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Questioning the Toughness of Players like the Colts Sanders or Gonzalez is “Ignorant”

Dallas Clark on the sidelines prior to the Colts and Texans Week 9 match-up. (Darron Cummings | AP Photo)

Ross Tucker of ESPN wrote a story yesterday regarding an oft-discussed issue with injured NFL players, particularly ones who miss time more often than fans think they should.  His response is clear, questioning the toughness of NFL players because they suffer from injuries that hold them out of long stretches of football games, even multiple times, is ignorant.

Too often fans and a lot of writers in the media, particularly fan writers on blogs, will throw around labels like “injury prone” or say things like a player is not “tough enough” to play professional football.  These comments are almost always uninformed, lack depth, and are only written because those writing the comments are ignorant to the kinds of injuries players often suffer, the gravity of those injuries, and the difficulty of overcoming not only the pain but the rigorous rehabilitation processes that go along with them.

Generally speaking, if a player has made it to the NFL, he has already shown a great deal of toughness.  In fact, toughness may be a moot point.  Imagine making it through high school, college, and into professional competition in a game as physical and violent as football.  Doing so requires enough health, athletic ability, and hard work in weight rooms and in conditioning to survive eight years, in most cases, before a player even enters the NFL Draft.

An “injury prone” player would be extremely unlikely to be able to maintain the athletic and physical ability to compete at the world class level of NFL football players.  Even if a player managed to maintain the physical skills and athletic ability, it very likely that he would be drafted very low or not at all if he was unable to display his abilities on a football field regularly enough to impress NFL talent evaluators and management.

Players entering the NFL are in most cases boys amongst men.  The physical development and maturation of a male body is rarely complete by 21 or 22 years of age.  This is easy to spot.

During the fall semester of my second year in graduate school I noticed that the college football team was practicing on a field across from my building.  As I walked by the team, I was astonished.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a small guy, but the players on that field were kids.  I felt very confident that, even out of shape, I could step onto that field, put on some pads, and have my way fairly regularly (until I was too exhausted to continue) against the biggest of the offensive or defensive linemen.

This is not a testament in any way to my athletic ability.  I couldn’t stay on that field long enough to be useful.  I would burn out too fast.  Those players were in shape and collegiate athletes.  Still, they weren’t quite “ripe yet.”  I cannot imagine what it must be like for a 22-year-old offensive lineman to step onto the field across from a player like nose tackle Jamal Williams or defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth.  No offense, but winning the battle is not likely, and getting injured trying to play up to men like that is a recipe for injuries.

Even when these developmental hurdles are overcome by young NFL players, a new set of problems exists.  They are playing against bigger, stronger, faster athletes than they have at any time in their careers.  They are playing against men who get paid to be as strong and brutal carrying out their job as possible.

Consider Anthony Gonzalez’s two injuries this year.  The first is a high ankle sprain, which is one of the more common injuries that can occur, specifically for skill players like wide receivers, running backs, and defensive backs.  A lot of running occurs that places these players in “meat grinder” situations with bodies flying around and it is very easy and not entirely uncommon for legs, feet, and knees to get pinned in awkward positions while the player’s momentum carries his body at high velocity in another direction.  Add to this that Gonzalez just suffered a catastrophic knee injury and that when injuries like that occur the whole leg undergoes rest, rehabilitation, and starts to weaken from the top shape it was in prior to the injury, making recurrence of these kinds of issues even more likely.

Consider his second injury, which occurred as safety Bernard Pollard of the Houston Texans hit him late, as he was heading out of bounds, driving his knee directly into the turf, with all of his weight on top of it.  Knees, generally speaking, are very similar in structure and support.  To suggest that Gonzalez suffered the injury because he is “injury prone” or is not “tough” enough to play in the NFL is ridiculous.  What reason is there to have any greater confidence that if Reggie Wayne was the ball carrier on the exact same play, and his knee was driven into the ground in the exact same manner, under the exact same pressure, that he would not have the same injury?  The answer is, there is no reason to suggest that.

In the NFL, and professional sports as violent as football, suffering injuries or playing an injury free career (which never really happens) has almost everything to do with luck.  Sure, it’s possible that one man’s leg bone is thicker or denser in a way that would keep it from breaking when his teammate’s leg could not stand the same stress.  But in many cases, particularly when dealing with ligaments, cartilage, and even soft tissue injuries, the outcomes of similar impacts will be very close in terms of damage.

Some players may heal faster than others but this does not make them tougher or less prone to injury.  It could give them greater longevity and improved dependability after injuries occur, but rarely will it give them an advantage more notable.

Bob Sanders suffered his biceps tear on a play where his arm, by chance, got caught on Antoine Bethea’s moving legs.  This caused him to land with his entire body weight on his arm positioned in such a way that all of the pressure was placed on his biceps — it was stretched violently and suddenly.  When that happens, tendon or muscle tears are very likely or nearly guaranteed to happen.  That the injury occurred to Bob Sanders, a player who just returned from suffering a biceps tear is very frustrating.  But if Bethea and Sanders switched roles on the same play, there is absolutely nothing to guarantee that Bethea would not have suffered the same injury.

At no time is the insistence of some fans, or writers, on labeling players soft, injury prone, or not tough easier to tear apart than this season.  David Caldwell, Donye’ McCleskey, Jamie Silva, Melvin Bullitt, Brandon King, and Bob Sanders have all suffered injuries to tendons, ligaments, or muscles and they all play the same position.  Anthony Gonzalez, Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie, Taj Smith, and Sam Giguere have missed time or suffered injuries, and they all play wide receiver.  Joseph Addai, Donald Brown, Mike Hart, and Devin Moore have suffered injuries at running back.  Jarraud Powers, Jacob Lacey, Justin Tryon, Kelvin Hayden, Jordan Hemby, and Kevin Thomas have all suffered injuries and missed time at cornerback.  Tight ends Dallas Clark, Jacob Tamme, Tom Santi, and Brody Eldridge have all missed time at tight end.  Gary Brackett, Kavell Conner, Ramon Humber, and Clint Session have all suffered injures at linebacker.

What distinguishes these players from one another?  Which of them is tough and which of them is not?  Based on what, exactly?  How do we determine “proneness” to injury between these players?  Is Anthony Gonzalez more “prone” to the injury to his knee because he suffered a knee injury last year or is Taj Smith more “prone” to injury because any other receiver on the team could have gone through the same physical stress his body did and not gotten injured?

Face the facts.  The concept of toughness and proneness to injury is more often complete garbage than it is factual.  It sucks that some players get caught in piles more often than others do, when injuries occur.  It sucks when a player as talented as Anthony Gonzalez gets his kneecap driven into the turf out of bounds.  It sucks when Bob Sanders has his arm swept back at just the right moment to put intense strain on the muscles and ligaments in his arm.  I am just not convinced that any of these particular players get injured or miss time due to a predisposition to injury or a lack of toughness.

If fans or writers want to place these labels on players, I think it would be much more compelling to do some research and provide possible scientific, biological, or medical reasons for these labels than to simply suggest that if a player sits out the majority of two or three season in a row, he must be predisposed to injury or lacks NFL caliber toughness.