In the second quarter of the Buffalo Bills' opening game this season, quarterback Drew Bledsoe stuffed the ball into running back Travis Henry's midsection just as New York Jets defensive tackle Josh Evans drove his helmet into Henry's thigh. The contact knocked the 220-pound Henry to his left, but he kept his legs churning and plunged into the line, where he caught a forearm just below his face mask from linebacker Sam Cowart. Henry seemed not to even notice that blow as he slipped past linebacker Marvin Jones with a shoulder fake, but not before Jones had clipped him on the hip. That gave safety Sam Games time to plant his helmet in Henry's rib cage, driving him into the turf, where the 244-pound Jones fell on top of him for good measure.
The final tally on Henry's few seconds of work: one carry, three yards and six jolting blows to the body. It was a typically brutal slice of life for an NFL running back—the kind of assault that makes it the most physically punishing position on the field. As Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith closed in on Walter Payton's career rushing record, his fellow backs marveled not just at the yards he has accumulated but also at the 13 years and nearly 4,000 carries' worth of blows he has survived. "Take however many carries he's had, and then double it or triple it, at least," says Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis. "That's about how many shots he's taken. That's the amazing number."
Whether they are contact-seeking battering rams like Bettis or slippery change-of-direction artists like Marshall Faulk of the St. Louis Rams, all running backs absorb the kind of abuse usually reserved for guys who have missed one too many payments to their loan shark. "You get pounded," says San Francisco 49ers running backs coach Tom Rathman, who spent eight of his nine years in the NFL as a Niners fullback. "You get pounded on every play. You're either carrying the ball and routinely taking three or four hits, or you're being asked to block some lineman or linebacker who's probably got at least 20 pounds on you. Everybody in this league takes his share of hits, but I don't think anybody takes them more consistently than backs."
Quarterbacks and kickers have more rules protecting them than the bald eagle. Receivers running pass routes and the defensive backs who cover them get away contact-free on some plays. Linemen batter one another but usually from such close range that they don't have a full head of steam when they collide. Running backs get little relief from the rule book, and at the moment of impact with an opponent, one or both parties is often moving at high speed.
Not coincidentally, an NFL Players Association study that tracked rosters from 1987 through '96 found that the average career of a running back is 2.57 years, shorter than that of a player at any other position and nearly a full year shorter than the average for all NFL players. According to the report running backs have only a 6% likelihood of reaching their 10th year in the league. Among the 10 active running backs who have reached the 10-year mark, five are fullbacks and only two—Bettis and Smith—are their team's primary ballcarriers. Another feature back, the 49ers' Garrison Hearst, has also been in the league for a decade, but he missed two seasons because of a severe ankle injury and large chunks of two others with a torn left MCL.
It's far more common for running backs to go into early decline or retirement due to injury or the accumulation of blows. Gale Sayers played only 68 games before succumbing to knee injuries. Earl Campbell ran over defenders for six years and gained more than 1,300 yards in five of them before, at 29, his body seemed to suddenly lose its remarkable power. Two forgettable seasons later he retired. In 1998, at the age of 26, Jamal Anderson led the NFC in rushing while playing for the Atlanta Falcons, but four years and two torn ACLs later, he is out of football. The latest casualty is Terrell Davis of the Denver Broncos. After beginning his career with four phenomenal years, including a 2,008-yard rushing season in 1998, Davis played only 17 games over his next three years because of a series of knee, ankle and leg injuries, and in August he announced his retirement.
Running backs tend to age so quickly that even relatively young ones become suspect at the first sign of slippage. The Tennessee Titans' Eddie George gained 6,874 yards over his first five seasons, but when he averaged only 3.0 yards a carry last year while struggling with toe, ankle and knee injuries, speculation began that he was already past his prime. George, 29, pronounced himself fit when he arrived at training camp this summer, and although he has had back-to-back 100-yard games, he is averaging only 3.3 yards a carry as the Titans have stagered to a 3-4 start. For a running back there is no compensating for even a slight loss of speed or explosiveness the way there is at other skill positions. Quarterbacks can make up for a loss of mobility with shorter drops or a quicker release. Receivers can run more precise routes. But if a back can't hit a hole before it's plugged, all the wisdom and experience in the world won't help him.
"What's hard on backs is that losing just that little bit of speed or quickness makes all the difference," says Hearst, a two-time NFL Comeback Player of the Year, who rushed for 1,206 yards last season. "Sometimes guys might carry the ball a lot for two or three straight years, and that next year, even though they feel fine, the pounding has slowed them down just enough that they don't beat a guy one-on-one the way they used to, or they can't outrun the linebacker anymore. Suddenly they're not the same back."
The ability of some running backs to withstand punishment over a long career while others flame out early is still a mystery, but there is evidence that the compact back tends to have more staying power than the big bruiser. Smith (5'9", 216 pounds), who has missed only five games because of injuries in his 13-year career, and the Jets' Curtis Martin (5'11", 205), who has been sidelined for only five games in eight seasons, are both relatively small, strong backs. So were Payton (5'10", 202) and Barry Sanders (5'8", 203), who had played 10 years and was still at the top of his game when he abruptly retired before the 1999 season.
But regardless of size, the wise running back learns that there are two ways to increase his NFL life span—taking care of his body off the field and avoiding the full force of collisions on it. Even Bettis, who missed Pittsburgh's last five games in 2001 with a groin injury, swivels his 256-pound frame enough to diminish the impact of defender's blows. "I don't shy away from a lot of hits, but I shy away from hits I can't win," he says. "That's what people don't necessarily see. They see me run over one guy, but when there are two guys, they don't see me getting between them. I just try to be a little more elusive. I shield, I deflect blows. I go sideways. Longevity for big guys like me depends a lot on being able to slip away from that big, crunching blow."