NFL is a game of hard knocks, and for most, the pain is worth it
The sport leaves a trail of past stars who are now damaged goods but the future is far away for those craving immediate glory
It’s not just a game of risks; it’s a life of risks. Everyone who competes at the highest levels of sports knows this. Everyone. For better or worse it’s what they sign up for and if they don’t make it then there are thousands, millions even, who are anxious to take their place in line. Millions salivating at the opportunity to reap the rewards of untold riches and endless adulation and millions willing to risk it all knowing that they could easily face a lifetime of debilitating and crippling pain. It really does not matter what the game is either. In places like South Korea, the epoch of E-gaming, teams of computer-addled warriors are succumbing to shoulder and neck injuries requiring extensive surgery.
The career of an E-gamer is essentially over by their mid-20s because of the continued damage done to their eyes from viewing graphics-heavy computer screens. However a life of impaired vision and limited mobility seems to be little deterrent considering the riches they might reap. Some analysts predict that in two years time E-sports will be as big as the NFL.
When and if that does happen perhaps it will inspire an endless series of articles on the physical toll gaming takes on its players. But, for now at least, the biggest target still remains the NFL, the ultimate risk-reward league.
It was no accident that in the week leading up to its showcase game, Super Bowl 50, a number of articles appeared detailing the horrendous condition of some of the games most legendary stars. Former Oakland Raiders quarterback and Super Bowl hero Kenny “Snake” Stabler passed away last July but before his death he made clear he would donate his brain to science.
Results of the autopsy came back this past week and confirmed that the 69-year-old Stabler had been suffering from severe brain damage brought on by a career of concussions. It was somewhat ironic considering that the quarterback is the most protected man on the field and not associated with hardcore physical play.
There have been a number of lineman and hard-hitting defensive players who have committed suicide over the years, in large part because of relentless depression brought on by brain damage. However, Stabler’s predicament seemed somewhat unique for his position and the NFL did what it could to play it down on the eve of their showpiece.
To celebrate Super Bowl 50 played on the home field of the San Francisco 49ers, the league had invited back the MVP’s from the previous 49 games and trotted them out one by one in a pre-game ceremony. More than a few were noticeably moving gingerly, the unmistakable toll of a career in a brutal game. It would have been next to impossible for the active players to not take note of it as well. Here you go boys, this is your future.
But it would solicit nothing more than a shrug from any of the players in the Super Bowl. Today would be about reward, not risk. Nothing other than winning a championship matters right now.
They may have had empathy for the plight of legends like Joe Montana, but not right now, not today. A three-time Super Bowl MVP who had led the 49ers to four championships, the loudest cheers of the day were naturally saved for Montana. The man known as Joe Cool was as clutch and smooth a quarterback as the game has known. But a scant two days before the Super Bowl, Montana revealed how his life is a physical disaster with painful and crippling arthritis in his hands, knee replacement, neck and elbow surgery and nerve fusion as well.
Montana claimed that when his wife and three kids go surfing and skiing, he is merely a spectator. “My whole family likes to live on the edge, so some of the things I regret that I can’t do with them,” he said. Again, Montana made a career of being elusive and yet the physical toll was inescapable.
The NFL is many things, most prominently unfailingly corporate and soulless to the core. However it is not now nor has it ever been a forced labour camp and every guy who plays the game knows it.
Down on the field, Carolina Panthers quarterback and league MVP Cam Newton was not having a good day as a swarming Denver Broncos defence led them to a 24-10 upset victory. Frustrated and petulant, he was hit hard and often which has been quite rare this season. Newton is a seemingly indestructible 26-year-old physical specimen, a towering and powerful force who routinely inflicts far more pain than he receives. Well, he does for now at least.