If a player’s lucky, he may enter the midway point of the season slowed only by minor bodily harm.
Typically, it’s comprised from some unique combination of sprained fingers, wrists and ankles, paired with a few deep contusions or minor skeletal misalignments—i.e. slightly slipped disk here, pinched nerve there, grinding sound when I do this, sharp pain when I do that.
And for those older players teetering on the edge of retirement, they’re now fighting much more than the wear and tear of a single season. For them, it becomes the battle of surviving the accumulation effect from countless years of playing such a physically demanding sport.
These older veterans must endure the added symptoms of pain more akin to that of arthritis, layered on top of dealing with the body's naturally slowed repair rate as a result of the aging process.
Nicks, bangs, bumps and bruises all sort of mesh together. I cannot say that accumulating more bodily damage isn’t a reality, but I can say the perception and consequence to this damage, both mentally and physically, is dramatically altered. Through the natural conditioning process of the mind and body, we become much tougher as well as better equipped to deal with our pain.
But beyond perception, our NFL bodies become noticeably hardened by midseason. Leg and arm bruises once commonplace during training camp and into the earlier parts of the season no longer show up in Weeks 7 and 8. The frequent total body soreness on Mondays following the first few games simply reduces to a manageable fatigue.
All across the board, both body and mind begin to react and respond to the harsh realities of an NFL season.
But in classic Darwinian fashion, not all humans are created equal. In many ways, the prestigious quest for a Super Bowl title hinges predominantly upon attrition. Trent Dilfer said it best: “Sometimes our best ability is our availability.”
The most talented NFL teams are often not the ones still standing in February. Perhaps one of the most overlooked assets NFL players need to have is durability and toughness.
However, this is often easier said than done, considering we tend to lump these two elements in with words like "chance" and "luck." But let me assure you, there’s a heck of a lot more to Brett Favre’s durability and toughness than just plain old luck.
Even with everything I’ve laid out before you, there’s still a salient wearing-down process which, if propagated, would eventually break even the strongest of men. This process is the thorn in every player’s side, humbly reminding them how such a great privilege can cost such a painful price.
That price is felt every day when you rise out of bed. It's like a badge of mettle, carved out of battles fought weekly in which the only weapon available just so happens to be the one tool you can never replace.
For all of these reasons mentioned, practices tend to become less physically demanding as the season goes on.
Right around the halfway point, most teams have eased off the practice throttle significantly, simply using their time and energy to scheme and game-plan against the upcoming opponent. Many teams will even eliminate padded practices altogether toward the end of the season in the hopes of keeping a team fresh and healthy.
Days in between games soon shift from an opportunity for improving and sharpening skills to a window of rest and recovery.
During my time with the New York Jets, guys in the locker room would complain about how physically demanding practices were at this point in the season.
Wide receiver Laveranues Coles, whose locker was right next to mine, was one player in particular who was very vocal about his discontent for “The Penguin’s” (nickname for then-head coach Eric Mangini) practice philosophies. I remember him saying, “At the rate we’re going here, my body will only be able to play a couple more years before I’m all used up.”
I leveled with him. In contrast to my season with Oakland, Mangini’s midseason practice strategies were to treat them as he would a summer training camp, with the only difference being the addition of in-season game-planning.
In fact, some of the guys were so exhausted and beaten from the rigors of the practice schedule that they began to question their desire to make the playoffs once it became a high possibility. This team was under a high amount of stress.
I empathized with the starters, who were understandably banged up and needed to take it somewhat easy in practice. However, this contradicted the pressure Mangini put on his developing players to go full speed at all times during practice.
Needless to say, some guys who didn’t appreciate the intensity so late into the winter started fights with me in practice. Those moments were pivotal in defining one’s priorities as an NFL player: We were not there to make friends; we were there to make history.
But as the body struggles, so too does the mind; it's natural for one to lose sight of their goals once the season's adversity has taken its toll. That's why, for many, the coveted prize that began as a trip to the playoffs becomes, by midseason, the conclusion of that final regular-season game.
In spite of all the year's training and hardening, in the NFL few things are more welcomed than the end of a football season and the start of a much-needed vacation, one dedicated almost exclusively to full-body rest and relaxation.