There's no cure for league of pain


December 20, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

Big game today: Eagles and Redskins, a playoff berth at stake, a crowd hungry for bloodlust. It'll be rough. It'll be mean. And you'll be among the millions watching, right? You'll relax on the couch, eat a pretzel, cheer, boo, pray to the cultural icon that is professional football.

But you won't really understand what you're seeing. Sorry, it's just the truth. You can follow the score and the strategy and the bouncing ball, but no one can understand pro football watching on television. Or sitting in the stands.

You can't understand, even begin to understand, how violent it is. How shockingly, frighteningly violent.

If you could stand on the sidelines for just five minutes today at Veterans Stadium, or at any game, you'd never look at pro football the same way again.

That's what happened to me. Sent to cover my first NFL game a decade ago, I went down to the field for the last three minutes before going to the locker room. The force and speed and sound of the collisions was startling. There was moaning and vomiting. It was an unforgettable spectacle, barely recognizable as human.

A decade later, it's only gotten worse. The players are bigger, faster, stronger. The writer Roy Blount Jr. has referred to line play as resembling "cows falling off trucks." Players' helmets are the size of microwaves. Their bodies are colossal. Television doesn't do justice to the speed.

"It's rough in there," said Dr. Bill Howard, the head of the Union Memorial Sports Medicine Clinic, "and I don't think we've topped off. The line on the old Colts' championship teams averaged 240 pounds. Now it's 300. I think you'll see a line averaging 325 pounds one of these days.

"Can you imagine if your knee was hit by someone weighing 325 pounds?"

In every pro sport there are moments when the body is asked to perform beyond its natural limit. Ever see a pitcher's arm corkscrewed at the moment it delivers a curveball? But see, every play in a pro football game demands more than what a body naturally gives.

"The joints are where it's happening," Howard said. "Players get bigger, but their joints don't grow. Their joints aren't built to withstand such powerful collisions."

The result? Hundreds of injuries. More this year than ever before. Pro football is becoming as much a game of attrition as of blocking and tackling.

The 49ers and Cowboys are the best teams this year, but it's no coincidence that they've been almost free of injuries. The Redskins might also be at the top, but they've been decimated. And the difference is neither better conditioning nor better athletes. It's just luck. Just the randomness of a violent game. And that's no way to decide a title.

Now, in the wake of the Jets' Dennis Byrd's falling down and never getting up, a soul-searching question is being asked: If it is too much, what can be done?

Some suggestions:

* Get rid of artificial turf. Cleats getting stuck in the carpet are responsible for dozens of knee and ankle injuries every year. The seven domes in the league would present a dilemma, but they're going to grow grass in the Silverdome when the World Cup soccer tournament is played there in 1994. If it can be done for a couple of weeks, why not permanently?

* Redesign the helmet. That players are using it as a weapon is "a major problem," says CBS analyst Terry Bradshaw. It would seem that a lighter helmet made of synthetic material or mesh would not be beyond the capabilities of modern science. A pull-away face-mask would help limit neck injuries.

* Shorten the season. With five preseason and 16 regular-season games,even the bad teams are playing more than 20 now. This year's Super Bowl winner will play at least 24; Lombardi's Packers were playing their 20th in Super Bowl I. It's too much. Players get worn out and tired, and that's when they get hurt.

Would anyone care if the pointless preseason was just two games?

* Get even tougher on steroids, which help grow these abnormal bodies. "They're still being used," Howard said. "People just fTC know how to beat the test."

Unfortunately, all the changes in the world won't make too much difference. "It's a physical game and people are going to continue to get hurt," Howard said. "Players will keep getting bigger and faster. There's not a thing you can do about it."

Not a thing. And the breaks and sprains and tears and knockouts will continue to add up. It's a tough one. The game itself is compelling. Thrilling. We're desperate for a team here. But the best seat in the house is your couch, as far away as possible from the sound of bones crunching. Does that make sense?

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