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You can pretty much define Ben Roethlisberger in one phrase: "He's gonna play." The Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback is a "gamer." He's going to play unless he's physically unable to get to the field.
The NFL is all about being able to play with pain. It's the singular badge of honor in the game. In a 30-year career in and around the league, I saw a lot of incredibly tough people who showed up every Sunday and did their best to help their team. Herewith...just a few.
With the Houston Oilers Radio Network from 1978-81, I not only saw the nearly indestructible Earl Campbell, I also saw people like Dan Pastorini and Mike Barber. Pastorini, the quarterback, may be the toughest athlete I ever saw.
As the '78 season wound down, Dan had serious ribs problems, fractures on each side of his rib cage. In a game toward the end of the season, Dan had to have Novocaine injections between each of his ribs, on each side of his body, before the game and again at half time, just to be able to stand the pain and make the throwing motion. After the game, they checked him into a Houston hospital to try for some quick healing.
Dan tells of awakening one morning in a drug-induced haze, looking to the end of the bed and seeing two men, one in a trench-coat and one with a baseball bat. He figured they had lost money on the game and were there to take him out.
Trench-coat Man said, "We want to show you something." He held up his arms and Baseball Bat Guy swung as hard as he could, hitting Trench-coat Man smack in the ribs. The guy never even flinched. He opened his trench-coat and displayed the prototype "flak jacket" to protect a player's ribcage. Trench-coat Man was Byron Donzis, the flak jacket inventor, who went on to make many other football-related equipment improvements.
Who is the toughest QB in the NFL today?
Pastorini looked up from his bed, pointed at Donzis creation and said, "I want one of those!" He wore it the next week and ribs have never been the same since.
We also had an incredibly tough tight end from Louisiana named Mike Barber. One week, while doing the live, post-game interview show in the Oiler locker room, Mike was cutting the tape off his ankles while we chatted. As he slit the tape from his right foot, I noticed that the entire sole of the foot, from the heel to the place where the toes attached, was brilliant purple. When the interview ended I unplugged my mic and asked him what happened.
"I tore a tendon in the bottom of my foot."
"When?" I asked.
"And you played today?"
"Yup. And I practiced all week."
"But doesn't it hurt?"
"Hurts like hell."
"How can you stand it?"
"Well, they take a needle and fill a syringe with Novocaine, and they stick the needle right into the bottom of the foot, and if you can take the pain of the needle you can play, because the needle is worse than anything that will happen to you on the field."
"But doesn't the Novocaine make your foot numb?"
"All the way to knee."
"Then how can you run?"
He fixed me with a very steely glare.
"They don't pay me to sit on the bench."
The NFL is a very different world from yours and mine.
Coming up next...some stories from the Dallas Cowboys training room.