In 1959 The University of Southern California Trojans were 8-0, with two games remaining, against UCLA and Notre Dame. The Saturday before, I had been kicked in the groin—actually, it was a more centralized shot than that, and my testicles were painfully swollen. By the following Wednesday, I had yet to practice. The head coach, Don Clark, came over to see me as I sat in a whirlpool tub of cool, swirling water, minutes after I had ingested an assortment of anti-inflammatory drugs. He inquired about the swelling, and I told him it was still present.
"If it's not improved by tomorrow, Ron, I want you to ask the doctor if he can drain it away."
My brain grew hot and a flash surged through my chest and stomach.
"Drain it? You mean with a needle?"
"Sure. I'm certain he can."
Whenever I think of that incident, my toes curl and I am swept by the same wave of revulsion I felt that day. As it turned out, the needle wasn't used, but if it had been, I know that it would have caused a mere atom of pain compared with that endured by football players each week that they play the game.
A football player's career can be measured in needles; each year the invasions of the body increase. Some syringes—long and straight, long and curved—pierce and probe, delivering pain maskers, inflammation reducers and agents of future death: steroids. Other needles are thicker and have a larger eye on the side; these are used to drain bloody fluid from swollen knees and other joints. The drainings raise the most sweat on your forehead and under your arms because, after the needle is inserted, long minutes pass as you watch the thin metal slide up and down, moving this way and that, while the glass syringe fills with your blood. And then you go through it again. And then again.
Killing the pain can be murder, too, because pain is delivered in order to ease other pain. The worst case I ever saw was in 1961, when I played for the San Diego Chargers and our quarterback, Jack Kemp, had a severely damaged shoulder joint. He could not practice during the week, but an hour and a half before each game he was given 18 injections of novocaine, lidocaine, Holy Cain, you name it, that left his shoulder pockmarked, top and side, front and back. That year the Army Reserve unit that Jack and I belonged to was activated during the Berlin crisis. The Army doctors examined and X-rayed Jack's shoulder, then rejected him. They did not want the medical responsibility for that mess. The Chargers had different marching orders: Win games. Civilian casualties were completely acceptable.
Nurses have the better touch with a needle. Doctors tend to be kind of clumsy. More than once I have heard one say, "Oops," as I felt the metal crack against cartilage; I later went numb in more places than I had expected.
Not long after a game, the sedated parts of a player begin their electric tingle back to life as dull aches grow fiercely. And, stupidly, you do not seriously consider requesting any shots for relief of that pain because the brain rejects voluntarily agreeing to additional pain. The pain that is with you, and coming, is yours; it can be handled. Why inflict more pain simply to stop what's already there? I once had a series of shots to deaden a nerve, or nerves (did anyone really know?), in my neck; when triggered by a blow to the head, the nerve sent a knifing current searing down my neck, across the trapezius muscle, through the shoulder and down my right arm, leaving that entire path dead and numb—yet the numb area rang with a throbbing ache. When the pain deadeners finally wore off, the ache throbbed so heavily that it seemed to be driven by its own heart located in the base of my skull.