MIAMI — The third quarter will be the hardest time today for Jon Giesler. That’s when the pain killers they inject into his knee start to wear off. There’s no way to give him more at halftime, either, because his leg is taped from the thigh to the ankle, and that pretty much rules out a needle. So he’ll drop into a crouch on the offensive line and try to block both the opponent and the pain. Because the last thing he wants to think about — when he’s slamming into some monster defender and his body is trembling and his lungs are gasping for air — is the hard truth: there’s no way he should be out there.

Jon Giesler, who is only 29, plays one day of football a week for the Miami Dolphins. He doesn’t practice. He doesn’t do drills. Check that — he can’t. There are days he’s lucky to be walking. But he shows up on Sundays and starts at offensive tackle, and he’ll start today in the AFC championship, and he will not come out. Not unless somebody shoots him or something.

In football you’re either healthy enough to play or you’re not. It’s like a coin flip. Heads or tails. Only Jon Giesler got his right knee terribly hurt near the beginning of the season, but not quite terribly enough to keep him from playing — if he was willing to postpone surgery and gulp pain pills and live like a monk during the week.

He was a coin that lands on its edge.

He chose to play. It’s a here-and-now business

Jon Giesler knows how pro football works. He knows being out of the lineup is like lifting the shovel to dig your grave.

“The fear in the back of your mind,” he said, “is that they’ll find someone to replace you. I guess that’s partly why I do it.”

He was standing in a parking lot, away from the Dolphins’ practice field. He shifted his stance, the knee, swollen and dotted with scars, seeking a more comfortable repose. “I guess I haven’t really thought about the consequences,” he added. “Not until recently.”

People tell him the horror stories. About ex-players such as Jim Otto, who can barely walk today. Geisler used to shrug. Now he is listening.

Jon Giesler, who once starred for Bo Schembechler at Michigan, is a big man, meant to walk the earth with giant strides. To see him taking ginger steps is like watching a bear limp away from a trap.

But this is his routine: Every morning he wakes up and tries to move his leg. Every afternoon he stays inside the training room, moving a weighted cable tied to his ankle back and forth. Every evening he lies awake in bed, until the throbbing becomes too much and he wakes his wife and says: “That’s it. I can’t play with this anymore.”

And every morning he starts over.

He has made it through all but three games this season. Each week Miami advances in the playoffs is another week he must endure. The thought is the Dolphins should say “Thanks, you’ve done enough. Go get better.” But football is a here-and-now business and Miami has desperately needed the injured Giesler to help protect prize quarterback Dan Marino from precisely the same fate.

And Giesler has played magnificently. Dolphins experts can hardly recall the last time he surrendered a sack. In last week’s last-minute win over the Cleveland Browns, Giesler threw a key block that sprung Ron Davenport for a 31-yard touchdown run that helped bring Miami back.

And after the game, he sat by his locker for an eternity, his head in his hands, trying to exorcise the agony. His teammates looked over, then quickly looked away. He is their Ghost Of Christmas Future. A grim reminder that football is simply war without gunpowder. No one will remember his pain

Now Giesler was by the fence near the field.

“I look out there sometimes,” he said softly, “and I wonder if I’m ever going to be able to do that again.”

He said he worries about someone clipping his knee, especially early in the game, when the pain killers are still fooling him. He said he needs crutches to get home afterward.

“If a game is close, I can block the pain mostly. But if we have the game in the bag, I start feeling it really bad. I start wishing they’d take me out.”

He squinted in the midday sun. “I can’t say this has made me smarter. Probably the smartest thing to do would have been not to play. Maybe I’m learning too late. I don’t know.”

You won’t hear much about Jon Giesler on the TV today. Five years from now, no one will remember the pain he played in.

It might be nice to paint him in heroic colors, but that’s not the way he feels. Even for a coin standing on its edge, life is eventually just choosing one direction or the other. Jon Giesler will walk out there today and drop into his crouch and pray he’s not making some really terrible mistake. CUTLINE: Jon Giesler

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