Players Returning From Injuries

Michael BellCorrespondent IOctober 18, 2005

IconYesterday, Tedy Bruschi practiced with the New England Patriots, merely eight months after suffering a mild stroke.   A handful of highly qualified doctors cleared him to play, and so the heart and soul of the Pats defense returns to the job which he loves so much.  It was a great day for Tedy, the organizations, and the United Commonwealth of Blue States.  


Despite the medical clearance, and the fact that Bruschi, a husband and father, seems to have his head well on his shoulder, something about this entire situation does not sit right with me.  I have a hunch that something is bound to go wrong.  Maybe the individual situation of one Tedy Bruschi does not bother me in and of itself, as much as that it seems indicative of the endemic desire of athletes to “prove themselves” as men by overcoming injury. 


Perhaps because I am a bit of a pansy, I have never really understood any athletes desire to come rush back from certain injuries.  Now of course, I say “certain injuries” because some are not that bad.  Playing through pain is necessary.  I played offensive line in high school football, I know.  But what kills me are the athletes who come back from injury too soon and cannot play adequately or do permanent damage to their careers because they are not fully healed.  In sports, and frankly in American culture, there is this almost perverse need to be manly, to show you off as a tough guy, and it’s really starting to annoy me. 


Already, I can hear the argument used by people who are defending people who come back despite terrible injury—or life-threatening stroke:  playing football (basketball, hockey, etc.) is what they do.  You can’t take football away from them, because that would be taking their livelihood.   Mike Golic and Mark Schlereth were on ESPN debating Bruschi’s return, Golic saying it seemed too soon, and Schlereth ever-so-politely chastising Golic for “taking away Bruschi’s livelihood.”  Let it be said that Schlereth had twenty-six operations during his career.  Why, you may ask.  Because he wanted to play, and because football is his livelihood.


Who are these guys?  Are they so discontent with life that they need to risk life and limb to play the game?  When is enough enough?


I am not in any way advocating that someone should abandon what they love doing for a quiet family life.  To be honest, I will bet large sums of money that Tedy Bruschi’s wife was urging him to go back, because he was probably a miserable bump of a log at home.  Take away something a man loves to do, and he is incomplete, and frankly will probably not be as good a husband or father as he was before.  This may sound silly, but look at your retired father or grandfather, and get back to me.


However, there is a point where logic needs to come into play.  If returning from an injury too soon can cause permanent damage to one’s career, may hurt the team, or may threaten someone’s life, that person should not return.  I really hope that taunts from teammates or people in the league are not enough to having someone potentially preclude their own future and their family’s future.  That’s just flat-out selfish, because in this situation “potentially” is a very dangerous word.  But many athletes do not want to be perceived as girlish or fearful, and many times they do play through a pain that could ultimately prevent them from playing as well as they are capable.  Isn’t that kind of sad? 


This does not mean that Bruschi is being illogical.  As a matter of fact, he will probably be fine.  His situation, while a bit uneasy, brings others like it to mind.   The most prevalent case today is Donovan McNabb


After being banged around viciously for the first few games of the season, McNabb was diagnosed with a sports hernia, which requires surgery.  McNabb refused, saying that he was going to play.  “Andy Reid is going to have to pull me off the field, and I’ll be kicking and screaming the whole way.”


This bothered me.  McNabb does not have a minor injury; he is seriously hurt.  Not only would continuing to play on it continue to damage his body, it may also damage his team.  In the Eagles resounding loss to Cowboys two weeks ago, McNabb wasn’t throwing the ball the way he normally does, not because he was out of it mentally, but because he physically could not throw the ball properly.  Of course, maybe the bye week this week helped in the healing, but if he has a bad game, Andy Reid may just have to drag him off the field.


My question is this: does Donovan McNabb really need to prove himself?  Is there anyone in the league that is more respected for his leadership, toughness, and ability, this side of Brett Favre?  Would getting himself right for the future be so damaging to his psyche now?  Is a playoff run for this season worth the effects on his future?  Maybe so, because that is just the way he is wired.  Or maybe Terrell Owens’s jab about McNabb’s toughness after the Superbowl cut a little deeper than we think.   In a league where confidence is everything, perhaps playing through pain this year will shut T.O. up, and give McNabb that bit of swagger that Owens’s foolhardy comments took away. 


Ultimately, the decision rests with the players.  If they are content to settle for success now, and less success later, then so be it:  who am I to question their motives?  The finest example of this is Curt Schilling and his “bloody-sock game.”  Because he pitched in that game, I believe that his body will never again let him be the pitcher he once was.  But, in the process of that game, he helped bring Boston its first World Series championship in 86 years, and became a folk hero for life in Boston.  Schilling made the trade-off, sacrificing future success for future immortality.  I can bicker and complain all I want, but if player is content with himself and his decision, God bless him. 


My dad, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine practitioner, put it best when he once told me that he is never in a position to tell his patients what they should and shouldn’t do.  He merely gives advice, albeit very, very good advice.  In the end, he would say, if they want to play, have at it.  “I can’t say I didn’t tell them when they can barely walk in twenty years.  It’s like getting a tattoo:  it may make you happy at the time, but a ways down the road, when you have kids and they ask you about that Chinese symbol on your arm, you’ll probably feel stupid.  But then again, it may bring back memories of a time that you loved so very much, and you can say that you lived without regrets.  I don’t know.” 


Who does?