I haven't visited Stanford since last winter, when I watched the Cardinal men's basketball team fend off Fresno State. Still, I'd bet a large Oasis pizza that the Arrillaga Family Sports Center training room is packed this week.
Stanford (3-3, 2-1 Pac-10) is halfway through its football season as it braces for Arizona (4-1, 2-0) on Saturday, and it's unlikely any Cardinal player is completely healthy. Injuries are an unfortunate reality in college football, and often a highly publicized one. Most Pac-10 fans know that Arizona State and USC might be without their starting quarterbacks Saturday when they meet in Los Angeles. But each week, thousands of players compete despite all manner of maladies, whether they're star gunslingers or anonymous special-teams cogs. And with six remaining chances to win at least three games and earn its first bowl bid since 2001, Stanford's ability to cope with attrition may be as pivotal as any aspect of its performance.
During my career as a Stanford offensive lineman, I dealt with back spasms, a chronically dislocated shoulder, MCL injuries to both knees, a broken rib, a grotesquely bruised quadriceps, a smashed nose and about 573 ankle sprains. I was lucky. I was able to play in 44 games, because most of my injuries were reduced to manageable nuisances via treatment, medication, ice, tape and protective contraptions. I saw many teammates play through unfathomable pain, and witnessed a few injuries that made football an afterthought. Cardinal safety Simba Hodari's career ended when he was knocked unconscious at Washington in 2001. He was fortunate. Tragically, Washington safety Curtis Williams was paralyzed during our 2000 contest at Stanford, and died from complications 18 months later.
Ironically, it is the utter acceptance of impending pain that keeps players from being afraid. Fear is the anticipation of potential perils, but there is no anxiety regarding injuries. Ailments are inevitable in football. Players don't fear they might get hurt; they know they will, and it's just a matter of when and how bad. It's a collective Catch-22: Players run and lift weights all year, trying to limit their susceptibility to injury, but that training only makes them bigger, stronger and faster, increasing the magnitude of their collisions and the gravity of the aftermath.
Run-stuffing nose tackle Andrew Currie was one of the most physically imposing teammates I had at Stanford, but even he wasn't bulletproof. "Playing with injuries, both serious and minor, just comes with the territory on either side of the trenches," Currie says. "Hand-to-hand combat is what defines the struggle, and throughout the course of a ballgame, something is going to break down. Those risks are mitigated by very high levels of strength training and conditioning, but fingers get stepped on, ribs get kicked, things get tweaked - all while playing conditions are not optimal around you. The necessity to play with certain levels of acceptable pain is often magnified at a place like Stanford, because depth and experience are often in short supply."
Checks and balances are my favorite facet of football. There is no move a nimble nose tackle can make that a salty center can't thwart; no complex coverage scheme a discerning quarterback can't decipher. Unfortunately, that justice also applies in the infirmary. No position group is immune to the injury bug. While linemen exchange constant close-range abuse, receivers navigate a minefield of heat-seeking defenders. Linebackers make "SportsCenter" by obliterating halfbacks, but they risk being trampled by offensive linemen in the process. Getting horse-collared on a fumble recovery in high school helped me empathize with running backs. Taking a helmet to the sternum on an interception return at USC gave me a whole new appreciation for tight ends going over the middle. But while big hits draw attention - often leading to fines and suspensions in the NFL - most injuries are unspectacular, involving any of the 21 players on the field who don't have the ball. Helmets and shoulder pads are designed to prevent catastrophic injuries caused by flush impact. But most contact is awkward, and big trees do fall hard.
I threw two cut blocks in college that caused injuries - to myself. The toppling of an Arizona State defensive tackle led to my broken rib in 2001. I must be a slow learner, because I suffered a mild concussion when I chopped down colossal Oregon defensive tackle Igor Olshansky a few weeks later. None of the injuries I sustained in college, and few of those I witnessed, were the result of malice. Even the tactics employed by notoriously dirty defenders - including the idiotic but popular fist to the helmet - never hurt. When I bullied the occasional blitzing linebacker, it was only to give him something to think about the next time he pursued my quarterback. When I separated a Washington State defender's shoulder in 2001, it was only because we inadvertently collided while chasing the ball, and I won the battle of the bulge.
The truth is, no one wants to see another player seriously injured, and concern is shown when someone is hurt, no matter what uniform he's wearing. A Texas safety throttled wide receiver Tafiti Uso in our 1999 game, only to wave for medical attention as soon as he saw Uso go still. A Washington player once barked for his teammate to hold me up after a short running play. I didn't understand the fuss until I watched the tape the next day and saw my knee inches from a pile of bodies. A few series after left guard Paul Weinacht exited our 2002 game with a season-ending knee injury, Arizona defensive tackle Young Thompson asked me if he was OK. I told him it was bad, and Thompson shook his head in sincere disappointment. After pummeling each other year after year, Thompson and I could only laugh and hug each other after our senior bout, knowing that each other's haymakers were the ultimate signs of respect.
The knowledge that on-field afflictions often linger well after football careers intensifies players' empathy for one another. My first steps each morning resonate through my hallway as if my floors are coated with bubble wrap. I'm not alone. During my brief sip of coffee with the San Francisco 49ers, I met a lineman who sold his two-story house because the stairs were more daunting than any NFL opponent. Modern medicine enables athletes to return from previously career-threatening injuries, but players rarely are the same, at least psychologically. Though I never thought about getting hurt while I played, I was all too aware of my existing injuries. Veteran players often alter their techniques after injuries, relying on guts and instincts in lieu of speed and strength. It's no wonder college players often peak as juniors, when they're at the peak of their learning curves, but not yet sliding down the slope of cumulative wear and tear.
According to Oakland Raiders linebacker and former Stanford star Jon Alston, some athletes are given more leeway than others when it comes to injuries. "Pain is a part of football, but it is a delicate, delicate subject," Alston says. "Depending on the perception surrounding the player, you're given some room to be hurt versus others for whom players and coaches have little patience. But in order to be a great player, you have to learn to deal with pain, and dealing means learning to ignore it - or take enough Advil to hide it." I always thought snacking on ibuprofen was the easy part. I didn't mind the occasional epidural or ankle injection, either. The worst part about being hurt was waiting - waiting for an X-ray to tell me if my ribs were broken or bruised, even though ice and missed playing time would be prescribed in either case; standing on the sidelines during practice and handing water to my teammates to feel vaguely useful.
The agony a player endures while watching his teammates battle without him renders physical pain a welcome alternative. "I remember in college, playing nine games with cartilage floating in my knee, tearing it up along the way," says Alston, who has a large lump on his right femur from the calcification of bone fragments spawned by a nasty quad contusion at Stanford. "By the end of the season, I couldn't walk up stairs on my right leg, but I had one of my best seasons and never missed a game. It proved to be an important decision, but at the time it was tough."
It is examples like Alston's that typically left me more impressed by my teammates' resolve to stay off the sidelines than anything they accomplished on the field. The same was true for my opponents. Before spending five seasons with the Raiders, DeLawrence Grant was a speedy defensive end at Oregon State. But when Grant was slow to drop into his stance during our 1999 contest, I knew something was up - then up it came, as he drenched the line of scrimmage with his pre-game meal. His apparent flu or food poisoning seemed legitimate enough, but it may have just been heady gamesmanship. After all, his risk of injury was dramatically reduced when none of us wanted to touch him.
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