All people suffer in some form, whether from a finger caught in a door or a chronic, debilitating condition. But the athlete is different: at times he suffers almost unendurably—and still must play. Linebacker Tommy Nobis of Atlanta has played with broken hands, shoving and using them as if they were forged of steel; his teammate Paul Flatley, a wide receiver, caught hard-thrown balls with fractures near each wrist; Earl Monroe, of the Knicks, plays with an arthritic condition and at its worst was averaging 22 points; Muhammad Ali has fought most of his career with hands that ache and throb perpetually in the ring; Gene Fullmer and Carmen Basilio fought successfully, looking most of the time as if they had passed through a shredding machine.
"The pain threshold," says Dr. Robert Kerlan, sports' renowned orthopedist, "is high among superstars or high-level athletes. I think this is most true in the contact sports. I don't know if these athletes can accept more, but they definitely don't feel pain as much. Whether this is acceptance, or the way they're put together, we don't know. I think it has much to do with the way an athlete is put together. You have to have a high pain threshold to play football, hockey, definitely for boxing. In the more skilled sports the pain threshold might be a little lower, although basketball demands heavy contact, and there the level is high. When you try to compare thresholds of football and baseball players, it's not really fair. A football player can play with a broken hand. It's hard for a baseball player even to play with a blister on the end of his finger."
The extremes in types run from Gus Johnson, the former Bullet, and Jerry West, to the implacable Jim Brown. Johnson and West (10 broken noses for West) played their whole careers in pain. "West on one leg is better than most with two legs," the saying used to go. Talking of Brown, Dr. Vic Ippolito of Cleveland says, "No. 32 was impervious to pain. He missed only one part of a quarter in all the time he played. I don't think he was even in the training room for his first six years." A Jim Brown, a Jerry West, a John Unitas, these are extreme examples of players who insist on enduring. With other players there comes a time when the ego drops a few notches, when they start to think of how brittle they and their careers are, when the equation no longer seems workable, and then they slowly slide into that gray area peopled by hypochondriacs, malingerers and the "no-risk" takers.
To play at all, to compete at all against another body, to be physical to the highest pitch, is a risk few have to take as part of their daily employment. Football players now damage ligaments and cartilage in their knees to an extent unknown before; if they take a "spear," there is the possibility of a broken neck or paralysis from dislocated vertebrae. Tennis players can snap a tissue called the rotator cuff while serving too hard. A missed swing can chip an arm bone in a baseball batter, and an outfielder can break an arm by snapping a hard throw to home plate. Jockeys fall, and the results often are collapsed lungs. Fractures of heels and toes dog runners and ice skaters, while soccer players and hurdlers must contend with injuries to the pelvis. Skiers are prone to boot-top fractures. As if pain were an old enemy, athletes scheme against it, use it, or get beaten by it throughout their days.
Take the cases of Merlin Olsen, the great tackle of the Rams, and Taz Anderson, a former tight end with the Cardinals and Falcons. Pain to Olsen is "minor"—even when it keeps him awake at night. But Anderson seems to be locked in an awful struggle, a constant self-interrogation of whether or not it was worth it. Anderson is 36, and he estimates he has had 10 operations on his knees, his feet and toes. He cannot remember precisely. "And I'm not finished," he says. "I am just buying time hoping medical science will come up with something to help. I've been told by doctors I'll be in a wheelchair by the time I'm 55. I can still see my doctor looking at my X rays and shaking his head." Before reporting to the Cardinals as a rookie in 1961, Anderson had cartilage removed from a knee, but he says he entered pro football "in the best shape of my life."
Starting with his third game in 1963, Anderson's pain has been relentless. "I went over the middle to catch a pass," he says, "and the safety's headgear hit my right knee. It felt like nothing I could ever explain. The pain was like what it must feel to have your leg amputated. It was just like somebody had cut my leg off at the knee. I tried to play the next games with cortisone and Novocain and had the knee drained. But then one day I collapsed getting out of bed." His career ended in the middle of the 1967 season when he was with the Falcons. "While trying to play with one bad leg, I messed up the other," he says. "I couldn't begin to give the sequence of operations. Just too many. I've had a tendon reattached in my left foot. Because of favoring my right side so much, the tendon came away from my arch. I've had bone chips taken from my left ankle, and even a joint in my second toe has been removed. I've had tendons on my toes cut and lengthened. Last year, eight years after I left the game, I had to have my left knee operated on twice."
Anderson says his knees hurt constantly. He takes 12 Excedrin a day, and he is always stiff and sore, and when cool, rainy days come he says he nearly goes out of his mind. "Besides the pain, I have had to lose time from work for operations," he says. "Then there is the cost of treatment, and even the fluoroscope exams hurt so much. They blow your knee up with air, then force the dye into it. There's just no way a knee can stand that cutting and repair work. It doesn't have a zipper on it.
"I don't know why I continued to play for so long. I don't know if I would go through it again. I know one thing. I wouldn't want my son to play pro ball. I guess I must have had my knees injected and drained 70 times after I got hurt. We'd be in a restaurant eating as a team, and they'd have me up on a table working on my knee, shooting it up. It got to the point where the shots started wearing off in the middle of the first quarter. I'd run one-legged the rest of the game. I couldn't even go out for warmups. I knew I had only so many steps. I didn't want to waste any. I was never forced to play hurt after my first serious injury. I should have gotten out then, and maybe I'd be whole today.
"I was watching the Redskins on television one night last season. Larry Brown is pitiful. Somebody should tell him right now: 'Stop! Get out before it's too late.' Those guys who get hurt, the ones who aren't making those big salaries, should really consider if it's worth it. The way it is, I can hardly get around to sell real estate now. I go out and try to show customers property, and I've got to keep my mind on where I'm walking every minute. If the ground is the least bit uneven, I have a terrible time because I have to walk so stiff-legged."
Merlin Olsen has been under a surgeon's knife only once in his 14-year career. "I've only missed two games in all those years, and they were in my first two seasons," says Olsen. "I was kicked in the groin and had to spend a few days in the hospital. Pain is an interesting thing. The second injury that I had—a hyperextension—was when I got hit as I was trying to jump over an offensive center. A guard or a tackle dove and hit right on the kneecap of the leg that was planted. That drove the kneecap 12 to 14 inches straight back, which caused a massive trauma of the knee area. It seemed like I was in slow motion. I felt the tearing of the muscles. I felt blood vessels popping. I kept saying to myself, 'Get those damned cleats out, get those cleats out of the ground.' It didn't last as long as it takes to snap your finger, but that instant seemed like forever. Then I went to the ground, and I felt the most intense pain in my life."