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 ...