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Players past and present on the NFL's pain-packed culture

  • Blog Post by:
  • August 23, 2012 - 11:27 AM

Throughout this week, we’ve brought you a three-part series examining the constant pain that NFL players play through and the methods and medicines they rely on to get back on the field as soon as possible. The links to our series can be found here:

To close things out, here are some final candid and eye-opening thoughts we obtained from a crop of current and former players on the pain, pressures and problems within the game.
 
Chris Doleman, former Vikings defensive end and Pro Football Hall of Famer
 
On the extreme pressures to play that players face on a daily basis
 
“Everybody knows you can’t make the club in the tub. There is a huge amount of pressure. Every day a coach is going to ask you, ‘Can you go? Can you go?’ Every. Single. Day. And you’ll get asked by everybody on the staff. ‘Can you go? You able to go? If I needed you, could you go?’ [You’re thinking], ‘Dude, we don’t play until Sunday. Today is Tuesday. I just got hurt this past Sunday. No I couldn’t go today.’
 
“But listen, they don’t want to hear no. You can’t tell a coach, ‘No I can’t go.’ Not that early in the week. If you get hurt on Sunday and Tuesday morning the coach asks how you feel, you can’t say, ‘Coach I don’t think I’m going to be able to play next week.’ Dude, are you freakin’ nuts? It’s just not the way it is.”
 
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Tony Richardson, former fullback and executive committee member of the NFL Players Association
 
On the NFLPA’s persistent push to heighten player safety …
 
“I’ve had coaches call me up with the CBA [collective bargaining agreement] and want to ask me about the whole call for no more two-a-days. Listen, we didn’t eliminate two-a-days because we didn’t want to work. We go to work to go to work. But the thought was if we could limit the number of concussive-type hits during the course of the season and reduce the pounding we take during training camp, if we can lessen that, it’s going to not only extend guys’ careers, but help them be able to walk off the field OK at the end of a 10-year career. That’s all there is. If people think the game is watered down, I don’t care. My biggest charge and my biggest concern is making sure we take care of our players and make the game better than when I came in.”
 
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Brian Robison, Vikings defensive end

On the concussion he suffered last December against Denver and the immediate urge he felt to get back on the field …

“I can still remember it plain as day. I went out [unconscious] for a split second. I got up and was cross-eyed and everything. I didn’t think it was any big deal. I’ve never really had a concussion before so I get hit and I’m just like, ‘Ah, I got dinged. It’s one of those things that happens.’ I go to the sideline, they check me out. And I’m sitting there and I’m like, ‘OK when can I go back in? I’m good. I’ve done all the tests you want me to do on the sidelines.’ They tell me they want to take me back into the locker room and ask me a few more questions. I’m thinking we’ll make this a quick deal, I’ll get back out here. And then all of a sudden they tell me, ‘Yeah, you had a head injury. You’re not going back in the game.’
 
“Your first reaction is. ‘I’m not going back in the game? What do you mean I’m not going back in the game? I’m fine.’ They tell you what the rules say. But I’m like screw the rules. I want to play. When you finally sit back and actually think about it rationally, you realize that when you have a head injury, those aren’t things to mess with. But the competitor in you doesn’t understand that in the heat of the moment.”
 
On regularly seeing battered Hall of Fame running back Earl Campbell while working out at the University of Texas …  
“It would take Earl Campbell 10 minutes just to walk out of the weight room. He’s in bad, bad shape. You think you’re going to talk to him and he’s going to come out and say, ‘I wish I wouldn’t have tried to run over every linebacker in the league. I wish I hadn’t done this, done that.’ But it’s the total opposite. He’ll look you in the eye and tell you straight up, ‘If I had to do it all over again, I’d do the same things. I’d run that punk over.’
 
“It’s nuts. Because you’re looking at him and seeing the pain and agony he’s in but yet he wouldn’t do anything different. It’s definitely eye opening. Without a doubt. It’s one of those deals, where you look at him and you’re like ‘Hell no, I don’t want to end up like that.’ And in your mind, rationally thinking, you say to yourself, if I’ve got to run somebody over I might just take a knee the next time. But the second you get out there and start competing, that all leaves your mind and you’re only concerned with competing and being the best at what you do. It’s one of those deals where once those lights turn on, that intelligent thought process you might ordinarily have is right out the window.”

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Mike Morris, former Vikings long snapper who retired from the NFL in 1999

On the evolution of the game and the players who play it …

“You can write your own paycheck in this game if you can get big enough, fast enough, strong enough. And guys did. People went out and showed these kids how to get stronger. How do you get bigger, stronger, faster? Now you’ve got Robocop out there. Guys are 6-5, 260 pounds, running a 4.4-[second] 40-[yard-dash] at 260. Today’s player, today’s gladiator benches 450, squats 700, power cleans 450, his vertical [leap] is 38 inches. Are you kidding me? That’s what’s out there now. You put a helmet on that, shoulder pads on that? What are we talking about? Now you’ve got everyone in the league like that. Because it’s been several generations now of kids coming up through a structured strength and conditioning programs with huge beautiful weight room facilities for high, college and pro. We’re getting those athletes now.

"With the sophistication of training, we know how to do it now. It’s down to the last bite of protein and carbohydrates. These kids have it down to a science. So guess what? He’s a machine and he knows that if he’s good enough at this there are multiple millions of dollars on a contract if he just keeps at it. So what do you do? Pull the gear back, pull the plug and go backward on equipment so they don’t come in like that? What do you do? We’ve developed and created a machine that works very well. And it’s a cash machine that sells well and people love it and it’s blood and guts and gladiators all over again. For 400 years people watched the gladiator sports. And not to get too philosophical, that’s what we have in this country. We’ve got stadiums that fill for gladiator games. You call it a game because otherwise women and children couldn’t get in. But otherwise it’s a war. It’s a war … It takes its toll. And some of those shots [today] are not the shots that were coming down 20 years ago. These are shots now that are car wrecks. This is different.”

On the assistance that training staffs are able to provide to players …

“It’s incredible how much of the pain the medical staffs can take care of naturally – with ice and heat and ultrasound and all the different things those trainers can do over there. They’re heroes. They’re healing those guys. People need to know how miraculous it is what they can do for a bad back, a bad knee, a bad leg and have the right tools to help so those players are almost damn near ready to play on Sunday to a point where they’re at a high level of ability and can play and be productive. You wouldn’t be able to fathom that turnaround. Hurt is one thing. Injured is another. You can go from being pretty messed up in terms of being hurt to getting back on the football field feeling pretty good about getting another check and not letting someone else have a shot at your reps in practice and your place on the team.”

On what the level of concern should be for player safety and for the players themselves …

“It’s a tough business. And I’ve never felt sorry for anyone in it. I did it and no one felt sorry for me. And you know what you signed up for. Bottom line. Don’t feel sorry for yourself. Grab a helmet, go play and have fun. Or go see the trainer, get fixed and come back and play. Or quit. Or quit. Figure something else out for your life and pray that you didn’t mash yourself up so badly that you can’t do anything in life … If it worries you and bothers you, get out. Take care of yourself. But know what you signed up for. In football, you’re going to hit a lot of people and you’re going to get hit a lot. No one walks away from this without having their ass whipped. So you’re going to hand some of that out and you’re going to take a lot of it. If you don’t like the nature of it, it’s not for you. Get out of the game.”

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Solomon Wilcots, former Vikings defensive back and current NFL analyst

On the hypocrisy that exists for players who are told it’s OK to sit out …

“Listen, it’s like we tell our kids, ‘Hey I want you to do your best in school. And if you do your best I can live with the grades.’ But when they still come home with a C, we’re not happy. We’re just not. And we’re going to apply pressure to get the C up to the B or an A. We’ll tell them one thing, but if it turns out not to reach a higher standard, now we’re sort of duplicitous and come back with a message that’s totally different. They’re like, ‘Dad, you told me if I did my best …’ And then it’s, ‘Yeah I know what I told you but I want to get this up.’ That’s how teams are. There’s a dualistic message being sent to team doctors. ‘Take care of my players. I want their health and safety to come first.’ I believe teams mean that when they say it. There have been no teams that I ever played on or been around that don’t really mean that. They all want their players well cared for. But when the rubber meets the road and that player’s out of the game and his replacement can’t hold up, you’re going to see the coaches saying ‘We need him back on that field!’ That doctor is hearing two different messages.”

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Barry Gardner, former linebacker with the Eagles, Browns, Jets and Patriots

On what drives players to push through such persistent pain ...

“Guys have been playing football for a long, long time. So you have that gladiator mentality anyway. You’re not falling into something where it’s new to you. The thought process? I’m trying to make this money. I’ve got people depending on me. I’ve got a family, I’ve got immediate family, I’ve got to keep momma’s lights on, I’m trying to build for a future. A lot of guys, that’s all they went to school to do was to play football. They didn’t go to school to get a good, well-rounded education where they could cultivate other passions where they can go out and get a job some place and say forget it. There’s a lot on the line with a lot of guys. So the last thing a guy is going to do is say ‘Hey, I’m not going to take this Toradol shot.’ Or ‘I’m not going to take this Oxycodone or Vicodin because I’m worried that later in life I’m going to have gastrointestinal issues or I’m at risk of forming an addiction.’ Guys aren’t wired to think that way. Please. Guys are thinking, ‘Listen I’ve got to grind and get this money.’ That’s it. And they’re going to do what it takes to get that money.”

On the financial benefits of persevering through the pain …

“For me? I was able to put my niece through private school and college. She’s in college still, will be a senior this coming year. I put clothes on her back. She didn’t have a dad growing up. I was able to help my sister start and maintain her business, her advertising company. My parents and I were able to buy rental property and have residual income for them. They’re older and retired now. I was able to buy them a home, buy them cars. Nothing crazy. But something reliable, to get around, to last them in the Chicago cold. I was able to provide for myself and build myself a place. I put money away in savings and my 401k and have been able to travel and enjoy life and give back to the community and help friends out who were in dire need. I’ve been blessed. I can say that. I don’t have any debt. I don’t have credit card bills. I don’t owe anybody any money. I don’t have car notes, any of that stuff.”

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Chris Kluwe, Vikings punter

On the tendency of players to lie to the medical staff so as not to fully divulge how hurt they are …

“I wouldn’t even call it a macho thing. I’d call it more the trying to insure that you have a job route. I’ve seen lots of guys cover up injuries and bruises that with a week of not doing anything you’d be fully healed. But you can’t afford to take that week off. Because for the guys who aren’t the Adrian Petersons or the marquee players, there’s another guy waiting in the wings to take your spot. So reality is that if you want to keep your job, you have to be out there. You have to be on the field … It kind of sucks sometimes. It’s really funny in the locker room near the end of the season. Because every guy in there is beat up and it’s like, ‘What are we doing? Why are we out here?’ 

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Jim Kleinsasser, former Vikings tight end who retired in January

On knowing when it was time to retire …

“You’re always thinking, ‘Gosh, right now I feel like I can still play maybe one or two more years.’ But there comes a point where you put it in the back of your head and you see a lot of nasty stuff going on throughout the year with some pretty bad injuries. And you’re like, ‘Well, I don’t want to get greedy with it all and then something really bad happens.’ I think there’s just that point, it’s the law of diminishing returns. The risk-reward gets a little bit out of scale and so you have to step back and say let’s step away from this and feel good about what I’ve done. I don’t want to push it over the edge, that’s for sure.

On how change can occur in the sport …

“It really needs to start with these youth coaches, these high school coaches. They’re the ones that have to plant the seeds to change this culture, to change almost that lepracy label of saying ‘You’ve got a concussion’ or actually being hurt and saying straight up, ‘I can’t go.’ A lot of that is going to have to fall on the shoulders of the coaches with these young kids and removing that stigma of being hurt. We need the young players to learn that it’s OK to stand up and admit that something is wrong. They’re not going to get attacked by their teammates or coaches. We need to create an environment where they’re not judged for not being out on the field and playing. That’s where the culture change has to take place. Because all of us in the NFL, as I’ve said, we’re a lost cause. Good luck trying to change that.”

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Adolpho Birch, NFL senior vice president of law and labor policy

On the NFL’s push to heighten player safety …

“This is about a culture change. And to some extent, the Commissioner has been very clear about that. If we look at the concussion issue for example, it requires a shared a responsibility. Clubs have to be more mindful and have to really take the time to understand the nature of the injury, how it’s treated and make sure they know those steps. And our players have to take the time to understand that when they have these symptoms that they have to report these symptoms so they can be addressed. It requires both. It certainly might be easier from a mental standpoint for a player if everything was simply told to him. The reality is you’re not going to be able to address these problems head on without a shared responsibility from all parties. That’s the Players Association, that’s the players themselves. Doctors, coaches, everyone has to share the responsibility to make sure we fix the problem. The need to heighten education is paramount.”

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Christian Ponder, Vikings quarterback

On the injuries he suffered as a rookie …

“I think they’re doing a great job of giving a lot more power to the training staff. Especially with the concussion deals. I remember when I got my concussion against Washington. They asked me how I was feeling and as soon as the word ‘dizzy’ came out of my mouth, they grabbed my helmet and the next thing I knew I was walking into the locker room. They’re doing a better job of being active and not putting it in the players’ hands where they decide whether they’re playing or not. The trainers I feel are really well educated and know what’s going on and they know what the right choice is and they have a lot more power these days to make the right decisions for the players so they don’t have to put themselves in jeopardy.”

On the hip pointer he suffered last December against Denver …

“I took a helmet shot right on the top of that hip and, good Lord, there was just a shooting pain. And I stood up and the pain kind of shot down my leg. It was hard to walk. And it definitely didn’t feel good. I could feel it swelling up. I don’t remember if it was on third down or second down. But I went back and sat on the bench pretty shortly after that and could just feel it swelling up when I was sitting down …We put some ice on it and tried to numb it down. And then we put a pad over it and just did a good job of keeping it protected. The next two or three days, it was really hard to walk. I was in major pain with the smallest steps. It was crazy. It was hard to stand up straight to stretch out that hip. It was tough. And then the worst would be sitting down and then trying to stand up after that. It was painful for a couple days. And then I just did a lot of treatment and it eventually calmed down. And as it was calming down, I tried to increase my flexibility in there and eventually it was OK to play again by the next Sunday. Obviously it was still a little painful. But we protected it and put some padding on there."

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Randall McDaniel, former Vikings offensive lineman and Pro Football Hall of Famer

On the subtle pressures applied to players …

“They know how athletes are wired. They say the little things. The team needs you. The old way was, ‘If you miss these two games, maybe that guy backing you up will take your spot.’ They know the buttons to push. They don’t directly say it, but it’s implied. But if you’re confident in what you’re doing and you’re doing your job like you’re supposed to, you have to have people around you who are going to speak up for you if you’re not able to do it. Someone who you trust and value their opinion, they can say to you, ‘You need to step up and not do all these things and find out what’s really going on with your body.’ I know the NFL doesn’t want to hear that or have people say that. But it’s time we have someone step forward and speak up for the athletes.”

On heightening awareness for current players on the long-term effects of playing in the NFL …

“I wish these guys playing now could see all of us who came before them. Because we were young once. And we thought I’m invincible playing football, nothing’s ever going to happen. But I wish they would see these guys who have these injuries and long-term suffering if they don’t take care of their bodies and don’t do the right things or step out when they need to step out. I wish they could hear the stories from some of the older guys and see what they’re going through and realize, ‘Hey, you’re not invincible. Maybe I need to step back and think about what I am going to be doing down the road in my future.’ Football is just a small part of your life. You still have a lot of living to do when football’s over. I think a lot of the young kids now don’t think that way.”

On the pain he still has from his playing days …

“My hands, my shoulders. My joints hurt. I’ll be honest. My shoulders hurt in the morning. I can’t sleep on my side because my arms will fall asleep. My ankles in the morning, I’ve got to roll them and warm them up. You could probably hear me walking, hear me coming before you saw me. Everything’s cracking as I’m moving down the hall. But I’m one of the fortunate ones. I can still do what I want to do. I can still go and work at the school and be with the kids and pretty much live my life. It’s there. I know I played. I don’t jump out of the bed as fast. You take your time getting up and you make sure ‘Is this first step going to be a good step or am I going to have to hang onto something for a brief moment?’ For me, I’m fortunate that it’s just making a lot of noise in the body. The pain’s there but it’s making more noise than anything else right now.”

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Torry Holt, former Pro Bowl receiver

On what he took away from his playing days …

“You’re not going to change the mentality. So they’ve done a new job in the new CBA in terms of changing the rules. Minimizing the pads, minimizing the contact with guys so they’re a little fresher. And hopefully it’ll be interesting to see what the studies will be since they changed these rules. How much less guys are going to have to take medicine in order to be able to be ready to play on Sunday? That’s a study they’re going to have to look at. Think about running backs. I played with Marshall [Faulk], Jerome Bettis, Steven Jackson. These guys wouldn’t be ready to play until Friday because their bodies were beat up so bad. These new rules have to help. Will it minimize the amount of medicine guys are taking? I hope so. But it’s a mentality that’s programmed into your head from the first time you ever put on that uniform. And I don’t think that will change. Ever. That said, I think they’re doing a better job of addressing the practices, the camps, the issues to try to protect guys’ safety as they play.”

On how he educated himself on the pain relieving methods he used and the painkillers he took …

“I read the back of the bottle. I asked the trainers and then I’d also go online and see what exactly it was I was taking. There are ways you can educate yourself. And it’s on you to do that. But I think most guys in the league are so gung-ho and so excited that they have some medicine that can fix their problems temporarily, that they don’t think about the side effects at the time because of the pressure to get back out there on the football field, they pressure to keep their job, the pressure to perform. This is a performance-based business. And if you don’t perform well, you’re gone. That’s just the way it is. So I’ll take this medicine without knowing the side effects. I’m aware of them a little bit. But I don’t really care because I’m trying to get out here on the football field to keep my job, help my team and win games … I think I’m in the minority of guys that didn’t take a whole lot of drugs while I played. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve taken pills before. But not on a consistent basis. For me I never relied on the medicine. I didn’t become dependent on the medicine in order to play the game of football. That’s what I’m saying. I have taken pills before. I don’t want to mislead you there. That’s what we do. I’ve seen guys [hooked] on medicine and painkillers. And I was never that guy.”

On how to further heighten the education of players …

“This is the National Football League, these are professional athletes. And we’re applying things to our bodies all the time – whether it’s vitamins, energy drinks, what have you. Painkillers. But you need to know, you need to educate yourself as much as possible to know what you’re putting in your system. If this means we have to put out more literature, if it means we have to put more signs throughout the locker room, if you have to write it down on the chalkboard, if the trainer has to say it every day, whatever they have to do to heighten guys’ awareness. But they need to better know what it is they’re putting in their body. If you ignore that, you’re at serious risk of putting something in your body that can affect you long-term. Guys are smart enough now. Guys have always been smart. There is a lot of information out there for guys to seek if they want to find out what it is they’re putting in their systems. They just have to take the initiative to do it.”

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