SATURDAY AFTERNOON KICKOFF. Bleachers packed with the post-tailgate crowd, buzzed fans standing, stomping feet, howling and holding up an arsenal of air horns and cow bells and mini-pom-poms on sticks. Spread across mid-field, two groups lined up, eleven on eleven, snorting, kicking cleats. They begin, down after down—run, block, hit, tackle—and again, first and ten, second and long, third and short, again and again, a rhythm that could induce boredom if not for its sheer ferocity.
Then, maybe, an extra loud crack of impact. A big hit, the kind that echoes through the valley of the stadium, quick and loud, a thunder-clap played at fast forward. In the open field, a receiver goes up for the ball and the defender approaches, head down, a streak like a bullet. They collide; not arms and shoulders but helmet and skull and exposed, unprotected neck. The receiver flips, his legs fly up, he changes direction instantly, so fast he’s hard to follow with the naked eye. He spills like a glass of milk. His head bounces off the ground and he doesn’t move, just lies still and soaks into the grass.
Game injury comes in multiple ways, always all of a sudden. It can be obvious; an arm pulled back, snapped, or a knee bent the wrong way under the weight of a pile-on gang tackle. Someone screams, loud and jagged and hoarse. Or maybe a guy goes down for no apparent reason. Nobody touches him. Later, coaches watch the game film, over and over, rewind and slow mo, pause on the exact moment, shake their heads. “Tripped up on a blade of grass,” they say. “Hit by a goddamn sniper.” No warning; he just plants wrong, steps hard to cut and catches his foot in the turf. The anterior cruscient ligament snaps like a guitar string, and the guy rolls, struggles even before the whistle. Pain is immediate and excruciating, but even if he yells he isn’t likely to look at it. He’s on his back, eyes closed tight, afraid to see what’s going on down there. If he looks and sees the knee broken and loose and twisted, then he’ll know it’s real.
Most likely, the injury gets lost in the action of the play, and no one knows the guy is down until it’s over. Bodies scramble as the play evolves; formations collapse, players collide, jumble, mix, and then slowly pull themselves up. They report back to the huddle and soon basic math tells them they’ve come up a man short. The remaining team members stand in a loose huddle, grass stains and elbow pads, mouthpieces dangling from face masks, unbuckled chin straps. They are slightly confused and completely out of breath, experienced enough to know to tuck their hands in their hip pads, roll their heads back, and suck up all the air they can get. They stand like cattle; some afraid to look, others who can’t help but stare. It doesn’t matter which team the injured guy plays for. All of them are thinking. A player down is an actual physical reminder of what the game can do, and everyone wants the guy to get up. Still, they know to breath deep, catch a blow, make use of the mandatory time-out. If they’re lucky, maybe someone will bring them some water.
The crowd zeroes in on the downed man and there is a collective gasp followed by a groan, a stadium of voices manage an almost coherent “ohmigod.” Cautious murmurs spread across a few thousand people. Someone says the obvious: “Kid ain’t moving.” And in those few seconds before the severity of injury is determined, speculations abound. Could be concussion, cartilage tear, muscle cramp, ankle sprain, hip pointer, or, God forbid, neck injury. Mothers grasp hands, fathers shake their heads. Everyone leans forward, bobbing from side to side as if a better view might allow for a more definite answer. Will he get up? Will he keep playing? Will he be back again?
The trainers and the team physician sprint onto the field. In their khaki pants and windbreakers, standing without helmets or pads, they seem somehow a smaller species of animal. One carries a metal box—not unlike a steel-worker’s lunch-pail—complete with gauze, tape, bandages, wraps, scissors, smelling salts, and several small plastic pouches, each containing two sealed compartments full of dormant chemicals which, when combined by the breaking of the seal, will turn ice cold. They kneel down and go immediately, silently, to work, without ever making the slightest grimace or reaction to the body in front of them.
An arm moves, a foot kicks, and the crowd responds with a tremendous sigh of relief. The player reaches up and his helmet drops off. He is helped to his feet and taken off the field, limping, with a man on either side of him, supporting his weight. Or if he can’t get up, out comes a modified golf cart, and he’s up on a stretcher, driven off the field. Maybe he gives a thumbs-up, if he can. Maybe he’s too angry, or too worried, or too hurt. It makes no difference to the crowd. If he limps off, waving to his girlfriend, or if he’s carried off in a coma, the crowd will clap, a mix of legitimate relief, polite respect, and a mounting impatience for the game to resume.
As soon as he’s cleared the field, the whistle blows, and the players are back on the line. No sign of change is visible. Any anxiety or newfound fear is lost in the thrill and the exhaustion and the simple fact that there isn’t any time to think about it. The clock is running. Line up, run, block, hit, tackle. The rhythm picks right back up.
I was carried off only once. First college varsity game, a sophomore defensive tackle, middle of the second half, goal line stance. We were down by a field goal and the coaches were screaming at us from the sidelines. The roar of the crowd was a dull, distant buzz. I was focused, mechanical, reacting to the ball and the guy across from me, aware that I crouched with my back to the end zone, third and goal for them on the three. The ball snapped and I hit my man, chopped my feet. A half-second stalemate, then from the side something came down on my leg. One of my own, my teammate, Jason Callahan, my bunkmate the night before, all 260 Ibs., rolled over my ankle and pulled me down.
I remember the pain of it, rolling on my back, pushing bodies off of me. I yelled at them to get the hell up, but no one could hear. The guys on the other team had their hands raised and were screaming louder than I was. Top it all off, now we were down by nine.
The trainers came and cut my shoe open and tore my sock away. They applied pressure, twisted the foot right and left. “Not broken,” someone said, and then they had me up and half-carried me to the sidelines. They gave me crutches and taped an ice pack around my swollen foot. I was furious and worried, yet somehow oddly thrilled, even proud to be hurt, to have my war wound. I would miss two games and come back a half-step slower, less confident, and timid with my leg, overly aware of its weakness.
But I did make it back. Sometimes it happens, just like that, where a guy gets hit and goes down for good. The injury is so bad that it’s all over before he’s even taken off the field.
I was lined up with Drew Placack when he went down. Extra point kick, right after a score, him the long snapper, head down, concentrating, all business. I saw the backer across from us, pacing just outside the neutral zone, eyeing the ball. He kept stunting back and forth, feigning like he’d jump off sides. At the cadence he locked perfectly still, slightly cocked forward, an upright sprinter’s stance, arms dangling, and I could see it in his eyes, behind the bars of his mask. I knew what the guy wanted to do. He was caught in the frenzy of the game, caught in that rhythm, angry that we’d scored. He had a look on his face like he wanted to hurt someone. At the snap he zeroed in on Drew. I stepped and reached but couldn’t get him without leaving my hole.
They collided head on, and Drew took the hit at the top of his helmet, so that all the weight and pressure was absorbed by his spine. Drew sank down immediately, heavy, unmoving. Neck injuries are serious, and the trainers kept him down for five minutes before walking him off the field. Drew would recover, but the doctors said he couldn’t play anymore, not without the risk of permanent nerve damage. Like that, in a single play, he was done.
Damon Watts was another guy; big, beautiful, what the coaches call “a specimen.” Legs like a sprinter, arms thick and swelled with wiry veins. He was a team player, a nice guy, tall, quiet, and deadly, a handsome player to watch, able to glide past a block and take down a tailback like something out of Wild Kingdom.
We lost Damon in a pre-season scrimmage. One play finished on the whistle and there he was, lying on his stomach, looking up with a shocked half-grin, as though he were the target of a bad practical joke. No one saw how he went down; no one was even close to him. He was carried off, but he looked fine. We didn’t hear the news until after the scrimmage. Torn achilles tendon. One year recovery time. But Damon, a senior, had no intention of coming back for a fifth year of college, so that was that. I saw him once more, hobbling, trying to crutch through the locker room, and then I didn’t see him again.
The fact of injury, the clear awareness of its possibility, is never far from an athlete’s mind. It lingers, lurks, makes itself known in odd behaviors and tiny idiosyncrasies. For some, it becomes a spiritual mystery, an act of fate, almost Zen-like. No use worrying, man—if it happens, it happens. Some guys never get hurt, some get hurt all the time, and this makes sense. A lineman will easily come to believe in things like destiny and bad karma and the hand of God and mental toughness and the will to overcome. He will believe in anything, and his faith breeds courage, or at least a willingness to accept. Football players in particular are as superstitious as they are religious; they’ll buy into anything that promises a competitive edge. Say your prayers, massage the crucifix dangling from your neck, try never to miss mass. Or, with a similar passion and sense of religious observance, wear the same socks every game, or refuse to wash your practice pants. Keep little knickknacks in your locker, talismans or good luck charms. One guy, Steve Wiley, had the Norse symbol of strength on a leather cord around his neck, a flat square of metal that he never once took off during the 12-week season. Brian Flinn wrote the number of his injured buddy on the inside of his helmet. One guy, Alex Capallo, kept a two-inch plastic troll in his locker, something he called “my little Buddha.” He laughed about it but he was only half-joking.
And of course, there’s the locker room talk, the snide comments and dirty humor, the gossip traded and the trash talked, the constant ribbing and mocking, the cracks and cut-downs. All of it as we dressed to go out and bang heads for two hours. And the subject of our ridicule expanded to include more than just one another. At a certain level, we went so far as to mock the thing we feared. We developed a counter-attack, a flat-out denial of fear that led to accepting, even embracing, the randomness of injury. We had a sign in the locker room: “PAIN IS TEMPORARY/PRIDE IS FOREVER.” A few guys wore T-shirts with bright bold letters, “DEFENSE: HIT TO HURT.” We celebrated that reckless abandon, the controlled lunacy, the no-guts-no-glory attitude. Once, as we geared up to face a particularly tough opponent, an anonymous writer came to practice early and left three words on the coach’s dry-erase board. “CHICKS DIG SCARS.” We all smiled, nodded.
This was our tribal culture, a gratuitous psychology of fascination and dread that was bolstered by our drive for one-upmanship. The threat and prevalence of injury became a necessary evil, its possibility and even likelihood became something romanticized, particularly by those who were themselves uninjured. Their health was a sign of their prowess. Staying healthy while playing such a violent sport must be a sign of vitality, and the more dangerous the sport is, the greater the threat the player has risen above.
Because an injured player can’t help the team, he is usually considered worthless throughout the course of recovery, and treated accordingly. Injured players are called “gimps,” and the question most commonly asked is not “How you feelin” but rather “When you comin’ back?” No one wants to be a gimp. Playing with pain becomes a matter of pride, so much so that the alternative brings about speculation if not out right accusal. Practices are more work than fun and anyone who skips is dogging it, no matter the excuse. There develops a kind of contempt between the two groups, the injured and the healthy. The players are angry because they don’t like to see someone sit through practice while they have to work. The injured guys are jealous because they can’t remember what it’s like to be healthy.
After another injury, a pulled hamstring during spring ball, I limped around for two weeks and then realized I wasn’t getting any better. I went to rehab, sometimes twice a day, then to practice, just to watch. I put in twice as much time as a gimp than I did as a player. One day in the showers I was cornered by a guy, an angry offensive linemen, tired of practicing, sick of the hitting. He had seen me watching, resting with my pulled leg elevated on a side-line bench. He decided to say something.
“I knew a guy who tore his quad and still played for three games.” He managed to stare right into me, though I couldn’t quite meet his eyes. “I mean, the guy was a hardass.” I knew then that my status as a hardass was coming into question, something this guy couldn’t do if I were healthy. Still, what could I say? He looked away from me, disgusted, and then threw in one last jab. “I’m sure your leg’s a lot worse.” Just a quick thrust and turn of the wrist. Something to light a fire, let me know I wasn’t fooling anyone. Get me off my lazy ass and back on the field with everyone else.
The coaches knew. They took our warped perception of injury and used it to motivate us. They told us, “Every play, you go like it’s your last.” And from this came a strong determination, a vigor resulting in part from the understanding that the statement was entirely true: “You’re one play away from the last play of your life.” And they were right. Always, every practice, every game, you’re only one play away.
Because of the high frequency of injury and its detrimental effect on a starting line-up, coaches naturally come to celebrate the iron men, the players who never miss a down, never get hurt. They applaud them and focus on their tenacity, their ability to play through the “minor bumps and bruises.” In fact, the coaches applaud their good fortune as well; iron men are tougher then most, but luckier too. Luck is part of the game, and the ability to withstand injury, to play in pain or flat out avoid going down, has become just as coveted a skill as any other stat, valued as highly as your time in the 40 or your max on the bench press.
Our coaches hung a chart in the locker room, a large graphed poster board with players’ names running down the left side and a number for each practice day listed across the top. We received a check mark for each day we played without missing a down, but the moment we missed, even just a single play, the marks ended and our row of checks stopped. As the weeks passed, the number of rows with red check marks dwindled down from the entire 70-plus roster to a dozen or so die-hards. And this in itself inspired superstition: some guys wouldn’t go out to practice without touching their names; others refused to look at the chart, fearing it, the way some people lower their voices when speaking the name of a disease.
Healing is torment for a ball player. Football emphasizes speed— the timed 40-yard dash, the shuttle run, the two minute drill—and healing is slow, an agonizing bent-over weighted bear crawl. It goes far beyond the wound itself. Miss a week because of a sprained shoulder and the muscles get lax, the cardiovascular system weakens. Plays grow dull in the memory, the instincts are shot, timing is ruined. And then comes the doubt. Will it ever heal all the way? Will I be as fast or as strong as I was? Will I move with the same grace, with the same confidence? Doubts fester, spread quickly to fear. They combine with the hard stares from healthy teammates and the lack of support from the coaches, until finally the player doesn’t know what healthy means, can’t remember what it was to be whole. They come back with half-healed injuries, play on sprains and pulls and then turn them into breaks and tears. Anything is better then losing face.
Freshman year, Corey Schaefer came in young and cocky like the rest of us. He hadn’t known anything but the occasional bump or bruise, the cuts, scrapes, scratches, and turf burns that are common among all ball players. Early in the season, he strained his shoulder—a bruise to the clavicle—no big deal, but he needed time off. He wore a sling, healed up, came back as quick as he could. In a freshman game, playing for the first time in weeks, his shoulder began to hurt again. We could tell he was struggling and we called him on it, not out of concern for his well-being so much as worry that he might miss a tackle. He wouldn’t take himself out. He decided to be tough, play through it. By the fourth quarter, we could see the pain in his eyes and the way he favored his good arm. He was right-handed but that game he led with the left, tried to play one-handed football, and finally took a helmet the wrong way during a tackle. He separated his shoulder, the good one, and when the doctor checked him out, he yelled at Corey and ended up putting both arms in a sling. The game ended and we filed out to the lockers, and as I walked by him, I stared. I couldn’t help it. He looked almost comical, with both arms wrapped up, sitting in the trainer’s golf cart like a lad in detention. As I got closer I saw his eyes, far off and somehow too white. He didn’t look anymore like a kid playing a game.
The willingness for self-abuse can be quite impressive. Forget for a moment the superstar who misses a week of practice and then plays in the Saturday game. Instead, take the third-string lineman, the kid who’s gained 20 pounds in order to have a shot at playing. A rosy-cheeked boy with heavy flesh, an athlete who has no real skill, whose only talent is his size. He spends practice getting beaten on by starters and he’s winded from the moment he runs onto the field. He’s deep in the depth chart but still fighting, still hungry, even if only for the open spot on the traveling squad. Take a kid like this, one who struggles just to play, and then watch him react when his shoulder goes out, when the repeated beating grows to be more than the body will stand for, and finally something inside breaks with a click or a snap or a thick wet pop.
He goes to physical therapy. He sits, his shoulder laced with ace bandages wrapped tight over zip-locked ice bags as electro-stimulation is administered through sticky adhesive conducting pads. Waves of electricity send ripples through meaty flesh, meant to stimulate blood flow in the injured area and, as one trainer puts it, “trick the body into healing faster.” His only option is to continue therapy, wait as the body crawls toward health, and watch as the rest of the team gets better.
The waiting will be what gets him, and for the first time in his life, he’ll wonder if the game is even worth it.
Our team captain, Kyle Bainer, was an all-conference offensive tackle, a huge guy, six four and just under 300 pounds. After his size, you’d notice the tattoos: a football on his calf, the letter H on his bicep, and, on the back of his right shoulder, an enormous, snarling wolfs head, complete with saliva dripping off of razor sharp fangs. If Kyle knew you well enough, he’d explain the meaning behind each of the tattoos. He’d be the first to admit that the wolfs head was a step too far, but he’d point out that the football on his calf probably saved his career.
As a sophomore, Kyle needed to have massive reconstructive knee surgery. While recovering, in an effort to get a jump on his training, he went too hard on the bench press and tore one of his pectoral muscles. A guy like that—with a two-time injury, especially one so young and with the injuries coming back-to-back—you just don’t expect to see him return. You wonder if God’s trying to tell him something. But soon after, Kyle went to a tattoo parlor and had a crimson football inked permanently into the side of his leg. “I knew,” he told me once, “I knew if I got it and I had it on there, and I knew in my mind it would never come off. . . I knew I’d be back. I knew I’d make myself come back.” And listening to him I understood that he had done the best thing he could to motivate himself, the closest thing to putting a gun to his own head to make sure he would play again. Once he had the tattoo, the only alternative to making a comeback would be quitting and then having to stare for the rest of his life at a fat red smear on his calf, one that, at best, would be completely meaningless, and at worst, would represent what he would believe to be his greatest failure.
Kyle made a complete recovery. Over the next three seasons, he started all 30 games at right tackle, without missing a single down.
I’d see him sometimes, flexing his calf in the full length mirror outside the locker room. He’d look at his reflection, first the calf, then the big H on his arm, and then, nodding his head, he’d stare down his own gritted game face. He’s the only guy I know who consciously decided to make himself an iron man, and then actually pulled it off.
I’ve known guys who came in for rehab every day, twice a day, for weeks, just hoping to make it back in time for the final home game. It reaches obsession in some, and behavior hits a pitched manic state, a sense of almost constant anxiety. The training room was filled with guys in white T’s and athletic department issue gray sports shorts, shoveling ice into bags, pulling on multi-colored yard-long rubber bands, balancing wounded ankles on miniature teeter-totters. Some waited for assistance, the ones who needed help, the ones with injuries hard to reach, those who needed massages or evaluations or yet another x-ray. They might lie down on one of the 20-plus medical tables and wait in line for a head trainer, or if not him, then one of the student trainers, hired to complete their medical residency and help cope with the surplus of injuries.
The training room was a mecca for the injured athletes, resulting in an unintentional but beneficial kind of support group. It was, at the very least, a collection of athletes who understood the difficulty of putting the body back together. We shared stories, compared problems, talked about how it happened, how it might have been avoided. We played “if only” while we worked at making ourselves healthy. Longtime frequenters of the training room, those with chronic injuries, the guys who’d been around long enough and who had been paying attention, they could often make accurate diagnoses of the problems of newcomers. We missed them when they healed and welcomed them back upon re-injury.
And yet, any place that deals in the problems of health will have its moments of horror. Try not to flinch at a fresh compound fracture, or sit and remain silent through the humiliation of a 20-year-old player brought in crying. And even worse are the quieter moments, behind drawn curtains, when doctors stand with x-rays and MRI’s and tell someone their career is over.
Tim Myrrell was a senior defensive back, a lady-killer with a washboard stomach and hair like a shampoo commercial. Still, he was a hard-nosed hitter; no one called him a pretty-boy, and he certainly wasn’t injury-prone. In fact, I listened to Tim as I rubbed an ice cup on my knee, and all he said, again and again, was how good he felt. The problem wasn’t with Tim’s body. He had had maybe four concussions already and the doctors explained that the risk of permanent brain damage increased dramatically after a certain point. But Tim felt great, his legs were limber, his arms possessed of their full range of motion, ankles able to skip, hands unmangled. He felt one hundred percent ready-to-go, but not a doctor in the state would clear him to play. At the time, I didn’t know how he must have felt, but looking back I think I can understand him, standing there, full of energy, feeling fine, calmly telling the doctors that brain damage wouldn’t happen, not to him, and that, no matter the risk, it would be worth it, this was his senior season. He dressed for every game, but he never did play again.
Alex Myers was another bad time in the training room. Not because of his injury so much as how he dealt with it. A hamstring tear is no easy comeback, but it certainly isn’t the end of a career. Still, I can imagine him, brooding over the decrease in his speed, angered as his quads lost their size from disuse. He would watch the guys below him in the depth chart, see them get bigger, stronger, narrowing the gap, making it all the more difficult for him to return, even if he did have time to heal completely. One day, Myers stormed into the training room after watching yet another practice. He grabbed his hot pack and went to lie down. On his way he suddenly stopped, wound his arm up and spiked the pack off the training room wall. He kicked a massage pillow, paced past the ice machine, shoved through a group of wide-eyed gimps, and began yelling at the only trainer present. It all came out, quick with a high voice, a near-hysterical tone, ranting on about how no one knew shit, no one was doing anything. A couple guys told Myers to calm down and he told them to shut the fuck up. We almost had a fight right there in the training room.
Football will take its toll on the mind as well as the body. It’s easy to get caught in the rhythm and the grind, never once think about an ending because it’s such an effort just to keep going. College ball players sacrifice an enormous amount of time, and to tell them football is just a game—well, it’s insulting.
The truth is a cliche, but it’s still a truth; football is a way of life, a discipline, complete with its own initiation rights, a unique language, a home base, and a strict schedule, as well as formal and informal sets of rules. We had our own dress code and our own diet. Football players make friends with other football players, and perhaps exclusively so because the time they spend together leaves so little time for anything else. They follow the words of their coach, they live—for the most part—as the stereotypes demand. And above all, they love the game. None of them would go through what they have to deal with if they didn’t. For many of them, football is the sole source of identity, by far the greatest indicator of who they are. It can be their only outlet, their only chance to be a hero, their only venue for being greater than anyone else.
With that in mind, what then happens to the player who ends his day with an injury, the one who plants wrong, or falls bad, or is hit in a way that his body can’t take? In a matter of seconds, he can lose everything he identifies with, everything he believes in, everything he considers himself to be. And then what?
What makes a boy want to play the game so badly? Why is it so hard for some to just walk away? Is there a tendency, a weakness, an affinity for losing oneself in a world of make-believe, a world of clear and simple rules? If so, I know many boys who had such an inclination. I was one.
Including freshmen, JV, and varsity ball, I dressed to play in some 26 college games. During those games and the practices spent preparing for them, I broke my wrist, sprained both ankles, and pulled both hamstrings. I suffered through the annoying, incurable pain of shin splints in both legs. I twice sprained the clavicle in my right shoulder, deleting three years of hard training on the bench press. I had fluid in my right knee which needed to be drained every week, and damage to the ulna nerve in my right elbow, which left me with a zig-zag flash of pins and needle numbness every time I brushed my arm against anything. All this while playing with a permanent deterioration in my left knee, caused by a career’s worth of multiple impact trauma. In the end, I went down from the wear and tear, my bad knee that had never really been good. I was not injured in a game, in the heart of what we called battle. I had a chronic problem that surfaced and blew up in the weight room, alone, while training in the off season.
I therefore never had that single moment, the snap or tear or quick clean break, the split second that I might have pondered the rest of my life. My injury was spread out over so much time that I could not know when it started or whether I had ever played without it. And yet when it did finally surface, I lost far more than the use of my knee for a few weeks, or the luxury of going for a jog. I lost all those things that the others lost: my sense of self, my place, my tribe. I lost my right to play in a game I had played for more than half my life.
Four years later and I still wake from dreams of playing. Some-times these are the kind of dreams that keep me in bed, make me late for wherever I need to be. I’m on the field with every teammate I ever had and the game is down to the wire. We are tired and sore, but no one is even thinking injury. Just me and my pals, strapping it up, with the smell of grass and sweat and the pulsing sound of the marching band and the crowd. Other times, I have nightmares. I’m naked on the sidelines, unworthy of a uniform, or I’m ready to play but I suddenly look down and realize I have no legs. Or I stand in a circle of the others, all of us gimps, and we whisper and accuse one another, speak of cowardice and mental toughness, and worth, and in the end shout out a final mantra of excuses, always blaming. The dreams are another example of injury, another instance of pain. But this pain is good, I think, or at least necessary; the kind of thing that defines us, reminds us where we’ve been, what happened while we were there. And I have begun to yearn for these dreams, much like the way we come to take pride in our old scars.
I think sometimes I can feel just the barest hint of the old rhythm, as I bet the others can; a sense of the movement, that motion of the game that I used to have set clearly in my mind, similar to how someone might know the rise and fall of the ocean after being out on a boat all day. Close your eyes and concentrate and you can hear it—that quick yell of cadence and then the run, block, hit, tackle—a rhythm perhaps remembered all the more vividly because we knew as we played how quickly it could be lost to us.