There’s a big difference between being hurt and being injured. Hurt players deal with the pain, injured players go to the sidelines. The hurt factor in professional sports is 100%. Every player in every sport gets hurt. Some play through it, some don’t. Injured players don’t have any choice. The team doctors and the coaches take them out of the game.
Playing hurt varies from sport to sport, and even from position to position. Track athletes need a perfect set of circumstances to compete. Baseball pitchers are notorious for pulling themselves out after the slightest twinge. Jim Palmer, half-jokingly, once complained to Earl Weaver that the pressure on his brow from the bill of his cap was the worst part about being out there. Sandy Koufax and John Smoltz are the notable exceptions. Linebackers, offensive and defensive linemen play through all sorts of maladies. It’s almost a badge of courage to perform at something less than your best.
“I don’t understand injuries, I really don’t,” Tom Coughlin, Head Coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars said after Pro Bowl offensive lineman Leon Searcy was injured in practice.
“I understand they’re part of the game, but they don’t make any sense. There’s no rhyme or reason to them. They just happen.”
Coughlin’s right, they don’t make any sense. There’s not a chart that says X player will be OK if he performs this many sprints and takes this many reps in practice. They just happen, as if deemed by the gods.
Ever notice how players deal with another player’s injury during a game? If it’s serious they call for the training staff, walk around and survey the situation, get into a prayer circle and then go about their business. Because they have to. “That could be me,” is a thought that runs through a players mind, but they quickly dismiss the thought and move on. That guy’s gone, where’s his backup. Players don’t dwell on who’s not in the game; they concentrate on who is in the game. Mentally, injuries affect fans much more than they do players and coaches. Teams don’t sit around dealing with “what if?”
It is how players, coaches and teams react to injuries that set some apart from others. The St. Louis Rams lost their starting quarterback, Trent Green, to a knee injury in an exhibition game last year. One play and their big money, free agent quarterback acquisition was down for the season. Outsiders dismissed the Rams’ chances to compete inside their own division let alone throughout the league. Even the Rams’ players didn’t know where this team was going.
Luckily, Kurt Warner didn’t bat an eyelash. Warner came from nowhere, or worse from the Arena League to lead the team to a Super Bowl victory. And he was the MVP of the league and the game to boot. Without an injury to a starter, Warner never gets a chance.
Does that make any sense?
It does if you think there are guys out there with the talent to play at the highest levels but never get the chance. A bad relationship with a coach, a high draft pick in front of you, a bad play at the wrong time, or an injury that keeps your talent hidden, off display.
Coaches strut around saying they know where all the players are, they’ve scouted everybody, they’ve left no stone unturned. But the fact is, they don’t know where all the players are. They can’t possibly. There’s no measuring stick for desire, no way any coach can know how a player will perform under the most difficult of circumstances. So some player with a not so great 40 time, or the wrong height or weight for a certain position never gets the chance.
Warner basically walked in off the street and asked, “Can I play?” The Rams found out that he had the stuff, the magic to play at the highest level. How many other guys are out there stocking grocery shelves that could be playing professional sports? Many coaches would look down their noses and say, “none.” I contend there are a lot more than you would imagine.
Being close to a professional sports team teaches you that it’s not just the star players or even the starters who determine the team’s fate. It’s the entire roster, top to bottom. When one player goes down with an injury, another has to “step up” as the players like to say. Warner “stepped up” or rather “leapt up” at his chance to play.
The Miami Dolphins team of 1972 went undefeated by using their entire roster. The most glaring example was at quarterback where Earl Morrall “stepped up” when Bob Griese was injured. It was nothing new for Morrall; he did the same for the Colts whenever John Unitas couldn’t play.
The amount of money in the game available to players sometimes makes it difficult to see the difference between hurt and injured. A guaranteed contract also blurs the line. Those whose paycheck depends on their ability to play want to stay in the lineup for fear they’ll never return. Just ask Wally Pipp.