NFL Offseason Reminds Us That Football Players Are People, Too

Ty Schalter@tyschalterNFL National Lead WriterJune 8, 2015

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Miami Dolphins kicker Caleb Sturgis was injured playing kickball? His plant-leg quad strain is going to force him to miss the rest of OTAs?!

Yes, per the Miami Herald's Barry Jackson, and the oft-injured specialist will come into training camp with an awful lot of pressure on his job.

For a football culture raised by Vince Lombardi to believe winning isn't everything, but the only thing, a starter missing any amount of time because he did something other than play football is infuriating, inexplicable and unacceptable.

A professional footballer's body is his livelihood, so how could Sturgis jeopardize that—and the Dolphins' chances in a loaded AFC East—by playing adult kickball?

Sturgis wasn't a ringer on a neighborhood squad in some hipster league. The Dolphins themselves put the game together as a team-building exercise. For many NFL fans, that's when their shock and anger turns to the Dolphins: How could they organize a competitive physical activity amongst their players? How could they take that risk?

As Jackson wrote, the Dolphins "know they're going to get criticized," and "there is disappointment internally about this."

Criticized they were: ESPN.com's James Walker  immediately called the kickball game a "bad idea" and said it would have been "an even bigger error in judgment" if the injury had been to a less replaceable player like quarterback Ryan Tannehill or All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.

In fact, this injury could be the beginning of the end for Sturgis' time in Miami.

"At that position in general it's one of those deals where the spotlight's always on you," Darren Rizzi, the Dolphins' special teams coordinator, told Hal Habib of the Palm Beach Post. "You're always under the microscope."

Now, the Dolphins' decision-making is under the microscope, too.

But should it be?

Mark Duncan/Associated Press

Yes, some offseason injuries are the predictable result of risky behavior. In 2005, then-Cleveland Browns tight end Kellen Winslow II sustained major injuries while practicing motorcycle stunts in a parking lot. Not only was he expressly violating the terms of his contract, per an Associated Press report at the time, he was cited for "disregarding safety" by local police.

Wild, reckless, illegal choices like that are foolish, and contractual prohibitions against such are understandable. But where's the line between unnecessary risk and unnecessary caution?

Back in 2007, per the Washington Post's Howard Bryant, legendary Washington coach Joe Gibbs instructed his position groups to do something fun together, and the defensive backs chose to play some paintball. Then-rookie LaRon Landry, fresh off being drafted No. 6 overall, pulled a groin—and spent his first team minicamp in street clothes.

There may not be any more time-honored offseason tradition than golf. It's the lowest-impact sport humans play and a favorite spring hobby of NFL coaches and players alike. An offseason charity golf event organized by your head coach seems like the safest thing in the world. But in 2003, Tennessee Titans All-Pro wide receiver Derrick Mason stepped up to a tee and ripped such a vicious divot he broke his hand. Per an ESPN.com report, Mason was extremely limited in the following minicamp, catching balls one-handed and sitting out team drills.

OK, so team-sanctioned offseason sports have a pretty high casualty rate. You could make an argument players shouldn't be participating in them.

But what about eating fondue?

MICHAEL CONROY/Associated Press

In June of 2002, Jacksonville Jaguars punter Chris Hanson and kicker Jaret Holmes were burned when a fondue pot flipped and scalded them. Hanson's wife, Kasey, suffered the worst of it, per Bart Hubbuch's Florida Times-Union story, with second- and third-degree burns that required skin grafts.

Hanson received minor burns to his hands and wrists that healed up quickly—but if he'd been hurt as badly as his wife, he might have missed significant time.

There are other famous offseason oopsies, from Brandon Marshall's family roughhousing to Joseph Fauria's naughty puppy. Even the most mundane elements of our lives are fraught with risk, from driving a car to owning a pool. Sometimes, the odds—and the fates—are cruel.

In 1993, Detroit Lions guard Eric Andolsek was doing yard work when a flatbed truck driver careened off the road and struck him dead. As Bill Plaschke's Los Angeles Times article describes, the freak, tragic accident took away the life of a beloved young man. The fact that he was a big, strong, promising, young NFL lineman had nothing to do with it; he was just a human being doing the right thing at the wrong time.

The Dolphins shouldn't be excoriated for putting together a team-building exercise that ended up hurting the team. NFL players are human beings—young, healthy, active human beings who love to play and compete. You can't swaddle them in bubble wrap for six months.

Fans, coaches, executives and owners of every NFL team want their players healthy and available for every snap of work during the offseason or in season. But if you don't let them be their vibrant, active selves away from the field, they may become disgruntled employees on it. If the price the Detroit Lions have to pay for having a second-team All-Pro linebacker from May of one year to January of another is him going wing-walking in March, so be it.

Of course, players can get hurt doing nothing but their job. We got stunning reminders of that with season-ending OTA injuries of veteran Denver Broncos left tackle Ryan Clady and rookie Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Dante Fowler.

Broadly, injuries like these are no more preventable than their extracurricular counterparts. There's an argument to be made, though, that the Jaguars opening rookie minicamp with full-speed 11-on-11 sessions were taking a bigger risk than the Dolphins were by letting a kicker play kickball.

Maybe this injury won't affect Sturgis at all—after all, kickers don't do much at OTAs that they can't do any other time. Whether it's a total nonstory at the end of the season, or Sturgis' replacement misses a kick that would have clinched a playoff berth, the Dolphins shouldn't take heat for trying to build playful camaraderie on a team still recovering from the worst locker room blowup in recent history.

If there's anything the franchise should have learned from the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin saga, it's that football players are people, too.


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