Playing in the NFL is awesome! Getting injured while playing in the NFL is miserable. And let me be straight on this point: There are guys who get injured and guys who get hurt.
There is not one guy on any of the 32 NFL teams right now who is not hurt. All of them are dealing with some sort of ailment, big or small. That includes the kickers and punters, too. NFL players are expected to play through being hurt. The question that coaches and trainers deal with the most is: What is each player’s pain tolerance? What some guy’s consider a hurt, others consider that aliment an injury.
And there is a fine line in the NFL.
Being labeled “injury-prone” is the scarlet letter in the NFL—even if the injuries were freak accidents. Club executives avoid players with that label like the plague and once a player gets that moniker, they wear the title for life.
There are two types of players: guys who can play on game day and guys who cannot. It is as simple as that. No player ever wants to be in the latter category. That’s the funny thing about football: Most guys have had an injury that has caused them to miss some playing time. But in a system where every snap could be the last, players frown on others or tend to shy away from players who cannot play.
That does not mean they are jerks or not good guys, but the NFL is a “What have you done for me lately?” business, and if you are not helping to win the game, then stay out of the way.
As an injured player, you try to tell yourself you are a part of the team and that you are important. The sad truth is nobody really cares about you. The game is going to move on without you. One of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, Peyton Manning, missed all of last season due to his neck injury. Manning is a four-time NFL MVP, a Super Bowl champion and the greatest Indianapolis Colt of all time. A case can be made that Manning was the nexus of Indianapolis getting a new stadium built and hosting a Super Bowl. Manning gave the Colts’ football legitimacy again.
And for all that, he was released due to his injuries.
Fans and media will argue that the cost of Manning's 2012 contract got him released. But if Manning is healthy in 2011, the argument is never raised. Due to Manning’s injuries, the Colts had to look to the future and could not wait around for their icon to be healthy. As cruel as that sounds, that is the nature of the NFL. If that can happen to a future Hall of Famer, imagine how a backup is treated.
I was “that” guy. I was an injury waiting to happen. I never thought of myself as such, but when you are injured the last three years of your playing career, you become a pariah to scouts and coaches. I would play through pain. I hated being in the training room and I can say for a majority of players, the only time they want to be in the training room is to get taped for practice or the game.
In New Orleans, I went to make a tackle and herniated two discs in my neck and cracked a vertebrae. I lost feeling in my arm and down my left side. I tried to walk off the field and hide from the trainers until the pain went away, but my arm was useless—and I knew I was done. I begged coach Mike Ditka to let me play the year out and have surgery after the season, but he told me I did not have an option and surgery was my best route. I felt like I let everybody down.
That is the mindset of an athlete. They train all year round for the chance to compete, and some crazy injury happens that takes all that away. I remember walking back into the locker room after surgery and all the guys giving me words of encouragement. But life in the NFL keeps moving a mile a minute, and while I was done for the year, my teammates still had a game to prepare for. I was just a body taking up space now.
I distinctly remember showing up to the facility to get treatment a week later. I walked into the locker room to change clothes and saw another player putting on my jersey. Except the jersey was not mine, it was now his. I was just a number chewed up and spit out that fast. I knew I was probably done for my career, but there was still a drop in my stomach to see the Saints fill my spot just like that. That’s when I knew the NFL stood for “Not For Long.”
The NFL is first and foremost a business. I remember my first year in New Orleans I tore my groin up in the offseason pretty bad. I missed a majority of training camp, and though I was rehabbing hard every day, I was not getting better. I was so frustrated and just wanted to be out there with my teammates.
Everybody treats you different when you are out with an injury. Players that miss time with pulls, like a groin or hamstring, are called “babies, sissies and soft” behind their backs. Unless the injury is visible or diagnosable, like a compound fracture or torn ACL, everyone in the organization will question the player’s toughness at some level.
I did not want to be in that category, but I also knew I could not run. I had never questioned myself and my NFL career before, but I was having doubts about my future. I shared that with a fellow linebacker, Mark Fields, who was the best athlete I had ever been around. Fields gave me words of advice I had never heard before.
He said: “Take care of yourself first. This is a hardcore business. If the team gets you on tape practicing, they will cut you the next day and you will get nothing. But they are probably cutting you anyway since you haven’t practiced, so they have to pay you for being injured.”
This is a major dilemma that occurs every preseason around the NFL. Fringe players who are eating up a roster spot get injured. They cannot practice, thus they are not helping the team. If the team feels like the player has potential, the organization will give the player some time to try and get healthy. But if the team feels like the player is not good enough, they would like to move on as quickly as possible.
That is where injury settlements come into play. Season-ending injuries end up on injured reserve. Players with “minor” injuries are paid a fraction of their salary to, more or less, go away. That sounds cruel, but players come to understand this practice is part of the deal when signing up to play in the NFL.
I remember a veteran signing later in training camp. The guy had no chance of making the team but all the other players at that position had nagging injuries and coach wanted to hold them out of the preseason game. The player, who had quite a few years under his belt, knew the score and how to work the system.
He “feigned” an injury in the game, a pulled calf muscle. Not season-ending, but enough to get a four-week payday on an injury settlement. I remember sitting by him in the training room saying, “I put my time in, now gotta get that retirement.” He smiled all the way out of the complex on his way to the airport.
Fantasy football has now put every injury under the microscope. Every fan needs to know if their starting running back or wide receiver will play this week. Just know, all 53 players on a NFL roster want to be on the field, playing the game they love. None of them want to be labeled “soft,” and surely none of them want the “injury-prone” label.
Every player wants to help his team win, and nobody wins in the training room.