Tough issues

THE LIFE OF KINGS

Snap judgments on heart are unfair

On playing through pain

April 19, 2008|By KEVIN VAN VALKENBURG

Steve McNair was tougher than a piece of cheap beef jerky.

Erik Bedard is as soft as wet Kleenex.

Who knows whether either of those statements is even remotely true, but they've become almost gospel to fans in our small part of the sports universe.

We admire the way McNair played through pain, gritting his teeth and dragging his bruised and battered body onto the field each Sunday. And we snickered with glee when we saw Bedard going on the disabled list (yet again) with an injury because it confirms our belief the Orioles made the right move in trading him.

One athlete was tough; the other was not.

Problem is, it's rarely that simple.

There are few statements more upsetting to an athlete than when someone - be it an owner, a coach, a fan or a journalist - questions his toughness, because you are essentially questioning his heart, his desire, the pride he has in himself to put in an honest day's work.

And there are few things more unfair.

Do professional athletes dog it? Certainly. Remember Pittsburgh outfielder Derek Bell, who in 2002 infamously told reporters he was about to commence "Operation Shutdown" if the Pirates made him compete for a job rather than risk injury? There are plenty of athletes like Bell; they just don't share his candor (or, one could argue, foolishness).

The problem is, it's a fairly bold judgment to make about someone when there is no way you can crawl inside his head and find out just how tough he really is or how much pain he's willing to endure.

People often say that, because professional athletes make millions of dollars, they should be willing to fight through just about anything.

After all, if factory workers can drag themselves to work every day for 30 years, the least an NFL linebacker can do is fight through a deep thigh bruise. Ronnie Lott, after all, once cut off the tip of his pinkie just in time for the NFL playoffs.

But there are consequences to such bravado.

We admire Brett Favre for his courage during his career, and lionize him for his consecutive-games streak, overlooking the fact it probably wouldn't have been possible without his addiction to Vicodin early in his career. Favre was able to overcome that addiction, but not every professional athlete is so lucky.

Don't think that the practice of questioning an athlete's toughness doesn't have a trickle-down effect, either. When I was 15 years old, I was a decent enough football player that I was invited to attend a summer football camp at Boise State with the varsity squad. I was thrilled, and willing to do practically anything to prove myself to the coach and the older players.

My first day of camp, I slammed into a defensive lineman, trying to throw a block to spring our star tailback, and felt an excruciating pain knife down my neck and shoulder. The trainers diagnosed it as a pinched nerve - a "stinger" in football parlance - and told me I could return to the field whenever I was ready.

Several days passed, and the pain didn't go away. Other players (and a few coaches) looked at me with barely concealed scorn. I was soft, they whispered. Clearly, I was not tough enough for varsity football.

It bothered me so much that, on the final day of camp, I suited up and played, anyway. I threw blocks and gritted my teeth, and did my best to earn their respect. If told I could make the pain go away by snipping off the tip of my pinkie, I might have considered it.

A few days later, I got home and went to a real doctor. He took an X-ray of my right shoulder and neck. As it turned out, my collarbone had been broken for a week.

Toughness counts, in sports and in life. There's no denying that. But the next time you want to call a professional athlete soft because he doesn't want to play through pain, say to yourself: Maybe he's really hurting. Besides, would I ask my son or daughter to do the same thing?

kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com

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