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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Who Gets Hurt When Players Get Injured?

I was pretty struck by an article in the sports page of the New York Times on Saturday September 22nd by Adam Himmelsbach that looked closely at how severe injuries affect the teammates of injured football players. The article explored the impact of Tulane University players after safety Devon Walker suffered a severe cervical spine fracture during a September 8th game.   

Each time football players don equipment and lace up cleats to step out onto fields across America to practice against teammates or play in front of screaming crowds, they face physical and emotional realities that are often overshadowed by the ever-growing intensity and glossy mass appeal of the sport. These realities can serve as harsh reminders of the brutal nature of the game.



Don’t get me wrong, I’ve loved contact football since I was a little kid running around on the family room carpet with my younger brother clutching a Nerf football while tackling each other, destroying furniture and driving my parents crazy.

But now when I’m sitting at home watching college or pro football on TV and a player gets injured, I actually wince. Sometimes I silently pray for the guy playing on the field clutching at a leg or arm.

Often I have to look away from the screen as improved HD camera technology and “Super Slo-Mo” playback-type features (often strangely sponsored by some company willing to cough up money to slap their logo onto something, is there anything they won’t put a logo on these days?) usually mean that bad player injuries on the field are now shown in excruciating full-color frame-by-frame detail.  

After watching the Arizona Cardinals crush the Philadelphia Eagles 27-6 on Sunday afternoon, I flipped channels to catch the last part of the Oakland/ Pittsburgh game when Raiders wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey ran across the end zone and suffered a crushing helmet-to-helmet hit from Steelers safety Ryan Mundy.  

Heyward-Bey dropped to the ground and lay there motionless and unconscious for ten-minutes. The game stopped, time itself seemed to stop as everything ground to a halt while the Oakland trainers and physicians surrounded the third-year receiver from the University of Maryland to assess his injuries. Players from both teams removed their helmets and knelt anxiously; many of them grabbed hands and prayed quietly. The stadium crowd grew quiet.

It was unsettling to watch the replay, enough that the network had the good sense (and taste) to stop showing it. Everyone in the crowd, the players and coaches on the sidelines and the millions of viewers watching on TV were all wondering the same thing: would he ever walk again?

Eventually they got him onto a body-board after he regained consciousness and as he was being carted off the field, it was a huge relief when he gave the crowd a thumbs-up. Today it was a relief to learn that Heyward-Bey was released from Eden Medical Center with a concussion and neck strain and is expected to recover fully. He was lucky.

If you wonder why I wince when I see injuries like that it’s not because I’m weak of heart. It’s not just because I’m a human with a capacity to have empathy for suffering. Over the fourteen and a half years that I played tackle football I’ve seen violent injuries on the field up close. It’s not like combat in a war or anything; but when you see some of those things, they stay imprinted in your mind forever like there’s some kind of HD playback that operates inside your own mind.

When I was in tenth grade at Walt Whitman High School back in Bethesda, Maryland, I played varsity football and we played our games on Friday nights. Early in the season we were playing a home game and we had our opponent pinned with their backs close to the end zone. They tried a running play up the middle and as a defensive tackle, I was lying there in the middle of the pile of bodies and I heard this kid groaning.

As players got up to untangle from the pile I’ll never forget seeing this running back from the other team try to stand up; but he couldn’t because his left ankle was turned all the way around facing backwards. His toes were facing the other way around. He quickly lay back down.

It took a moment for me to register what I’d seen because it simply wasn’t natural. I’d never seen anything like that and as I realized the body wasn’t supposed to do that, I also knew I didn’t want to look at it; like other players I quickly turned away as the trainers ran onto the field to help the poor guy.   

The rest of that game is a blur, I only remember that it was difficult for players from both teams to hit each other after that; we’d sort of make contact without really driving into the man in a sort of mutual unspoken “gentlemen’s agreement” that we weren’t going to really hit each other. No one had the stomach for it after seeing that injury.

That was 27 years ago and I still think about it.

During a practice at Penn State during my sophomore year, we were inside our enormous indoor practice facility known as Holuba Hall working on short-yardage run situations; which is about as ugly as it gets in football. You might as well just call it “line up and knock the shit out of each other until the whistle blows”. After a play one of our linebackers (whose name I won’t repeat here) tried to get up from under the pile and I saw that his lower leg was bent at an unusual angle.

Like others I turned away quickly knowing I didn’t want to see too much more. He’d suffered a severe compound fracture and the bones were sticking out of his leg; there was blood on the turf and it left a stain that was there for years if you knew where it had happened.

It’s important to say that when players see those sorts of things and turn away, disgusted or scared, it’s not because they don’t care about the player; quite the opposite in fact.

The intense energy level that you have to function at suddenly wears off. Like a spell that’s broken in an instant or a hypnotist snapping his fingers. You sort of come to and you’re standing there in this football uniform and you’re faced with the realization that there’s a human being lying there injured; possibly permanently.

So many thoughts go through your head that your mind swims with contradictory questions and ideas as you try to process what just happened. How bad is the injury? Was it a cheap shot? Who hit him? Is he going to be okay? Did I really just see that? Could that happen to me?  

In moments like that you’re faced with the harsh realization of just how dangerous the game can be and the limits of the human body. In those moments the vivid colors of the uniforms don’t seem as bright, the roar of the crowd recedes, the sense of invulnerability and furious bravado is stripped away, the intensity of the rivalry against your opponent seems meaningless; the score counts for nothing.

You are face to face with an unexpected glimpse of your own mortality, forced to acknowledge your vulnerability; compelled by tragedy to embrace your own humanity. In those moments you don’t feel like a football player, you’re just a guy feeling scared.



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