Pain Is Just Part of the Game in the NFL

Matt Bowen @MattBowen41NFL National Lead WriterJune 12, 2014

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Toradol shots, Vicodin, Percocet.

Every player in the NFL has his own form of pain management to mask injuries for three hours of football on a Sunday afternoon with injections, pills, whatever.

But after another former-player lawsuit—this time focusing on team-issued pain medication—is the practice of masking injuries and playing through a ridiculous amount of discomfort worth it in the long run?

Let’s discuss how (and why) players work through injuries in order to answer the bell every week in the pro game.

Pain Management

A Toradol shot before the game (or “Vitamin T” as players call it) followed by four to six Advil, some Kodiak tobacco and a six-pack of Budweiser to recover once I got back to the house on Sunday nights.

That was my simple “pain management” plan as a player later in my career.

Pain pills?

I wasn’t into that stuff, but, yeah, I would take one now and then on the team plane after road games when the doctor would walk through the aisles at 30,000 feet asking if anyone needed some relief for injuries, headaches, etc.

And he had it all—pills in every shape and color imaginable.

Washington Redskins  safety Matt Bowen signals a play  against the Dallas Cowboys during a Monday Night Football game September 19, 2005 in Irving, Texas.  The Skins defeated the Cowboys 14 - 13.  (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

When I was really beat up, I would take those Skoal wintergreen tobacco pouches, soak them in vodka and throw a tin in the freezer at my townhouse in Northern Virginia.

Toss one in and get a quick buzz while icing my knees or shoulders after a ballgame.

I can remember playing in Cleveland against the Browns when I was with the Redskins. Grey skies, a little rain and a ton of off-tackle runs.

Before I even cut off the tape on my ankles, I threw myself in the cold tub (with my game pants still on) because I knew Monday morning was going to be absolutely brutal.

The Toradol injection was starting to wear off, and a couple of Advil wasn’t going to do the trick. I needed something, anything to dull the pain for the plane ride home to get ready to lift on Monday and start the game prep for the following week.

During the ’05 season, I spent a couple of nights in a hospital room after taking a knee to the gut from Steelers running back Jerome Bettis. With a bruised diaphragm and insides that felt like mush, I loaded up on pain meds to recover and eventually got back on the practice field.

Players have a routine with pain management that starts in the training room and weight room and carries over to the practice field during game week with tape all over their bodies.

But it’s the meds (both pre and postgame) that provide enough relief to show up on Sundays consistently while nursing sore joints, muscles and impact injures.

It’s an endless cycle, really, over the course of a season (or a career). And it often reflects the violence and brutality of this game on the field.

For many players, those pain meds are a part of the game process just like an opponent's scouting report—even for a seven-year journeyman like myself.

The Risks Involved

I knew for a fact that my doctor back home in Chicago would never advise me to take a Toradol injection every week for the final three years of my career in the NFL.

Nor would he approve of soaking tobacco pouches in vodka to dull some pain.

However, I knew exactly what I was doing.

I had the support staff of top-tier trainers and doctors in St. Louis, Green Bay, Washington and Buffalo who explained the risks of using Toradol or consistently masking pain. Men I trusted because they were up front and honest about every bump, bruise and major injury I suffered.

While players, such as former Bears quarterback Jim McMahon, said they were issued illegal pain medications in this new lawsuit, I honestly knew the drill and was willing to take those risks to get back on the field (while holding onto my job).

Anonymous/Associated Press

Looking back, I believe every player has a sense of immortality. A feeling that nothing (and I mean nothing) can limit or slow him down. 

Heck, you almost have to believe that in order to play downhill as a safety, run the ball on 3rd-and-short, stand in the pocket when you know an edge-rusher is coming, catch a ball across the middle or survive an afternoon along the offensive and defensive fronts.

And that doesn’t include the guys who cover kicks for a living (which I did for many years in the NFL).

A running start, work up to top speed, lower your headgear on contact and try to bust open a four-man wedge on the kickoff-coverage team (before the NFL changed the kickoff rules).

Part of that belief in immortality is associated with pain meds from my perspective.

You take them before the game, get shot up at halftime and use them throughout the week because, well, nothing can ever knock you down.

And even though you know it’s unhealthy, you do it for a short period of your life (in a part-time gig) to stay on that field.

Post-Career Impact

While going through an exam with a chiropractor recently, he asked if I had been in “multiple car accidents” due to the bulging discs in my neck and back.

Not exactly what you want to hear as a retired pro athlete, but that’s what you give sometimes to play this game.

Could I (or any other former player) have prevented some post-career issues by recognizing injuries and treating them with more care than waiting in line to get a shot 45 minutes before a game?

Probably so.

And I have no problem admitting that some of the stuff I did in terms of pain management (or coming back into the game with a concussion) was just flat-out stupid. 

I’ve now changed the way I exercise in my retirement years with a focus on kettle bells, core work, flexibility and endurance conditioning over the Olympic movements I did during my career to train for power and speed.

There is still soreness, joint stiffness, etc., and I work with a physical therapist on a weekly basis on a strength/flexibility program while coaching T-ball and playing with my four young boys in the backyard.

No different than plenty of former players who deal with general soreness and past injuries.

I only played seven seasons. Just think of the guys who played for a decade—or longer—in terms of the pain they have to work with.

But the question every player has to ask when he is done: Does he have any regrets from playing ball, dealing with the pain and masking injuries to get back on that field?

Well, I really don’t have any regrets. And I would do it all over again—because the risks (and the pain) were worth it.

Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. 


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