Sports Nut

Playing Pro Football Was My Dream—But the Dream Is Painful

Nate Jackson (No. 81) of the Denver Broncos faces Maurice Stovall (No. 85) of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 

“You can’t make the club in the tub.” This is an old adage in the football world, typically said to an injured player by a coach who believes that the player may be milking an injury. What it really means is, Don’t be a pussy.

Football is a game about toughness. Every man in the NFL has dealt with this reality for most of his life. He was the toughest kid on his street, his high-school team, and his college team (unless we’re talking about kickers, which we are not, Stefan). When a player’s manhood is questioned by a coach with a completely separate agenda, it pulls the veil off of the myth that the NFL cares deeply about the health of its players.

As a player in the NFL, your body is not your property. Your contract makes this clear. You play football. We tell you what to do, and you do it. If you feel that you are injured, we will listen to you, but we—coaches, athletic trainers, team doctors—will be the ones who decide whether you actually are hurt. We will decide this based on how badly we need you on the field. Your test results—typically your private information—will be reviewed and discussed by us first, then presented to you in a dumbed-down fashion. Whether we like you as a player or not, the faster you are back on the field the better. If we want to cut you, we’re not allowed to do it until you are “healthy” again, which just means that you have to practice once, even if it still hurts. At that point, we’ll let you go. And if we need you, then hurry up! You are letting your teammates down when you can’t practice.

A team will diagnose a player’s injury and give him an extremely optimistic timeline and an aggressive rehab schedule. If a player doesn’t respond favorably to treatment, it’s the player’s fault, and he will be told that he “should be” ready to go by now—as if every injury and every player are identical. Nearly every time I was injured while playing in the NFL, I was pushed back on the field before I felt I was ready. I had a high hamstring pull in 2005 training camp that never healed because of a haphazard diagnosis and a hasty rehab. It finally required surgery last October, essentially ending my career.

The NFL really has no answer for the concussion debate. The gray area is bigger when it comes to brain injuries and the symptoms less measurable, so the likelihood of a pudding-brained athlete facing institutional pressure to get back on the field is much greater. The head is also the most effective weapon on the football field. It is the tip of the spear. The moment you change your tackling form, you’ll get trampled by everyone who won’t. The head is always the first point of impact in a high-speed block or tackle. This will never change.

Commissioner Roger Goodell is stuck here. He knows that the big hits bring in the bucks, but it’s exactly that style of hit that turns cerebellums to mush. Putting up posters in the locker room is his way of saying he cares. The players have their doubts about the commissioner’s compassion, and they won’t read the posters anyway.

Goodell’s push for an 18-game season does little to quell doubts about his compassion. A player’s season starts in March and ends in January. It’s a grind that destroys bodies. After the 2008 season, my last in the league, I had a laundry list of bodily issues to attend to, in addition to my wrecked hamstring: shoulder, wrist, fingers, neck, back, feet. Goodell knows about the pain we go through, but pressure from team ownership, and the commissioner’s need to put his stamp on the NFL, have created an atmosphere in which the player’s well-being rarely, if ever, comes first. I just hope that the players’ union can somehow regain the leverage that it will need to prevent the NFL from becoming the bloodthirsty monster that it apparently wants to be.

Now that my playing career is over, I am able to observe the system without being inside of it, and the contradictions are infinite. Ever since childhood, the NFL player has wanted to be exactly where he is. The dream has come true, except the reality is much different than the dream. Only the player knows that the dream has been exploited. Everyone else (family, friends, fans) still believes in the dream, so the player plays along and becomes his town’s shining example of dreams coming true. He is treated like a superhero and learns how to talk like one. This superhero becomes his identity, so much so that he forgets there is a world outside of football, outside of the adulation, the “go get ‘ems,” and the “good games.” There is nothing else, until there is something else. Yet that something else is terrifying for an athlete, so he holds on, fighting to wear that cape for one more year, knowing that a lifetime of Clark Kent awaits. Stefan, you shouldn’t worry. I don’t think you were ever issued your cape.

So, Tom: Got any nagging injuries we should know about? What’s on your mind in advance of the new season?


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