Matt Vensel is in his first year at the Star Tribune after covering the Ravens for the Baltimore Sun for six years. He is a Pittsburgh native and a Penn State grad. Follow him at @mattvensel.


Mark Craig has covered the NFL for 23 years, and the Vikings since 2003 for the Star Tribune. He is one of 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. Follow him at @markcraignfl.


Master Tesfatsion is the Star Tribune’s digital Vikings writer. He is a 2013 graduate of Arizona State and worked for mlb.com before arriving in Minneapolis. Follow him at @masterstrib.


Coming Sunday: An in-depth examination of pain and pain treatment in the NFL

Posted by: under Injury report, Vikings, AFC, Bears, Brett Favre Updated: August 17, 2012 - 3:43 PM

Starting this weekend, the Star Tribune will unveil a three-part series examining pain and pain treatment in the NFL.

It was a wake-up call like no other. Asleep at the downtown Hilton in Minneapolis on the morning of Dec. 20, 2010, Vikings head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman figured he had everything settled for that night’s clash with the Bears.

Instead, not long after sunrise, his bedside phone rang.

“Hey Suge," the voice on the other end said. "Does out mean out?”

On the line that morning was a certain energetic quarterback, a guy by the name of Brett Favre, who like a grounded teenager wanting to go out for the night, didn’t seem to want to accept his sidelined status.

Never mind that the Vikings had officially declared him out on their injury report, Favre still dealing with a badly sprained right shoulder that had led to numbness in his throwing hand.

The Vikings had a game that night. A Monday nighter. On ESPN. Against the division-rival Bears. On a snowy field, with temperatures dipping into the low 20s.Favre’s itch needed scratching.

Sugarman processed the question.

Does out mean out?

“It has,” Sugarman thought to himself, “in every other situation before this.”

Yet here was Favre doing as he so often did throughout his 20-season NFL career – challenging convention and battling through agonizing pain.

“This game is like a drug,” Sugarman said. “These guys can’t get enough of it. No matter how much they hurt, no matter how much they suffer, they can’t get enough.”

Favre’s consecutive starts streak of 297 games, an NFL record for a quarterback, had ended a week earlier when he couldn’t play against the Giants. The Vikings were already out of the playoff picture. There seemed to be little incentive to play.

Yet Favre wanted in. He needed in. And he ultimately pushed hard enough to get his way, starting that night, throwing an early touchdown pass, then leaving the game for good when he was slammed into the icy turf and banged his head.

“You’d think he probably regrets that he played in that game. Especially as we scraped him up off the turf,” Sugarman said. “But we all know he didn’t regret it. That’s just him.”

Favre is arguably the most celebrated player in NFL history in terms of his willingness to fight through pain to be ready on game day. But he is far from unique. Week after week, in every locker room across the league, players are wired in a way that pushes them to play as often as possible through as much pain as they can tolerate.

Beginning Sunday, the Star Tribune will begin a three-part series examining the lengths that NFL players go to assure their availability on game days. Specifically, the series will put the use of painkilling drugs in the NFL under a microscope.

  • We will examine the “play-at-all-costs” mentality that most players admit is embedded in their mental wiring.
  • We will examine the use of Toradol, a painkilling drug that has been a popular source of relief for more than a decade in the NFL yet now faces an iffy future.
  • And we will also bring readers the cautionary tale of former Jets and Dolphins quarterback Ray Lucas, a recovering addict whose life was turned upside down and almost ended due to his thirst to continue playing through pain. When Lucas walked away from football in 2003, he did not leave the agony behind. Severe neck pain came along. Back surgery followed. Lucas kept taking pain pills and kept needing more until, at his worst, he says he was taking 19 different medications at once, including narcotics like Percocet, Vicodin and Oxycodone. Lucas left the league with a severe addiction, a frightening disease he knows he will never fully defeat. “It doesn’t sleep,” Lucas said. “When I’m sleeping, it’s working out. It’s doing push-ups, pull-ups; it’s benching 600 [pounds]. It’s just waiting. My mind plays tricks on me now. ‘You haven’t taken anything in a while? You can take a couple today. It’s not a big deal.’ That’s the trap.”
Lucas’ predicament may be on the extreme end. But it’s certainly not a shock to players who understand and have lived the NFL culture. Former Vikings fullback Tony Richardson, who was an active member of the NFL Players Association's executive committee in the latter parts of his 17-year career, understands the pressures that players face to play through pain. And he hopes measures can be taken to change things going forward.
 
Richardson thinks back two-and-a-half years to the worst he ever played through. On Jan. 24, 2010, while with the New York Jets, he suited up for the AFC Championship just seven days after, he says, he broke his ribs in a playoff win in San Diego.
 
When he ran, his chest tightened, the pain so sharp it left him breathless. When he sneezed or coughed or grunted, he’d feel paralyzed for a moment. Yet Richardson understood the drill.
 
“Still,” he said, “you play.”
 
With a week’s worth of therapy, consistent doses of painkillers to quell the discomfort and a pre-game painkilling shot of Toradol, Richardson fulfilled his role as the Jets’ backfield battering ram.
 
“It was the grace of God that I was able to play in that game,” Richardson said. “That was by far the worst pain I ever played through. But everybody’s hurt. From the second day of training camp on, everyone’s hurt to some extent. You find ways to deal with it. And you play.
 
“That day I took the Toradol shot. Looking back, I probably should have listened to the doctors and trainers. They said numbing my ribs might give me a false sense of security. It could have been dangerous. But I was in so much pain, that’s what I wanted to resort to. I had to play.”
 
So what’s more amazing – that Richardson, never once considered sitting out? That he played an entire championship game with broken ribs? That it didn’t seem, in his mind, to be extraordinary in the least? Or that just about every NFL player you run across can share a similar story of suppressing severe pain?
 
Stay tuned for our series on yet another player safety issue that the NFL and the players union are trying to get their arms around ...

 

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New England 2/1/15 5:30 PM
Seattle
Detroit 50 3rd Qtr 6:19
Philadelphia 59
Portland 60 3rd Qtr 6:23
Cleveland 63
Sacramento 52 2nd Qtr 1:30
Toronto 51
Boston 18 1st Qtr 1:40
Minnesota 22
Dallas 23 1st Qtr 3:06
Houston 16
Denver 24 1st Qtr 2:29
New Orleans 15
Brooklyn 21 1st Qtr 2:50
Atlanta 19
Oklahoma City 13 1st Qtr 2:38
New York 18
Charlotte 7:30 PM
San Antonio
LA Clippers 8:00 PM
Utah
Washington 9:30 PM
Phoenix
Toronto 0 2nd Prd
New Jersey 0
Pittsburgh 0 1st Prd 8:59
Washington 1
Chicago 9:30 PM
Los Angeles
Temple 66 2nd Half 9:28
UCF 32
Winthrop 52 2nd Half 9:08
Coastal Carolina 50
Lafayette 42 2nd Half 12:00
Colgate 45
Northeastern 40 2nd Half 9:15
Drexel 40
Wake Forest 48 2nd Half 11:48
Florida State 46
Rhode Island 41 2nd Half 12:25
Fordham 48
Delaware 66 2nd Half 6:09
James Madison 66
South Carolina 43 2nd Half 11:42
LSU 42
New Hampshire 42 2nd Half 8:28
Maine 34
Seton Hall 62 2nd Half 7:40
Marquette 47
Binghamton 33 2nd Half 16:00
UMBC 24
American Univ 42 2nd Half 7:39
Navy 57
Elon 41 2nd Half 12:01
UNC-Wilmington 62
Wright State 47 2nd Half 10:13
Oakland 42
Minnesota 43 2nd Half 9:42
Penn State 45
Duquesne 38 2nd Half 11:30
Richmond 67
SMU 48 2nd Half 9:30
South Florida 40
Hartford 45 2nd Half 11:21
Stony Brook 40
Albany 31 2nd Half 10:00
Vermont 24
Hofstra 54 2nd Half 8:58
William & Mary 67
UNC-Asheville 46 2nd Half 14:00
Longwood 41
Radford 45 2nd Half
Char Southern 35
Holy Cross 0 Postponed
Loyola-Maryland 0
Duke 39 2nd Half
Notre Dame 36
Texas Tech 16 2nd Half
Oklahoma 37
Oregon State 16 1st Half 7:59
Arizona State 27
Morehead State 22 1st Half 9:23
Austin Peay 14
Drake 24 1st Half 10:08
Bradley 17
Lehigh 11 1st Half 9:24
Bucknell 13
Rice 13 1st Half 8:50
Houston 14
Missouri State 9 1st Half 9:48
Illinois State 10
Loyola-Chicago 6 1st Half 11:50
Wichita State 10
Nebraska Omaha 14 1st Half 10:13
South Dakota St 26
Northern Iowa 14 1st Half 8:11
Southern Ill 13
Louisville 8:00 PM
Boston College
St Johns 8:00 PM
Creighton
East Carolina 8:00 PM
Memphis
Georgia Tech 8:00 PM
Miami-Florida
Miss State 8:00 PM
Ole Miss
Clemson 8:00 PM
NC State
Indiana 8:00 PM
Purdue
Kansas 8:00 PM
TCU
Oregon 9:00 PM
Arizona
Air Force 9:00 PM
San Jose St
Stanford 10:00 PM
Washington
Rider 56 FINAL
Siena 49
Dayton 76 FINAL
Richmond 62
Eastern Kentucky 53 FINAL
Jacksonville St 73
Saint Josephs 0 Postponed
Saint Louis 0
UMBC 45 2nd Half 11:30
Binghamton 41
Akron 46 2nd Half 9:14
Ohio U 52
Ball State 61 2nd Half 11:08
Miami-Ohio 35
Memphis 46 2nd Half 9:18
Cincinnati 30
East Carolina 20 2nd Half 14:19
(2) Connecticut 59
Murray State 52 2nd Half 5:36
Eastern Illinois 65
Kent State 48 2nd Half 7:39
Central Michigan 52
UT Martin 56 2nd Half 8:38
Tennessee St 39
Eastern Michigan 44 2nd Half 10:01
Western Mich 63
Bucknell 55 2nd Half 6:54
Lehigh 64
Indiana 47 2nd Half 9:11
Michigan State 60
Colgate 48 2nd Half 8:14
Lafayette 40
Fordham 57 2nd Half 4:59
Davidson 43
Duquesne 54 2nd Half 10:52
St Bonaventure 43
George Mason 45 2nd Half 9:21
VA Commonwealth 52
Detroit 43 2nd Half 6:02
Youngstown St 44
Army 0 Postponed
Boston U 0
Loyola-Maryland 0 Postponed
Holy Cross 0
SMU 16 1st Half 10:59
Tulsa 18
Oklahoma St 7 1st Half 9:49
Kansas State 8
West Virginia 14 1st Half 9:31
Texas Tech 18
Denver 24 1st Half 8:46
South Dakota 26
Northwestern St 13 1st Half 7:52
Central Arkansas 9
Austin Peay 20 1st Half 6:08
SIU-Edwardsville 33
Kansas 15 1st Half 8:26
Iowa State 12
Bowling Green 10 1st Half 8:41
Northern Ill 17
Penn State 17 1st Half 9:44
Minnesota 19
San Jose St 8:00 PM
Air Force
Boise State 8:00 PM
Colorado State
Utah State 8:00 PM
Wyoming
San Diego State 9:00 PM
Fresno State
Nevada 9:00 PM
UNLV
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Date/Opponent Time W L Score
2014 preseason     
Aug 8 - vs. Oakland 7 pmX10-6
Aug 16 - vs. Arizona 7:30 pmX30-28
Aug 23 - at Kansas City 7 pmX30-12
Aug 28 - at Tennessee 7 pmX19-3
2014 regular season     
Sep 7 - at St. Louis NoonX34-6
Sep 14 - vs. New England NoonX30-7
Sep 21 - at New Orleans NoonX20-9
Sep 28 - vs. Atlanta 3:25 pmX41-28
Oct 2 - at Green Bay 7:25 pmX42-10
Oct 12 - vs. Detroit NoonX17-3
Oct 19 - at. Buffalo NoonX17-16
Oct 26 - at Tampa Bay NoonX19-13 ot
Nov 2 - vs. Washington NoonX29-26
Nov 9 - Bye
Nov 16 - at Chicago NoonX21-13
Nov. 23 - vs. Green Bay NoonX24-21
Nov. 30 - vs. Carolina NoonX31-13
Dec 7 - vs. NY Jets NoonX30-24 ot
Dec 14 - at Detroit 3:25 pmX16-14
Dec 21 - at Miami NoonX37-35
Dec 28 - vs. Chicago NoonX13-9

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