Let’s talk about Mondays. Not yours or mine. A football player’s Mondays.
“As soon as you open your eyes you think, ‘OK, what’s working? What can I move?’ You try to figure a way to get out of bed and make it to the bathroom. Sometimes you have to use your stomach muscles alone to lift your body up, because everything else is too sore.”
The words belong to Jeff Chadwick, a wide receiver for the Lions. It took him nearly 10 minutes to put on a sweatshirt, sweatpants and loafers on this morning. His torso is wrapped by a bandage, which helps hold together the two pieces of his broken collarbone.
“For me, it gets worse in the afternoon. The body tightens up, all the places you got slammed to the ground. You don’t feel like talking to anyone, or dealing with anyone, even taking a shower. You just want to lie on the couch and be left alone.”
The words belong to Eric Hipple, the Lions’ quarterback. On Sunday a Minnesota player smashed a knee into his groin, and another crunched a helmet into his chest. He has a headache that he says will probably last all week.
“With this concussion, it’s tough to do anything. Any quick movement and I lose my balance, and have to hold onto something. It’s pretty depressing how old you feel in football. Sometimes you wonder what it’ll be like in 10 years.”
The words belong to Don Greco, offensive lineman. He was kicked in the head during the Lions-49ers game a few weeks ago. Concussion. He’s continued to play on and off. The doctors say his equilibrium may return in a few weeks. Or maybe a few months.
Like Chadwick and Hipple, he has come in for the weekly inspection of shattered bones and bluish flesh. The flip side of the NFL.
Mondays. They awake to agony
It is football’s tease that the pain from a game doesn’t really hit until the next day. Players will go for a beer on a Sunday evening, feeling no more weary than a company softball team. But their bed that night is often haunted.
“You see the bad plays over and over,” Hipple says. “The hits, the sacks. Actually, you don’t sleep much at all, especially after a loss.”
And with morning’s light, the demons have oozed into the bones. Shoulders throb, backs tighten, elbows, knees and ankles swell. Eyelids open slowly, as if in disbelief. The only thing more disconcerting than the pain is the idea that in six days the crippled parts must be ready to dance again.
So the athletes drag themselves in for treatment. And if you really want to see the NFL, take a seat outside the trainer’s room on a Monday. There are no crowds. No cameras. The mood is hushed, somber, the actions robotic.
“You see the scars, guys on crutches,” Greco says. “It’s like a war zone.” Bandages are dispensed with abandon. Aspirin is popped like Tic-Tacs. Ice packs, whirlpools, injections. The beast that is the football body must be roused again.
You do what it takes.
And you come back — which might be the hardest thing for the non-player to understand. Doesn’t having felt the pain of a 260-pounder smashing into your body fill the athlete with fear?
“Yeah,” Hipple said. “But the fear is not in getting hurt.” He pauses on what could well be football’s heartbeat sentence.
“The fear,” he says, “is in not being able to play.” Hurting is part of the job
A famous fighter was once asked why he didn’t just retire with his earnings, rather than take any more punishment. “A boxer boxes,” he said.
“This is my job.” So it is with football.
During a game last year, Chadwick was slammed unconscious running a pattern across the middle. He opened his eyes to see the trainer hovering over him. His first reaction was to kick the man away with his foot.”I got to get back to the huddle,” he mumbled. He’d been out cold for five minutes. The fear is not being able to play.
A decade from now, many current NFL players won’t be able to walk without pain. The aches will become chronic. The old injuries will throb. No one will be around to patch them up.
“I guess you figure it only happens to the other guys,” Greco says. “But we’re not trying to be heroes or anything. We know it’s part of the job.”
One that doesn’t get much attention. Funny. For most of us, a stuffy nose or a slight headache can ruin a whole day. Try to imagine the walk to the bathroom as a major challenge.
It’s no great message. Just something to think about next time you say:
“Ah, those guys play once a week and make so much money. What a life.”
We watch football, and we know it hurts. Most of us don’t know how much.