Football—a sport which has captivated an entire nation of spectators, fantasy addicts and modern-day gladiators for years while cementing its place in American culture as an unquestioned juggernaut in the sports and entertainment industry. For the men inside the helmets who sacrifice both life and limb on an NFL stage while facing the best in the world, pain becomes a badge of honor—it becomes normality.
It’s truly amazing how well our bodies respond to differing environments.
So it stands to reason that the environment of an NFL backdrop should naturally morph a man into something almost unrecognizable. As a former player years removed from the game, I can certainly attest to this effect as my body slowly assimilates to the sedentary lifestyle of a writer.
You train your entire life and endlessly strive to maintain a body capable of surviving the brutal torment and hellish intentions of a 300-pound "manamal" pounding you into the frozen tundra with unrivaled intensity.
With every fall, every tackle, every forearm to the rib cage and helmet flying at you like a torpedo, the damage and physical stress you accumulate over time wear away at the body’s ability to combat such an onslaught of external forces.
For players, the season clearly takes its toll.
There’s a reason the NFL plays only 16 regular-season games each year. As we’re all well aware, this is not the result of sympathetic owners who think this number is ideal. Make no mistake—they see the increased cash flow with every additional opportunity to fill a stadium and drool with dollar signs in their eyes. Players, however, are in direct opposition of extending the regular season—yet, not surprisingly, this consideration seems to resurface each year for the competition committee.
Despite the constant push by owners, players alone understand the annual timeline and brief window of sustainability while playing NFL-level football. According to the participants of the sport, that window is certainly being tested to the limit, with the potential for a player to play a total of 24 games in a single season. This includes preseason (four), regular season (16) and the postseason (4).
And so we’re right around the eighth week of the season, just when that strengthening-the-defense process is beginning to take a turn for the negative. With mounting breaches in the physiological system, your body finally starts to break down quicker than it can maintain itself. Herein lies the eternal struggle of every professional football player. So much of his time, training and diet are specifically designed to combat and fortify this natural weathering process—a process which can only be truly comprehended by personal experience.
To explain this accelerated progression of intense physical development, followed quickly by equally-rapid deterioration, would be like trying to explain to a person born blind how the shadows of a campfire dance off objects in the night. Despite the obvious futility of achieving absolute satisfaction here, I’ll attempt to explain what your average football player is feeling in real life right about now. So maybe at the very least, tweeting venom and hate to the player who caused you to lose your fantasy game last week will never cross your mind again—at least not long enough to push the send button.
At the midway point of an NFL season, the body’s skeletal structure has already generated a hardened shell of calcified reinforcements to provide added protection against the brutal nature of the game we love so much. As I mentioned earlier, this is right at the point in the season when damage is piling up faster than we can repair it.
It’s also important to consider the vicious schedule of an NFL season with all the traveling, preparation, practices and energy spent through half of the calendar year. By now, every player who sees any game-time action is feeling the effect—the full-body fatigue.
So let’s start from the top and work our way down.
For the guys in the trenches, the forehead becomes a hardened, often discolored, piece of tissue from the constant rubbing and banging of the helmet. This look eventually goes away in the offseason but returns each year.
The neck, a densely packed array of muscle fibers supporting the critical nerve pathways of the spine, likely has increased in size an inch or two by now.
Have you ever noticed the size of football player’s neck? This is what the constant weight of a helmet and steady forces of resistance will do for you.
As we reach the shoulder area, we hit a critical region of the body regarding the functionality of a football player. The shoulder joint is a glorious feat of biomechanics allowing for a wide range of movement while also maintaining its structural integrity—well, most of the time.
Over the years, all of the banging and jolty movements in unpredictable positions have created a socket full of grinding and scar tissue which will regularly become inflamed, generating steady discomfort and intensely sharp pain when moved a certain way. There’s little you can do without a scalpel regarding a rotator cuff full of chipped bone and scar tissue, so you live with it—worse yet, you play through it.
Ben Gay and other topical creams do help warm up the area and reduce pain to manageable levels. Prescription-strength anti-inflammatory medicine is handed out like bath towels and taken in bunches in the locker room.
I tried to avoid this process when possible. It never felt healthy or natural to use in large doses or with such high frequency. In hindsight, I have to laugh at my naive way of thinking. I thought I could actually successfully compete in the NFL with ideals involving "natural" and "healthy."
As you extend out past the shoulders of a player in midseason form and meander over a slew of abrasions, you come to the elbow—a joint which has certainly been tested several times by now. Slight hyperextensions of this joint tend to induce pain when fully straightened. If you gently graze your hand over the battle-tested forearm, you’ll likely notice the surrounding tissue is firm yet knotted from layers of contusions, which seem to fuse with developing muscles to create an uneven canvas.
Few things in life can tear up your hands and fingers like football. My fingers and hands used to be in constant agony as a defensive lineman. This is a position which requires an incredible amount of grabbing and pulling against massive forces for long, strenuous periods of time. By the end of some games, and even some practices, every tendon in my hands would be strained and damaged. By midseason, the entire hand is comprised of scar tissue. Many guys are forced to live with major disfigurements in their hands for the rest of their days.
But hey, this is football.
At some point in the middle of my freshman year of college, I completely snapped two bones on the left side of my rib cage and didn’t miss so much as a single practice. To be honest, playing with this injury for the rest of the season was surprisingly manageable in terms of pain.
It was kind of gross when the bones finally reconnected because it left a huge bulge of calcified bone for months before the excess eventually dissolved.
The body’s core is both incredibly strong and alarmingly vulnerable. One bad move or one wrong hit and the athlete would be completely disabled.
Over the years, strength and conditioning coaches have increased their emphasis on building up the body’s core muscles. These are generally muscles that aren’t as visible on the surface, yet are responsible for posture and translate well into functional strength on a football field. This is why the guy with the biggest biceps is not necessarily the strongest one on the football field.
Throughout a season, I would routinely throw my back out on the squat rack and would just have to suck it up and practice that same day. This is that all-too-familiar injury that most of us have experienced while bending over to pick up our kids or grabbing a heavy box the wrong way. All is well until suddenly you’re hit with that shooting pain, immobilizing you for a few minutes before you can finally stand up straight again.
Luckily, this painful experience heels much faster than the pain would suggest. But while the average person would nurse the tender back for the rest of the day, the football player must roll on.
The hip joints and surrounding muscles are incredibly strong in a professional football player. Any serious damage here and we’re generally looking at a long recovery. Hip pointers and groin injuries are commonplace in the training room at this point in the season. There’s little you can do for a bone bruise except suck it up, but a strained groin is often treated with a variety of techniques. Muscle stimulation with an ultrasound machine, ice and acupuncture are all typical treatments here.
One thing you don’t see very often is a football player with skinny thighs. Thick legs are both a prerequisite and byproduct of the sport which develops over time.
Hamstring strains and pulls are unspeakably frustrating for a football player, and after eight weeks of competing at full speed, most players are suffering through some degree of discomfort in their upper legs.
By now, the knees have survived a great deal of friction, and every football player is thankful if he has two fully functional knees.
Functional, yes. Pain free? Unlikely.
Arthritis for the older veterans is a constant struggle that becomes more intolerable with each passing week. For some, fluid which has collected in the knee from the body’s natural attempt to repair itself has to be drained so they can finish the year.
Injuries to the knee which exceed what I’ve already mentioned typically result in missing the remainder of the year.
Arguably the toughest and most under-appreciated body parts for an NFL player are the feet.
These bad boys certainly take quite a beating while serving as the liaisons between you and ground. Plantar fasciitis basically feels like the tendons on the bottom of your feet are ripping right off the bone with every step. Unfortunately, I’ve grown quite accustomed to this feeling, which worsens as the grind of the season carries on.
Sprained toes are also nothing to laugh about. Trying to plant and change directions with a sprain in your big toe is not only compromising to your overall effectiveness, but it happens all the time to various degrees. John Q. Public usually only learns about these types of ailments when they're severe enough to cause a player to show up on the injury report.
Amid all of this, the mind has been working overload for weeks with minimal sleep and intense levels of focus. Finding time to rest and recharge mentally during an NFL season is generally limited to the bye week, when teams allow their players a few extra days' rest.
Walking into the practice facility each morning knowing that you’re expected to run around and hit people all day long is a difficult reality to come to terms with when your body is inflicted with various combinations of ailments.
For me, I became utterly dependent on some pill called “Pain Off” in order to practice or play each day. I’m pretty sure the pill was some combination of caffeine, aspirin and Ibuprofen. I strangely never saw this item either available or on sale in any other setting outside of football.
As you can probably imagine by now, "healthy" is a relative term among NFL athletes midway through the season. One of the most under-appreciated elements of the sport is durability and attrition. As the saying goes, sometimes the greatest ability is availability.
There’s a point that may need to be voiced here as the game we know and love evolves into a safer product. Football is not loved in spite of its violence—it is loved because of it.
One of the greatest necessities of becoming a dominant football player is the intense desire to be one of the toughest human beings in an environment where only unthinkable toughness is tolerated.
Ryan Riddle is a former NFL player and current Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report