SI Vault
Bil Gilbert
November 28, 1966
A pro football dressing room resembles an emergency ward, yet, thanks to the trainer, men who cannot walk without wincing can sprint 90 yards for a touchdown
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November 28, 1966

If It Can Move, Then Tape It

A pro football dressing room resembles an emergency ward, yet, thanks to the trainer, men who cannot walk without wincing can sprint 90 yards for a touchdown

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With Joe Namath of the Jets it is, of course, the knee. Ditto Tucker Frederickson of the Giants. Miami's Rick Norton has a fractured jaw, and Green Bay's Paul Hornung has an aching shoulder. Milt Plum of Detroit, knee, out for season. Pat Fischer of St. Louis, knee, most of season. Et cetera, et cetera and so forth. Pro football is a game played by exceedingly large men who appear to be prime (almost as a stockman would use the word) physical specimens, but appearances are deceiving. Indeed, there are few other professional groups, sporting or otherwise, so many of whose members endure such poor health.

On any pro squad at any given time during the season there usually are several men who are totally unfit and half a dozen more who are partially incapacitated. The remaining players, though theoretically sound, normally will be given some sort of daily physical inspection and care. Additionally, there are few activities in which the physical condition of the participants is taken so seriously and is so widely discussed and analyzed.

To begin with, football fans, sports-writers and commentators fret considerably about the condition of Sunday's heroes. At least, this must be the assumption, since many Monday-through-Saturday pro football stories are essentially gussied-up sick-call reports that could be boiled down to "Carrowski will not [or will or may] be ready to play on Sunday." Then there are the theatrical men, horsemen, lawyers and others who own professional football teams, the coaches who coach them and the press agents and ticket men who sell them. In the fall of the year such folks become as solicitous about the health of a Carrowski as a mother hen for a single chick. All of which tends to create the pall of hypochondria that hangs over professional football. (By hypochondria I mean nothing nasty; only what the hot-off-the-press unabridged Random House Dictionary says the word means: "excessive worry or talk about health.")

The closer one gets to the player-victims (say, as close as a professional football clubhouse), the more medical the atmosphere becomes. Though it is crammed with huge, muscular men, a football locker room suggests in many ways an emergency ward of a hospital in a small town that has been struck by disaster. There is not a single professional who does not wear at least one strip of bandage (and many of them are wrapped like mummies) underneath his uniform. Furthermore, the gait, reactions and manner of many players are those of accident victims. Big, 250-pound-plus linemen who on Sunday will toss equally massive opponents about like Scots throwing cabers will wince when tapped gently on the back. An end who may in public sprint 50 yards with a touchdown pass will walk in private at a slow, stiff shuffle. A defensive back whose job it is to leap high in the air to intercept passes goes down a stairway like an octogenarian, holding onto the railings to keep the weight off his aching, brittle ankles. These young men are not putting on a cripple act for histrionic or neurotic reasons. They do indeed hurt and are accident victims, because football is a game of hurts and accidents.

"The truth is that pros are subpar physically," says one physician who long has been associated with professional football. "Football is not as dangerous a game as it once was, due principally to safer equipment, but it is not a healthy game. Appearances are deceiving. These boys are able to put on amazing performances on Sunday because during the rest of the week they get intensive care and physical therapy.

"When a pro gets turned down for military service you will hear a public outcry. But the service examiners know what they are doing. These boys can be treated and propped up so they can play 30 minutes a week of outstanding football, but many of them would collapse if they had to march eight hours without special medical attention. The Army needs normally sound men.

"I have considerable practice with retired pros, and as they get older you find just how unsound they are. They are pained, handicapped, even incapacitated by old injuries to muscles, ligaments or joints. There are weight problems for many of them. A good game weight is often overweight for normal activity. But when they leave the game they will tend to get heavier. This will affect the back, the heart, their general level of activity. This game does not promote good health in the short or long term, but then that is not the objective of professional football."

Not only do the players have a lot of legitimate occupational aches and pains but they seem to talk and think about them a lot more than, say, accountants think about headaches, carpenters about mashed thumbs or even writers about their ulcers. When, as they often do, one pro greets another with the question, "How's it going?" he does not mean it as a rhetorical conversation-opener. He is asking for and will get a clinical answer. "The swelling is down from yesterday," the second man will answer, referring to a damaged ankle, knee, hip, back, neck, wrist, elbow, shoulder or something else.

The pros as a rule are as knowledgeable and articulate about their own medical history as Edward Gibbon was about the affairs of ancient Rome. As, for example (to paraphrase broadly): "I had shin splints at the beginning of training camp. That was about the 12th. On the 14th I pulled slightly in the left calf. I couldn't scrimmage for three days. Just before the exhibition with the 49ers my hangnail flared up."

Within the professional football establishment is a small group of men who are directly and professionally concerned with how the players feel, how healthy they are and how healthy they can be made to be. These are the team trainers and their assistants. (Professional clubs also retain physicians who are on hand for games to deal with and diagnose field-of-action injuries and who are otherwise available for continuing medical treatment and consultation. However, after the muscles have popped, the blood has dried and the fractures have been set, it is the trainers whose day-to-day job it is to get the pieces of the football machine back in running order. Trainers do not train—they repair, rehabilitate, bend, prop and strap athletic bodies so that others, the coaches, can train them.)

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