Thursday, January 27, 2011

shameless promotion (2.0): Jan. 27, 2011

Editor's note: In the ongoing attempt of this blog to promote its primary author's failing career as a writer, here is this week's column from the St. Clair Times. As always, feel free to leave your own thoughts here, or find me on Twitter. We thank you in advance for your feigning of interest.
Thoughts on athletes and 'toughness'

While in college, I experienced problems with my shoulder: it burned, would sub-lux (the medical term for “pop out of place sometimes”) and generally served to annoy.

Because my mother made me (and because the shoulder once caused me to cry while moving a relatively light cardboard box), I visited an orthopedist who ordered an MRI on the faulty joint.

(Quick sidebar on this particular orthopedic doctor: In my lifetime, he has checked multiple broken bones, a knee ligament and this shoulder on me, stress fractures on my brother and multiple knee issues with my other brother. Mom used to joke that we bought the guy a summerhouse. At least I think it was a joke.)

Anyway, eventually I had to have surgery to repair a torn labrum. People would repeatedly ask, “What did you do to hurt your shoulder?”

“Um, I slammed into a large man wearing shoulder pads repeatedly. In high school.”

And they would marvel at me for carrying around a torn labrum three years. It made me “tough,” I suppose. And there’s nothing more important to someone who plays sports than being tough.

Being an Alabama fan, I was raised on stories about the great Paul Bryant, still the greatest coach in the history of football (and I won’t argue about this). Bryant, of course, had a career founded entirely on an aura of toughness. He earned his nickname wrestling an actual bear, played in college on a broken leg (“It was just a little bone,” he said years later) and conducted practices as a coach that seemed sadistically designed to kill ordinary people.

Even in 2011, as we learn more about the human body and its limits, we continue to debate the concept of toughness.

During Sunday’s NFL semifinal between the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers, Bear quarterback (and Vanderbilt alumnus) Jay Cutler played poorly for a half, then limped to the locker room with an apparent knee injury. When the team took the field for the second half, Cutler emerged from the locker room but did not take the field, instead (apparently) sulking on the sidelines, done for the day. The Bears eventually lost 21-14.

The outcry from everywhere — the media, the blogosphere, even fellow players (current and former) — was as immediate as it was bloodthirsty. “He’s GOT to gut that out!!!” they said in unison. “Does he not have any TOUGHNESS??”

Injured or not — Cutler was diagnosed Monday with a sprained medial collateral ligament — the quarterback was expected to soldier on with a championship on the line. Like Bryant did.

The legend of the tough-as-nails athlete is one that continues to endure in our culture, even as we lead, by all accounts, the most comfortable lifestyle in the history of the world.

Still, we like to think of the Boston Celtics’ Kevin McHale, who broke his foot in 1987, kept playing on it, broke it again, still kept playing and nearly helped win a championship that summer (the Celtics lost to Los Angeles in six games). Even now, he says he’d do it again.

Except that he could never do it again. In fact, McHale still walks with a limp nearly 30 years later; he did permanent structural damage to his feet by ignoring the pain in them during those playoffs.

It’s the part of the game, and of life, that we try to ignore in these discussions about “toughness” — when something hurts, it’s usually hurting because your body’s trying to tell you something’s wrong. And it wants you to stop before you hurt yourself even worse.

But, of course, that’s the athlete’s unending question: Is it worth ignoring agonizing pain (and the ability to walk like a normal person) for a chance to win a championship and be remembered forever?

(Actually, I don’t have a good answer for that one.)

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