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THE FACE OF PAIN
Mark Kram
March 08, 1976
The scream of Billy Cunningham as his knee tore and his season—perhaps even his career—ended, bespoke the savage hurt that can come with sport, the pangs and throbbing and enduring ache that athletes live with, scheme against and, at times, are beaten by. The irony is, fans seldom notice...
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March 08, 1976

The Face Of Pain

The scream of Billy Cunningham as his knee tore and his season—perhaps even his career—ended, bespoke the savage hurt that can come with sport, the pangs and throbbing and enduring ache that athletes live with, scheme against and, at times, are beaten by. The irony is, fans seldom notice...

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Like a bullet, the puck zipped toward Stan Mikita's eye. He tried to duck, turned his head, but the puck sliced his right ear almost in half, leaving the lobe dangling by a thread of flesh. He took 20 stitches.

The next day Mikita reported to the stadium. He did not intend to play, but then again.... He told the trainer to get a steel cup from a jockstrap, and they rigged up a protective device for the ear, attaching it to the helmet. He went to Coach Billy Reay .

"Billy," he said, "if I wear this thing, I think I can play tonight."

"I don't know. What if you get hit in the same place?"

"Well," said Mikita, "they can sew it up again."

JERRY WEST: There I was...holding two teeth in my hand.

The French call it peine, the Germans know it as Pein, and in Italian it is pena. Pain as a word is as common, as familiar, as elemental as existence itself. The word rolls over lips, passes before our eyes daily in print and endlessly marches into our ears. But unless it is broken down, described in repellent detail, it seems to convey nothing. It is not, for all the fear it triggers, a feeling word. The irony is that nations and ideologies are built on it and, most of all, the individual human being spends much of his lifetime suffering it or inflicting it, but as a simple word, there may be none more remote. Pain must live, it is a visual thing, a hearing thing. In those circumstances, none but the catatonic or moronic are not touched by the face of pain.

Consider a fighter's face, a dolorous example such as the rutted hemisphere of heavyweight Chuck Wepner. If it is reported that Wepner took 120 stitches in his face after a bout with Sonny Liston—bringing his career total close to 300—the response of readers or listeners is predictable. The number of stitches will be noted, but in an easy chair a stitch is a stitch is a stitch. An observation might also be made mentally that Mr. Wepner has an unfortunate calling. The stitches have become only a fact. Had the person in the easy chair been in the dressing room, or later at the hospital watched Wepner take all that catgut without any pain-killer, watched the long needle make its stinging passage, he might have turned his eyes away, or been caught in a swell of revulsion or nausea. Put him at ringside and his reaction is usually different; pain being given or taken mesmerizes. But that is just one contradiction of pain: it sickens yet fascinates.

After millions of years, pain is still a puzzle, a labyrinthine paradox. It is life. It is death. It is survival. "Despite our amazing technology," says Dr. Arthur S. Freese, internationally known in the field of pain, "we have yet to attain the stage of knowledge and understanding of pain that the Wright brothers had of powered flight when they first flew. We find new ways to relieve pain, but we still don't understand how we hurt or why." No two people mean the same thing when they say, "I know what pain is." They only agree that something hurts, and the human race has been hurting from the time early man looked upon pain as the work of hostile spirits, to the present when it has become a test of faith for the religious, a "passion of the soul" for the philosopher, a symptom for the physician.

How does an athlete look at pain, what does it mean to him, how does he live so constantly within its walls, is there a psychological link between athletes and the crazed Marquis de Sade (sadism), or Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (masochism)? Look into an athletic training room, the little room where the ego thrashes furiously against the villain of pain, and there you will see why the athlete is paid so much, why he remains special despite the often proper cynicism that now accompanies him in these, his salad days. Loneliness, desperation, frustration—all ordinary emotions—are trebled in a training room. They cannot always be seen, sometimes only sensed, as the athlete confronts that most unordinary equation: pain and play.

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