Written on January 14, 2013 at 7:28 pm
I was 14 when the doctor told me I couldn’t play football anymore. I’d just had my second knee surgery, after my freshmen year of high school, and I’d spent the last 8 weeks rehabbing and lifting weights hoping to be ready to go for summer practice. So I went for what I thought was a “routine” physical to get cleared to play and the doctor asked me to sit down and talk. I remember this conversation pretty vividly, even twenty-two years later:
Doctor: Brian, are you going to play in the NFL?
Me: Umm, I don’t know. I’d love to, but that seems like a long-shot.
Doctor: Well if you can’t guarantee me you are going to make it, I don’t think you should play football again.
Me: (shocked) Why?
Doctor: Well this is your second surgery in a year and half and we’ve removed a lot of cartilage and if you continue to play, I don’t think you will be able to walk by the time you’re 30. If you can guarantee you will play in the NFL, maybe it’s worth it, but otherwise I don’t think so.
Doctor: I won’t sign this physical and say you can play. I’m sure you can get another doctor to do it, but I don’t think it’s worth the risk.
My Mom and Dad agreed with the doctor (even though they ended up dealing with an angry and depressed teenager for the next six months) and I never played another down of organized football. I was pretty obsessed with football up to that point, playing one game with a badly broken finger, watching every game I could and convincing my parents to buy me NFL films about great defensive lineman.
I’ve had ~7 serious injuries to the same knee since and have arthritis in it today, so looking back, I’m sure the doctor made the right decision.
I bring all of this up, because I just read Dan Le Batard‘s article about Jason Taylor’s pain and it scares me. Reading about Jason Taylor and thinking back to the guys I idolized, Laurence Taylor (and his numerous problems with drugs), Junior Seau (who recently committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest so he could keep his brain intact for medical studies about post-concussion syndrome), Ronnie Lott (who had a finger amputated so he could keep playing) and whereas I used to marvel at their strength and determination, now I wonder what the heck were they thinking.
The trainer rushed to Taylor’s house. Taylor thought he was overreacting. The trainer told him they were immediately going to the hospital. A test kit came out. Taylor’s blood pressure was so high that the doctors thought the test kit was faulty. Another test. Same crazy numbers. Doctors demanded immediate surgery. Taylor said absolutely not, that he wanted to call his wife and his agent and the famed Dr. James Andrews for a second opinion. Andrews also recommended surgery, and fast. Taylor said, fine, he’d fly out in owner Daniel Snyder’s private jet in the morning. Andrews said that was fine but that he’d have to cut off Taylor’s leg upon arrival. Taylor thought he was joking. Andrews wasn’t. Compartment syndrome. Muscle bleeds into the cavity, causing nerve damage. Two more hours, and Taylor would have had one fewer leg. Fans later sent him supportive notes about their own compartment syndrome, many of them in wheelchairs.
“I was mad because I had to sit out three weeks,” he says. “I was hot.”
He had seven to nine inches of nerve damage.
“The things we do,” he explains. “Players play. It is who we are. We always think we can overcome.”
Everything is lined up to get the unhealthy player back on the field — the desire of the player, the guy behind you willing to endure more for the paycheck, the urging of the coaches and teammates, the culture that mocks and eradicates the weak and the doctor whose job it is not necessarily to keep the player healthy but healthy enough to be valuable to the team, which isn’t the same thing at all. The doctor gives the player the diagnosis and the consequences on the sidelines with in-game injuries, without the benefit of an MRI, and then the player makes a choice with the information about whether to take a pain-masking shot. And the choice is always to play.
Reading this article and thinking about the recent news about concussions and other injuries makes me question whether I would ever let my boys play football (if they want to, I would never push it on them). The injuries and attitudes about them don’t seem this bad in other sports. Maybe the gladiator aspect to football makes it all worse somehow? Comparing to the other sports I played, football was the one where the coaches acted like drill sergeants and pushed you to play every down, even if you were injured. I know I’m getting older, but I’m glad a doctor asked tough questions to a 14 year old and I’m wondering if more doctors, players, and their families need to start asking the same questions.
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