A knee and a prayer

On the surface football seems about as secular a contest as one is likely to find in the world of sports, if not the world at large.

After all it is a violent, ego-driven endeavor played by athletes clad in
armor that are high on a cocktail of testosterone, adrenaline and Gatorade.
It is watched by bloodthirsty fans who are hungry for victory and have no
taste for defeat. It is broadcast by industries consumed with ratings and
motivated by the all mighty dollar. It is administered by hypocritical
organizations that lay down the law and control the purse strings.


Football players are modern day gladiators clashing in a vast collection of
conventional coliseums scattered across a country that?s more often compared
to Rome than any other civilization in world history. And as we all know,
Rome wasn?t exactly the cradle of Christianity although the practice of
crucifixion may be regarded as its catalyst.


None of this is intended to imply I don?t like football. To the contrary, it
is one of my true passions in life. I revere the big hitter like I cheer the
big hit. Like most observers, I really don?t want to see someone seriously
hurt, but I do enjoy seeing the opposition knocked senseless. And judging
from the reaction of the crowd at the Coliseum in Nashville last Saturday
when Rashad Baker separated a Wyoming receiver from his perception of
reality with a bodacious blow on the sidelines, I?m not alone. By the way,
I?ve since seen that slobber-knocker replayed on ESPN about 20 times and it
just keeps getting better.


There?s ample evidence you can love both God and football. For example:
Reggie White the renowned minister of defense and the Fellowship of
Christian Athletes which often convenes at midfield to commiserate after a
contest is concluded.


When a player sustains a head or neck injury and has to be carted off the
field, a solemn silence descends over the stadium and it?s common for
supporters of both teams to pray for his rapid recovery.


The only time the sport and the religion really conflict is when a Sunday
sermon runs into the opening kickoff of the NFL?s early slate of games. It?s
doubtful that happens often without parishioners changing affiliations to a
more football-friendly place of worship.


Many fans like to believe that God favors their team. Notre Dame has
Touchdown Jesus, the Dallas Cowboys left a hole in the roof of Texas Stadium
so that God could check out his favorite team and the Pittsburgh Steelers
began their Super Bowl roll of the 70s on the strength of Franco Harris?
Immaculate Reception.


Personally, I don?t think God has a favorite team. In fact, I seriously
doubt the Big Guy even favors football. For if he truly does like football,
he would have surely designed a better knee ? a leg joint that turns in more
than one direction. It?s a poorly engineered body part for a game where the
participants are flying in every direction on every play. Furthermore, there
is very little a player can do to protect it or to make its ligaments
stronger.


In fact, the harder an individual works to make himself bigger, faster and
more powerful, the more vulnerable the knee becomes because it has to carry
more weight on a frame that was made to carry less. The faster or quicker a
player becomes changing directions the more stress he places on the
ligament. The higher he jumps the less control he has on how he lands and
the more likely he is to injure a knee.


The injury suffered by Kevin Burnett last Saturday is an excellent case in
point. He jumped in anticipation of a pass and landed off center with bodies
flying around him. In that split second an entire year of building himself
into a physical force was wiped out. There was little need for an
examination to tell him just how serious it was, he knew in the instant he
landed.


Watching him on the field and later on UT?s sideline, he looked like a man
trying to shake himself from the clutches of a nightmare. His teammates
passed by to pay their respects and offer encouragement, but there are no
words that can undo one of the cruelest blows a football player can endure.
It meant his season was over though it had barely begun. It meant he would
join teammate Constantine Ritzmann ? whose season ended before it began by
torn knee ligaments ? as cheerleader on the sidelines. It meant his goals
were postponed and his career in potential jeopardy.


Fortunately, though little can be done to prevent knee injuries, modern
technology has made recovery more certain and retention of ability more
sure. It doesn?t happen without more hard work than most mere mortals could
even imagine and some times it doesn?t happen at all. For instance: former
UT running back Chuck Webb never really rediscovered the cutting ability
that made him one of the Vols greatest talents ever.


The list of great Tennessee players felled by torn knee ligaments reads like
a who?s who of Big Orange football. In the last two decades alone the Vols
lost three starting quarterbacks ? Allen Cockrell, Tony Robinson and Jerry
Colquitt ? to torn knee ligaments. Colquitt?s injury was particularly tragic
because it ended his career and occurred in the first series of the first
game of the season against UCLA, after he had waited four years for a chance
to start.


A football player?s career is short and far more are ended by knee injuries
than by old age.


Ultimately, we are left to accept that knees were better made for praying
than playing.


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