Since taking over three games into his redshirt freshman season, Evan Mathis has been an iron man for the Tide. Last November's Hawaii game marked his 21st consecutive start, but successive stress fractures to first one leg and then the other have forced him to play in constant pain.
Each time the fractures were "fixed" through surgery by inserting a titanium rod into the bone. The second procedure was done last December. "The doctors say it's just a matter of time," Mathis said. "With this injury, after the rod is inserted the surgery itself heals quickly. But the bone has to heal on its own. The rod keeps it from cracking any worse."
Normal people treat broken legs differently, having the bones casted and then using crutches for months to relieve pressure on the bone and facilitate healing. But athletes--certainly not Mathis--are not normal.
The surgeries and metal rods made it possible for him not to miss any games, but little or nothing can be done about the pain. It will last as long as it lasts.
"(The continuing pain) could affect my game play a bit," Mathis acknowledged, "but I don't see myself sitting out. The problem right now is that the pain makes it real hard to work myself into the game shape I need to be in.
"But I don't see it affecting my playing (in the fall)."
Though Mathis may well be setting some kind of record in that regard, examples of athletes playing through pain in order to compete on game day are actually fairly common. But practice sessions and off-season workouts are another matter entirely. No one questions an athlete sitting out practice sessions with injury--especially in the off season.
During Alabama's 2003 spring drills, Mathis was often in so much pain that he couldn't make it to class without crutches. But he didn't miss a single practice.
"There was a lot of pain during the spring," he acknowledged. "I had tendinitis in both my legs from the two surgeries. That and on top of the stress fracture not being healed yet, there was a lot of pain in the spring.
"(After spring drills ended) I went through testing with the rest of the team, but I couldn't even warm up before running the 40 (yard dash) because it hurt so badly. I just clenched my teeth and did it."
Right about now you're probably wondering where courage ends and recklessness begins, but you'd have to know Evan personally to understand. From his point of view it's fairly simple. Right now at least, football is his life. And he simply isn't willing to put "his life" on hold.
Does the pain ever ease?
"At night I'll get to feeling real good sitting down watching TV, thinking I can run 10 miles. But when I get out there (on the practice field) the pain comes back. It's better. Back in the spring it hurt all day. Back then I had a hard time walking to class because it hurt so bad. So it's better. The leg doesn't swell as much. It doesn't hurt as much. I can get around fine.
"When I finish working out it'll start feeling good again, but then I get back out there and the pain returns."
Both the strength coaches and the Tide trainers know what's going on. And they also know Evan. Weight-room work is generally no problem, but running around in conditioning drills can be excruciating. When the squad goes outside to run, Mathis does as much as he can for as long as he can stand it, then he heads back indoors.
Mathis explained, "The coaches know what I can do and let me do as much as I can. I probably shouldn't be out there now doing any running. I probably should just stay on the exercise bike, but I'm trying to get back used to moving around. I'm trying to get in better shape for the season. I just can't stand being in here on the bike while everybody else is out there running. I try to get out there and do as much as I can. When it starts hurting, I stop."
He's not going to give in. No one need worry about that. But it's been so long since he's been healthy that the big tackle has almost forgotten what it's like to run without pain.
"It's frustrating," Mathis admitted. "I still get some pain from the first (surgery), and pain from the second one can get intense. It's probably the most frustrating thing I've ever dealt with. I'd give anything just to have 100 percent health. It would be nice to be able to run as fast as I could and do all I can do as an athlete."
Where would he rate his health right now?
"I'm working at less than 75 percent," Mathis replied. "I actually haven't been 100 percent in any game I've played at Alabama. It's hard to even remember back to when there was no pain. It's been over two and a half years since I've been pain free. Right when the left leg started to heal the right one decides to go out on me."
Fans have heard the stories about pain killers and novocaine, but none of that is an option for Mathis. Novocaine could actually be dangerous and end up masking a more serious injury. And pain pills might make his head swim a bit, but anything strong enough to take away the pain would also take away his ability to play.
"I learned to deal with the pain with the first (broken leg)," he explained. "You create a sense of urgency in your head. ‘The game is right there. I've got to make myself go play it.'"
With barely more than two weeks before fall camp begins, Mathis is worried about his conditioning. But missing practice sessions--much less an actual game--is not an option.
"I don't need to sit out," he said. "With me, life can't stop. It has to keep going."
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