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This is about football, about a part of football that happens to every team on every level. Recently I watched Jim Plunkett go down with an injury that required surgery, and then listened as another Patriot player was asked about it. "It's part of the game," he said. "You know? You can't worry about going down. It's part of the game."
I used to coach some football. Football coaches become inured to players getting hurt, even though the coaches are as vulnerable to injuries as the players. After all, it can mean coaches' jobs and coaches' careers. When I coached, I waved aside images of players going under the knife. I had to. But now, when a player lies on the ground I go get a hot dog, or turn away from the television set for one or two or three minutes, and try not to think about the one boy I saw get really hurt. I'm not a coach anymore and I do think about it.
I went down myself as a player; pain shot up my leg and I was wincing instead of running. My recovery progressed slowly. I believed the coaches all thought I was dogging it, but, damn it, I wasn't. At first the sideways glances the coaches shot at me made me feel guilty, but later I grew so angry that I decided never to play again.
The next season found me in the stands, but watching gnawed and gnawed at me. Not so much the not playing. It was more that I felt like a quitter, which is far worse than being just a loser. That feeling continued to haunt me after graduation until I scrapped my Ivy League degree and graduate-school fellowship and nascent doctoral dissertation to coach a high school team. Of course, I swore always to give a player the benefit of the doubt on any injury.
Like every other high school coach, when a boy went down I would run onto the field and order players to move back and ask, "Where's it hurt?" and hope someone who actually knew something about injuries would come out on the field. Quick.
During one game at a private school in the South the smallest player on the field, one of those fast, tough kids you always see in high school athletics, the kind of kid you love, went down. Out cold. I ran out there with a doctor. The boy was not badly hurt, the doctor said, and could even return to the game, so after he rested I sent him back in. We needed him in there. In the locker room after the game the boy collapsed. Unconscious, his eyes glassy, sweating profusely. I raced out to find the doctor. While waiting for the ambulance—the one at the game had left already—I slammed my fist against the lockers and shouted, "That doctor said he could play! Where's that doctor?" I felt guilt and wanted to transfer that guilt to him; I felt hate and wanted to kill him. The boy, as it turned out, was fine and later in the season even played again.
I was successful in high school, then coached club football at a small college and then became a coaching aide at a major college. National ranking. Television. An 80,000-seat stadium. Fantasyland for someone who didn't even play three years of Ivy League football. But it wasn't the sauna in the locker room or the giant stadium that struck me as so different. It was the zippers. So many athletes had zippers down the side of their knee, or knees; they thought nothing of it and called this or that a "Band-Aid" operation. I just kept looking at where the knife had cut and shaking my head. There were so many.
In college the coaches don't deal directly with injuries. There are trainers for that. In college the coaches receive injury reports and worry about them. "Oh, Christ," they mutter when someone lies a little too long on the ground. "Get up. You're not hurt. Damn it, don't be hurt."
"It's not too bad," the trainer says. "Have to cut sometime, but not right now. You never know. He might make it through the whole season."
When the season ends, college teams check into the hospital for surgery those injured players who did make it through the year. The sooner the better for all concerned. The players are as anxious as the coaches; spring practice is not that far away. It was funny; one freshman had made the varsity that more than half a million adults had paid to cheer. He was under 18 so the hospital put him in the kiddies' ward and decorated his walls with flappy-eared purple elephants. He did not take kindly to his surroundings.