Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Your Life After Playing Football

So, you want to be a football player, eh? Maybe you want your son to play. Then you need to read this story, written in 1992 by Robert Carmichael, an Emmy Award-winning and Academy Award-nominated filmmaker. Carmichael grew up playing football and eventually earned a scholarship to Colorado. Then his world was shattered by a knee injury that ended his playing career. "The moment I lost my knee to the game I was forced to examine who I was and what I wanted from life. ... No longer a football player, I had to adjust to a normal life. Suddenly there were no tutors giving me answers to tests, no doors automatically opening. After a lifetime of special privileges, real life came as a shock." It's a gripping piece, as Carmichael recounts a 25-year reunion of the 1967 Bluebonnet Bowl team, which was honored at halftime of a game. "They wanted us to run out onto the field. I used to love to run, but I gave it up when I was 33 because it aggravated the arthritis in my knee. As we trotted out to midfield, I wondered if it was as hard on the others as it was for me." The Wiz was fortunate enough to get a copy of this piece, which ran in the L.A. Times, and you can read it by clicking on comments below this post.

1 comment:

dawizofodds said...

Wednesday January 1, 1992

Is the Price Too High?

Payment for Playing Football Can Be Debilitating Injuries, Lingering Physical Problems

By Robert Carmichael
Special to The Times

Robert Carmichael is an Emmy Award-winning and Academy Award-nominated filmmaker, specializing in action commercials and feature second units. He played in the annual North-South Shrine high school all-star game. He attended the University of Colorado on a football scholarship

My old freshman football coach was thick, his skin waxy. He was propped up by a pair of forearm crutches, and it was obviously painful for him to be standing. He was crippled. It was whispered to me that he'd had a hip replacement.

He was one of the toughest coaches I'd ever had. He recruited me to the University of Colorado. Like all my coaches, he had represented an unassailable authority.

I started playing organized football in third grade in Texas. It was serious business. We traveled to play in Pop Warner bowls in Pennsylvania and Oklahoma before I was 11.

My father had been an athlete, and it was through sports that I won his approval and made him proud of me. It was our only common ground.

Through football I established my identity and self-esteem. I didn't understand until I was much older how much I was motivated by having the attention and approval of a coach. I craved that attention, and you got it by playing hard and winning. I never questioned the coach. I was like most of the other players.

Twenty-three years later, the coach was a broken-down old man.

But no one in the banquet room mentioned his pain. Instead of bringing the microphone to his seat, they made him come up to the podium. There was dead silence in the room as the other former ballplayers witnessed his agony as he struggled to the microphone.

I whispered to a former teammate, "God, this is like something out of a play."

He countered, "This is real, Bobby. This is life, the real thing."

It was terrifying and sad and, yes, very real. I think more than one of us in that room wondered if we, too, would end up like the old coach. Like him, we had played a lot of football.

The men in the room were middle-aged former University of Colorado players, the Bluebonnet Bowl champions of 1967. We were almost a quarter of a century removed from being teammates.

I can vividly remember running onto Folsom Field as a 20-year-old sophomore defensive back. The roar of the crowd and the rush of my own adrenaline made it an unbelievable thrill. I felt lightning-fast and sky-high on emotion.

As a second-string defensive back, I was on the kickoff team and I'd run down there wild-eyed, eager to knock someone's block off. I used to dream of sensational open-field tackles. I can honestly say that I have never felt anything quite like the rush of the game.

It had a momentum all its own. Despite injuries to the players, it just kept on rolling. If you got hurt, you were suddenly ostracized. You had to be on the team, on the field, sharing the good and bad.

You quickly learned to "differentiate between pain and injury." There was no way off the team but serious injury. If you couldn't "go," the coaches made you wear a red-cross jersey that humiliated you in front of your teammates. It was not OK to be hurt.

My freshman year, the trainer handed out salt tablets and Band-Aids to put on our injuries. It was not a joke. Over the hydrotherapy tanks there were signs that read, "You can't make the club in the tub."

Injured players were avoided because they were casualties, instant outsiders. It was taboo to be hurt. You didn't like to be reminded that you could be hurt, too.

When I arrived as a freshman at Colorado, I was shocked at the toughness of the players on the freshman team and awed by the varsity. I was afraid. Colorado had players who were mean and rough and, in some instances, psychologically disturbed.

They had drills to make us tougher, such as "Hit it, and get it." When the coach blew his whistle and yelled, "Hit it!" everyone hit the ground. And when he yelled, "Get it!" you turned to the man nearest you and fought him as hard as you could. No holds barred.

Another time, an assistant coach took us out and said, as he removed four front false teeth, that the next drill wouldn't end until someone drew a lot of blood.

They called these toughening drills.

I suffered lots of injuries during my 13-year playing career. I got a shoulder injury and a cracked sternum in freshman ball. In high school, I tore ligaments in my neck, tore the rotator cuff in my right shoulder and chronically pounded my right elbow. In junior high, I tore ligaments in my hip.

I still have all these injuries, or reminders of them, today.

I once thought seriously of giving up the game as I assessed the injuries I was accumulating, but I was too wrapped up in my identity as a ballplayer to imagine any other life. Moreover, I couldn't face the shame of being a quitter.

I did try once to quit, when my family moved across the country just as I was beginning 11th grade. But when I told my father, he created a scene and bullied and shamed me into continuing. He didn't want a coward for a son.

When I hear of people now who had the courage to quit, I respect them. Some other players on my freshmen team felt the same way. One guy threw himself down a flight of stairs to break his arm so he wouldn't have to play.

My response was to get tougher. As a basically repressed kid, I had a lot of rage in me. I loved to hit people. I nurtured a reputation as "a psycho." I played with abandon.

Even so, nine games into a promising sophomore season, playing behind a consensus All-American, I got it. In practice, in a freak accident. Everyone knows that if you play long enough, you can get it: the career-ending injury. Mine was to my knee, and it was a total reconstruction.

A fourth-string player didn't listen during a routine walk-through drill. Instead of taking it easy, he threw a block at my legs and caught my knee just right. I knew it was bad. I tried to crawl to him, to attack him for what he'd done. I screamed that I would kill him. I remember clutching the grass.

I was driven off the practice field on a small cart. I kept my helmet on in the training room because I didn't want the other players to see the tears in my eyes. An All-Big Eight cornerback came over and said, "I told you, you shouldn't practice so hard. You get hurt doing that."

I never played another day. It was the biggest disappointment of my 20-year-old life. I suddenly realized that life wasn't always going to be positive, and that tragedies were also part of living.

The team doctor told me he thought he had done a good job of putting my knee together, but he didn't want to think about ever trying to do it again. He advised me to give up football, but told me not to tell the coach what he had suggested.

He later quit as team doctor, saying he simply couldn't stomach the endless procession of injuries. I asked him 15 years later what was wrong now with all of the people he had operated on, and he said in a low voice, "Arthritis."

After my surgery, my knee was still painfully fragile, but I hobbled out on crutches to watch a spring scrimmage. As I peered through the fence and saw the velocity and intensity of that scrimmage, I knew I'd lost my killer instinct. It was like I'd never played.

The coach wanted me to stay on the team, work as a student-coach and then return the next year as a running back. He obviously had no idea about the extent of my injury. I don't think he wanted to know.

I was in a scrimmage once with a player who, after a year off for rehabilitation of a knee injury, came back and then got the other knee destroyed. I remember him writhing on the grass, screaming, "No! No! No!"

I was a skier, and I knew that I wanted to be able to walk away from the game. After a great deal of recrimination and wavering, I quit. Even so, I still wanted to play. Psychologically, it was a shattering experience. And 24 years later, I still have a recurring dream of the coach turning to me on the sideline and telling me to go into the game. I wake up because I have to tell him I can't do it.

I often wonder what would have happened if I hadn't been injured. How far would I have gone in football?

I was ultra-conservative, as most players were. But the moment I lost my knee to the game I was forced to examine who I was and what I wanted from life. In many ways it was a blessing in disguise. No longer a football player, I had to adjust to a normal life.

Suddenly there were no tutors giving me answers to tests, no doors automatically opening. After a lifetime of special privileges, real life came as a shock.

I painfully learned that the tough-guy approach that the game teaches doesn't translate very well to everyday life. It took years for the brutality and harshness of the game to drain from my psyche. In many ways, I still battle.

I have two children. My son is 12 and hates football. My injuries are personal to him and my daughter. I can't run with them, and I throw underhand to them. It is difficult for me to squat and play with them on their level. Football has taken a lot from them also.

You see former players in their 50s and 60s and can spot the signs of their playing days. Joint replacements are a major topic of conversation, because a replacement is the only way to deal with crippling arthritis. I see how wretched these guys are. I see how the injuries ruin their lives, and I know I'm headed in the same direction. I am not talking about being stiff in the morning. I'm talking about being crippled.

I was fortunate to be able to stay in college after quitting football. Then my first job was with NFL Films. There, I became even more aware of the terrifying injury toll the game exacts on its players.

I produced many films extolling the heroic deeds of NFL heroes, but after three years, I knew I couldn't do it anymore. All the glory was highlighted, but the darker side of the game was systematically hidden.

The great hits were shown, accompanied by triumphant music and overblown prose. The results of those hits were often grotesque injuries, and shots of those were stored in the vaults at NFL Films. I resigned, vowing that I would eventually produce a film that addressed this neglected point.

In 1982, I received a grant from the Public Broadcasting System to produce a documentary, "Football in America," warning kids about the violence and injuries of football. It won an Emmy, but it has not been seen much, perhaps because coaches think it is negative. Networks and sponsors sanitize the game and cover up the terrible injury toll of the sport. It simply would not sell if the human toll of the game was known.

My film was not negative, merely truthful. In it, a coach calls surgery scars "badges of honor." The sidelines at a UCLA game resemble a M.A.S.H. unit. A 21-year-old senior at Colorado wonders what the two scars on each of his shoulders will feel like in 10 years. A UCLA fifth-year senior, having had surgery on both knees, tells the camera, almost by rote, that he or any of his friends would gladly give a knee for the privilege of playing at UCLA.

Unfortunately, the film tells a truth that nobody wants to hear. Not the kids, who think they are invulnerable; or the coaches and broadcasters, who make their living from the game. The attitude seems to be, "There is always the next year's class to recruit from."

When is it ever time to think about last year's class and the long-term consequences of the injuries it suffered?

Last season, I heard John Madden spouting off about what a "real" football player is when describing Dan Hampton of the Chicago Bears. Madden kept referring to Hampton as a "real" football player because he'd had 10 knee operations to keep playing.

What kind of life is Hampton going to have with knees like those? What impression do children get from this sort of distorted idea about "real" football players?

During our reunion, as I stood waiting to take the field again during the halftime ceremonies, I was struck by the years that had passed so quickly. Twenty-three years had gone by so fast that it looked as if a special-effects crew had come out and aged us all.

That time span is important to understanding how small are the fractions of our lives spent playing football. There is so much more to life than those four or five years of college football.

When you are young, five years seems so long. But when you are 42, things come into sharper perspective. The men around me looked almost bewildered by suddenly being in the tunnel again. Now the faces of the men on the field weren't contorted by the pregame psych, and they weren't high on bennies. We were semi-gray and wrinkled middle-aged men.

How well I remember the real thing, though. Running out with Ralphie the buffalo leading the way, I used to feel unbeatable. The National Anthem to me was a calling card to kill.

All of us had seen the old players come back out on the field when we were players. Old guys. Now oddly, we were the old guys.

At halftime — only 30 of us had returned — we were taken down to the field house. They gave us jerseys with our numbers on them and alumni "C" caps to wear. They stripped us of our current identities and put us back on the team. It was very hurried and disorganized.

They wanted us to run out onto the field. I used to love to run, but I gave it up when I was 33 because it aggravated the arthritis in my knee. As we trotted out to midfield, I wondered if it was as hard on the others as it was for me.

For the reunion, we were the Bluebonnet Bowl team of 1967. We had beaten Nebraska at Lincoln. But for the folks in the stands, that was a dim memory. To them, we were mere curiosities, halftime entertainment, ancient history.

All of us had come back there to see old playing buddies and to relive, one more time, that feeling of taking the field of play. As they announced our names, we ran out slowly. It seemed to me that many of us were much older than we should have been. The head coach ran out with more spring in his step than many of his former players. I don't think he ever really knew about injuries because he never got seriously hurt.

I was struck by what had become of many of us. At the banquet that night, some of us talked about our injuries and how they affected our lives. The wives gave knowing looks about the price we paid to play the game. Many of them seemed bitter.

I thought about the old coach who hobbled up to the mike. I was 30 years younger than he, but I could clearly recognize the toll the game had taken on me and many of my teammates.

And what of the many who had not come back? How was the great wide receiver, who had had three shoulder operations? Where was my former roommate, who had quit because of a potentially paralyzing neck injury? Where is the end who had had operations on both knees?

How was "the Human Zipper?" He won his nickname with surgical scars on his lower back, both shoulders and at least one knee. What pain is he living with today?

Why weren't they here?

The great quarterback was there, but I know that he had ankle surgery and a least a couple of knee operations. He had had the best developed body of anyone I'd ever seen. And yet, the game had torn up his body, too.

Most of us at the reunion had some injury to report. Yet never once was this mentioned. It was football.

We had all been good-to-great athletes. Tragically, many of us had played out our athletic abilities far too young. We had used our bodies as weapons, and we were paying dearly for it.

While visiting Boulder, I saw the committed athletes in town. Men and women who hadn't abused their bodies in a contact sport were actively pursuing all the wonderful lifelong sports of cycling, mountain biking, running, climbing, skiing. Staying fit throughout life.

It was only after football that I truly learned about individual sports. I have been a rock climber for more than 24 years and am a devoted cyclist, but my injuries are a daily reminder of football. I often wish I only had to worry about normal aging instead of the compounding of pains that are associated with chronic injuries.

We gave ourselves to the orthopedic surgeons. They assured us that they would repair us, make us better. The team of 1967 had 14 knee operations alone. How many of those knees have been operated on again?

The terrible truth is that you pay a daily toll, long after the crowds and coaches are gone. I've had arthroscopic surgery once since my college operation and am sure I'll need it again. My knee is in constant pain, and I have to keep up exercises to maintain it. I'm worried about where it is leading. It hurts to stand. It hurts when I walk downhill.

The doctors and coaches don't talk much about arthritis, lifelong suffering and joint replacements to young men. When you are young, it is very intimidating to question your coaches and doctors. The trouble is they don't have your lifelong interest in mind. It's strictly for next season and the short term.

When you graduate, that's it. You pay your own medical and physical therapy bills. You are accountable for your own physical disability. You, and the people you love, live with your pain and infirmity.

Football doesn't build as much character as the coaches would have you believe. If anything, it builds an emotional wall around you to keep your feelings to yourself. It teaches you to tough it out.

Real life hasn't shown that to be a healthy approach for me. I had a lot of learning to do about people and life after I left the playing field.

I didn't get to talk seriously with many of the players at the reunion. I assume, though, that many of them rationalize their injuries as part of the game, part of the price they have paid. I simply don't believe any game should legitimize injury. I've come to look at sport as something that honors the human body, not something that destroys it.

I discovered rock climbing after I left football. Climbing is a dangerous sport, but it celebrates the body in that it requires you to stay lean, strong and mentally sharp. I've continued to climb at a high level, incorporating it into my profession as a director-cameraman for action commercials and features.

Having the kind of injuries I have demands that you stay lean and strong to combat the effects of arthritis. To this day I am an avid cyclist, weightlifter and swimmer. I stay in the best shape I can, because I know I can't afford to stop.

At the reunion, I sensed a feeling that we all knew the folly of what we had done. It was a feeling of being had.

No one admits to the long-range implications of the injuries we got. It certainly generates a great deal of money for the university. But the ballplayers never see any of that. Their reward is wrapped up in scholarships and pride.

When is there going to be a union of college football players to take care of medical, disability and professional fees?

That is why I am so bitter about football. It is a consuming sport that produces incredible highs, but fundamentally it is desensitizing and crippling. The body is simply not able to withstand the trauma of the game. Physicians earnestly put joints back together because of a game that is simply misguided and wrong.

Our offensive line averaged 240 pounds in 1967. Last year's line averaged nearly 285 pounds. Is everyone so stupid as to think that people have grown that big in just under a quarter of a century? Obviously, steroid use is widespread. All this is also done in the name of the game.

At the 1967 team reunion, I saw the faces of many men who silently understood just how much we had given to the university, our coaches and the game. Our seats during the game were at the top of the four-story press box. It took a long time to walk up those four flights.

I followed a fellow whose knee was completely locked. He was 42 and waiting for a knee replacement. It was depressing.

Way up in the top rows of the press box, we were so far away from the action and the crowds that it was almost like being sequestered. We looked way down on the stadium to the field.

New players, new artificial turf, new coaches, new students. A new generation making and taking the even more punishing hits of modern power "smashball."

As one obscure member of the class of 1967, I say to today's student-athletes, do not give too much to that game because it is a fickle friend, indeed. Today's heroics will fade rapidly in your future. There is a long, wonderful life to live after football days are over. Our bodies are the only things we are given, and to permanently damage them early in life is a tragedy. There is so much life to live after football, and having a good body to carry you through it is a blessing you may never understand unless you lose it.

I have an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon this week for an examination of my knee and elbow. I wonder if the athletic department would like to pay for it?