hurt?"
Epps: "What's the difference?"
Caan: "Well, if you're hurt you can play. If you're injured you can't."
Epps: "Well, I guess I'm just hurt then."
Why do players lie? Why do players, why did a smart young man like myself, lie to a doctor? The culture of football. Both on-the-field, and off. On the field, you don't want to lose your spot, you want your teammates to see you play through pain.
But off the field, off the field is another story.
Football is king in this country, in terms of sports. King. Professional football is no longer a seasonal sport, it is a year-round obsession. From the draft, through preseason workouts, up until the Super Bowl, professional football dominates our culture. But it is like this at every level of the sport. Even at the high school level, even at lower levels, teams, players and programs are given preferential treatment. Star players are treated like gods. I signed my first autograph when I was in Pop Warner. I was 11, our team was playing for a state title and a chance to go to the national championships, and I was signing autographs. In high school, star players were allowed to get a way with things that were criminal. Nothing to the extent of what is coming out of Steubenville, Ohio currently, but thefts and the like were known about and swept under the rug.
As for me? My high school girlfriend and I both applied to Wesleyan University. She had a higher GPA, a higher class rank, and higher SAT scores than I did. They recruited me to play football. Only one of us was accepted. My acceptance package came with a cute little football sticker on the front. Wesleyan plays in the New England Small School Athletic Conference. It is one of the top liberal arts Universities in the nation. There are no scholarships. But there is preferential selection during the admissions process. I should know.
So why do you think players play through pain, lie to doctors, and hide injuries? The fall from football god to last week's news is a hard one. And a fall that some fear would befall them should they admit to an injury. It's said that a player should never lose their job to an injury, but tell that to Alex Smith of the San Francisco 49ers. Came out of a game due to a concussion, was replaced, and now lingers on the bench. In the wake of his injury, some former players now in the media surmised that he should have not let the coaches know about the blurred vision he was experiencing. That same article talks about Greg McElroy, who hid a concussion from his coaches after the first start of his NFL career. It may have been his last.
Football is a wonderful game. I have so many memories of playing this game that I cherish. I miss playing the game. That first chilly fall afternoon brings back countless Fridays under the lights, or Saturday afternoons playing in front of thousands. But if that day comes that my son asks me if he can play, I do not know what I will say.
I also don't know the answer to this question: If I told that doctor the truth about my knee in high school, would I have lost my starting spot? Maybe. If so, do I get into Wesleyan? Probably not. Without Wesleyan, is there law school in my future? Probably not.
I met my wife in law school.
Think I'm glad I lied to that doctor in high school?
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