Olsen chooses to ignore pain, to adjust to it and then go on his way. "Man is an adaptable creature," he says, "and one finds out what you can or cannot do. It's like walking into a barnyard. The first thing you smell is manure. Stand there for about five minutes and you don't smell it anymore. The same thing is true of a knee. You hurt that knee. You're conscious of it. But then you start to play at a different level. You change your run a little bit. Or you drive off a different leg. Maybe you alter your stance."
Olsen says you have to battle pain week after week after week, that a player is placed on an emotional rack and the price is always there to be paid in full. "I remember that year after surgery on my knee," he says. "I had to have the fluid drained weekly. Finally, the membrane got so thick they almost had to drive the needle in with a hammer. I got to the point where I just said, 'Damn it, get the needle in there, and get that stuff out.' "
Olsen and Anderson cannot be directly compared. They are only case examples used to illustrate pain, to show how two men look at it and are affected by it: Anderson, long out of the game, suffering and somewhat confused, even slightly bitter but blaming no one; and Olsen, still playing, who looks upon pain as an interesting companion, as something which arouses his contempt and inexhaustible taste for pragmatism. Olsen seems to have the perfect attitude for his savage sport, a way of life that is pain more than most others, one that is best underlined by Eddie Block, the creative trainer of the Colts. " John Unitas was recovering from broken ribs in the championship game of 1958," Block recalls. "So we made a glorious protective device for him, and the thing weighed 9� pounds. It was made out of hammered aluminum. He wore it in that game, and afterward it was so bent the equipment manager pulled from the front and I put a knee in John's back and pulled from behind, just to get it somewhere near its original shape so that he could get it off." (Times change, needs don't. Last year the Colts wrapped the bruised ribs of their latest stellar quarterback, Bert Jones, in a three-pound plastic shield.)
The pain from injury is one thing, yet often not nearly as debilitating to athletes as operations and rehabilitation. Operations seem to take a lot out of them. "It's more of a mental thing," says Austin Carr, of the Cleveland Cavaliers. "And the exercise, weight lifting and all that other stuff after an operation is punishing." Angel Pitcher Bill Singer, who has undergone several operations, says, "The thought of going through another one is too much. The last one got to me. I don't think I want another. If it's a baseball injury that could cost me my career, I pass. I've had enough."
After an operation, the recovery process is tedious and costly to a player. "Most don't realize how tough it is," says Dr. Kerlan. "Not many ordinary people could meet the sacrifice. Take Wilt Chamberlain when he had knee surgery. Wilt lived in Bel Air, and my office was about 13 miles away. When Wilt was getting to the midpoint of his recovery he didn't drive to my office. He ran to my office. He ran 13 miles down here and then 13 miles back. He might jog a bit, or walk some, but mainly he ran that distance. That's a tremendous price. Then he would go down to the beach and run for miles in the heavy sand with heavy shoes on."
The bad knee is like the common cold in sports, and there the similarity ends, for a knee problem can reduce a career to cold ashes. This is the most feared injury in sports. "Have you ever had a tooth broken off so the nerve ends are exposed?" says Bob Lilly, who until recently played defensive tackle for Dallas. "If you have, then you know what a knee injury is like. It feels like there are four teeth broken off inside your knee." Ben Scotti, former defensive back for the Eagles and Redskins, used to say, "Bad knees? You wanna know about knees? They've busted more players than booze. Give an average player a couple of good knees and he can stay in this league forever." It is a frightful moment when the knee goes. Olsen heard that pop, and there was a strange feeling within him. Jerry West's ligaments ripped—much worse than a torn cartilage—in a game in March, 1971 and he remembers thinking his career was over instantly. With all his other ailments and injuries, this is the one that West cites when asked about pain, the hurt he recalls most vividly.
"A very frightening experience," says Dr. Kerlan, pointing out that a long stream of mental problems can be loosed.
The mind of an athlete? To some, it is the butt of fraternity-house humor. To others, it does not exist at all; he is purely arms and legs, a confluence of muscles that move with more speed, greater force than the rest of us; his body says everything that has to be known, speaks of what he is or is not. But attitude, will, desire are of the mind. Coaches frequently talk about such things, often knowing less about their source than the players themselves; how many careers have been ruined (mostly early) because a coach could not or would not try to understand a kid's head? The coach sees, understands what is in front of him: a block, a cut, a touch, a swing. The player thinks about his mind much more. Winning games, excellence, he knows, is first a matter of the mind. More troubled than ever before, more aware of the ravages of his sport, shot up and shot down with all sorts of drugs, the modern athlete often—and understandably—turns inward.
When they cannot play or practice, some players begin to feel like strangers. Their pain has become a barrier between them and the rest of the team. Once taken in the spirit of things, laughs suddenly seem to become pointed ridicule. The vacant remark becomes loaded with significance or accusation. The team has become an immense and quick eye, recording every trip the athlete makes to the training room, every nuance of his presence. Some of this, of course, is paranoia evolving out of an inner guilt of not contributing, but often the player is right in what he feels. Healthy players can be hostile, and coaches sometimes are cool to those who cannot perform; debilitating pain is a threat to their security—an enemy. Consider the experience of Rayfield Wright, the All-NFL tackle for the Dallas Cowboys.
In the 1973 season Wright suffered cartilage damage to his knee. A good example of a player who will not sit out for a variety of fears—sometimes their jobs, their egos, or the bullwhip of the organization—Wright played in pain the rest of '73 and then through all of 1974. Finally, the Cowboys concluded he needed an operation. "By this time," says Wright, "the cartilage was crushed into bits. If I had had the surgery when I was first injured, it would have been much simpler. They had to pick the stuff out with tweezers." Came 1975 training camp, and Wright was sure the knee was not ready, so he declined to do calisthenics or any of the rough work. "Suddenly," he says, "I began to feel the pressure. Word got to me they were wondering why I wasn't doing the drills, that I was taking it too easy on myself." Coach Tom Landry said there was concern that Wright was coming along too slowly. Wright said he would not do anything until the knee could take it, and he refused to play until the third exhibition game. His assessment of the situation was correct. He did not miss a down after that.