Wounded Pride

Be it a dislocated shoulder, sprain or even a broken leg, football players not only live with the pain, but they play with it, too.

Super Bowl Xxxv

Ravens vs. Giants

January 27, 2001|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

In a grotesquely uproarious scene in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," King Arthur slices off the Black Knight's left arm at the shoulder, and a flood of blood pours from the wound. Understandably, Arthur presumes the fight is over.

Not so fast, says the now one-armed Black Knight. " 'Tis but a scratch," he declares, ready to resume battle. "I've had worse."

NFL games often seem like that scene. In almost any game, announcers mention players manning their positions despite broken or dislocated limbs, cracked ribs, sprained ligaments or assorted other wreckage. So commonplace is this catalog of injuries in the average professional football game, that it barely registers with fans. Yet, imagine how such ailments (ailments?) would affect you in your life. Some of us would have trouble getting out of bed, let alone thinking of subjecting our bodies to more battering from a 340-pound behemoth like Tony Siragusa.

But, that's exactly what the New York Giants quick-silver running back Tiki Barber will be doing in tomorrow's Super Bowl. On Dec. 17th, Barber broke his left forearm against the Dallas Cowboys. Nonetheless, he has played every Giants game since.

Barber has said that after he was hurt, team doctors suggested he consider immediate surgery. But that would have ended his season, and Barber would have none of it.

"I fully understand the consequences," he told the New York Times as his team prepared for the playoffs, "but this is too important, and we're having too good a season."

So, as he has for the last month, Barber will play tomorrow with a fiberglass cast on his arm. The cast reduces - but does not eliminate - the risk of further injury. It will not protect him from pain when Siragusa comes to introduce himself.

Barber's willingness to play injured is not an exception among elite athletes. "If you can't play with pain, you can't play sports at this level," says Dr. Robert C. Cantu, a Massachusetts neurosurgeon and past president of the American College of Sports Medicine. "If you can't tolerate pain, you can't tolerate violent sports."

Playing with injuries has always been part of the culture of professional football. Remember Jack Youngblood? He's the Los Angeles Rams defensive end who played in the 1979 playoffs and Super Bowl with a broken leg. How is that even possible?

"Players get into a fugue state," says C.T. Moorman III, director of sports medicine at the University of Maryland Medical Center and head physician for the Ravens. "It's almost a primal state, where the guys can put things out of their minds. When you get to the playoffs, it really almost has to be a limb-threatening injury to keep them out of games."

What's changed dramatically since Youngblood's day is the speed with which players can recover from serious injuries and return to the lineup. Dramatic improvements in surgical techniques and rehabilitative methods have vastly reduced the amount of time athletes need to mend.

"We're like the space program for medical innovation," Moorman says.

For example, his clinic at Maryland has developed a way of injecting corticosteroids directly into hamstring injuries to accelerate healing. As a result, he says, "You haven't seen any Ravens player out for more than a week or two with a hamstring injury. It used to be a player with that kind of injury would be out a minimum of four to six weeks."

So, tomorrow, you can expect to see Ravens linebacker Cornell Brown ready to play despite the hamstring pull he suffered against the Raiders.

Arthroscopic surgery, far less invasive than full-scale operations of the past, also makes for much less time on injured reserve. And intensive rehabilitative treatment is now often seen as preferable to surgery for many injuries.

"It used to be with a sprain to medial collateral ligament [in the knee], we would operate, and that would be the end of the season," says Bradford Boone, an orthopedic surgeon and team physician for the University of Tulsa. "We now know that with aggressive treatment, the ligament does better if we don't operate. They return faster and with a better knee."

Whether a player can compete, of course, depends on the type of injury as well as the position he plays. In virtually every game, linemen play with broken or dislocated fingers. But when St. Louis quarterback Kurt Warner injured his finger this year, he couldn't grip the ball to throw it and was sidelined until he healed.

Similarly, the Rams' star running back, Marshall Faulk, was not able to make the quick cuts normal for him because of a cartilage tear in his knee. He underwent mid-season surgery and two weeks later was back in the lineup.

Whether a player should play through their injuries often depends on the stakes at the time. Obviously, players are more willing to miss mid-season games than playoff contests. As the stakes increase, so do the risks.

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