Last October, a terrifying collision left tight end Jermichael Finley briefly paralyzed on the turf of Lambeau Field. Much to everyone's relief, Finley recovered quite well. In fact, the former Green Bay Packer told ESPN Wisconsin's Jason Wilde that this past week is "the best (he's) felt in this entire crazy process."
Wilde added that Finley "very much wants to return" to football as a member of the Packers. He currently remains a free agent.
Almost nine months after the injury, Finley's health remains a topic of discussion throughout the NFL. As expected, the injury—a spinal cord contusion that eventually led to spinal fusion surgery just under one month later—massively complicates his return to the game.
In short: Is it worth the risk?
As one might guess, there is no easy answer, and the discussion involves multiple parties.
For instance, Finley's own surgeon—Dr. Joseph Maroon, who also happens to be affiliated with the Pittsburgh Steelers—needed to give his blessing. According to Finley's agent, Blake Baratz—via Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio—that blessing came in late May.
Attaining clearance from an NFL team, however, involves a different set of variables. For example, opinions on radiographic images and physical examinations can differ from medical staff to medical staff. Furthermore, while his health reigns above all else, Finley's situation also involves—for better or for worse—money.
He must also prove that he can still play at an NFL-caliber level—something for which he has been training, as MMQB's Jenny Vrentas pointed out in February, extremely hard:
He’s dead-lifting 429 pounds, in reps of threes, and casually chatting in-between about his new juicing habit: spinach-apple-pineapple, that is. He has quick answers to all the questions a doctor might ask: Balance? Restored six weeks ago. Pain? None for the past month, in any part of his range of motion.
Lastly, and arguably most importantly, he needs to want it—not just from a football standpoint but from a life standpoint.
No one but the big man himself can understand how badly he wants to take the field for an NFL squad once more—or how frightening it was to lay motionless on the ground for that sickening moment in time last October. He wrote a first-person account for MMQB shortly after the injury occurred:
After I got hit, in the fourth quarter of our win against the Browns last week, my eyes were wide open. I was very conscious, but I could not move. I looked my teammate Andrew Quarless directly in the eye and whispered, “Help me, Q. I can’t move; I can’t breathe.” The scariest moment was seeing the fear in Q’s eyes. I knew something was wrong, but his reaction verified it. That really shook me up.
Nevertheless, it seems the desire still remains. Finley continued:
Of course I plan to play football again. This is what I love to do. I love the game. I love Sundays. [...] I will do everything in my power to rehab and get back to the player I have been, and improve into the player I know I can be.
As mentioned, the better part of a year later, he continues to reaffirm his love for the game and is hoping for a return to the Packers.
So then why is he still a free agent?
At this point, it's impossible to determine their relative contributions from the far outside looking in, but it would seem that at least one of the above factors—medical risk assessments and financial negotiations, football abilities, physical shape or personal preferences—remains unfavorable for a return.
On the medical front, it's possible he carries no added risk compared to any other player after a spinal contusion or cervical fusion, and precedent of players recovering from similar injuries does exist. New York Giants linebacker Jameel McClain returned from a contusion he suffered as a member of the Baltimore Ravens. Peyton Manning's cervical spine surgeries are also well known—though carried out for different reasons.
However, comparing one serious neck injury to another is a dangerous game, as no two athletes nor injuries are alike.
The money issue also looms large.
Will Jermichael Finley play in 2014?
On the one hand, Finley continues to state he wants to play. On the other, he apparently carries a $10 million disability insurance policy on which to cash if he does not play again—unless, as ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert detailed, his insurance company puts up a fight.
Additionally, he may not carry much leverage when it comes to new contract negotiations, possibly limiting his moneymaking ability down the road. The fact that he remains a free agent in mid-July speaks volumes.
Hopefully, all will work out for the best for the still-young, talented tight end.
Yet, with all of the above in mind, it becomes obvious that the question posed by the headline of this article is not a simple one—and one that only Finley, his family and his football and medical evaluators can truly answer.
Dr. Dave Siebert is a resident physician at the University of Washington who plans to pursue fellowship training in Primary Care (non-operative) Sports Medicine.