As America’s most popular sport encounters a liability problem … as gladiator Junior Seau kills himself with a shotgun blast to the chest and leaves his damaged brain to study … as awareness and penalties increase around an NFL commissioner confronting the oxymoronic task of making a violent game safe … and as the rules change but the culture really doesn’t … we think we know this forever-growing monster we are cheering on Sundays. But we don’t. We have no earthly idea.
Dolphins legend Jason Taylor, for example, grew up right before our eyes, from a skinny Akron kid to a future Hall of Famer, his very public path out in front of those lights for 15 years. But take a look at what was happening in the dark. He was just a few blessed hours from having his leg amputated. He played games, plural, with a hidden and taped catheter running from his armpit to his heart. His calf was oozing blood for so many months, from September of one year to February of another, that he had to have the equivalent of a drain installed. This is a story of the private pain endured in pursuit of public glory, just one man’s broken body on a battlefield littered with thousands of them. As death and depression and dementia addle football’s mind, persuading some of the gladiators to kill themselves as a solution to end all the pain, and as the media finally shines a light on football’s concussed skull at the very iceberg-top of the problem, we begin the anatomy of Taylor’s story at the very bottom … with his feet.
He had torn tissues in the bottom of both of them. But he wanted to play. He always wanted to play. So he went to a private room inside the football stadium.
“Like a dungeon,” he says now. “One light bulb swaying back and forth. There was a damp, musty smell. It was like the basement in Pulp Fiction.”
The doctors handed him a towel. For his mouth. To keep him from biting his tongue. And to muffle his screaming.
“It is the worst ever,” he says. “By far. All the nerve endings in your feet.”
That wasn’t the ailment. No, that was the cure. A needle has to go in that foot, and there aren’t a lot of soft, friendly places for a big needle in a foot. That foot pain is there for a reason, of course. It is your body screaming to your brain for help. A warning. The needle mutes the screaming and the warning.
“The first shot is ridiculous,” Taylor says. “Ridiculously horrible. Excruciating.”
But the first shot to the foot wasn’t even the remedy. The first shot was just to numb the area … in preparation for the second shot, which was worse.
“You can’t kill the foot because then it is just a dead nub,” he says. “You’ve got to get the perfect mix [of anesthesia]. I was crying and screaming. I’m sweating just speaking about it now.”
How’d he play?
“I didn’t play well,” he says. “But I played better than my backup would have.”
He didn’t question these needles or this pain, didn’t question the dungeon or the doctors. Consequences were for other people, weaker ones. There was only one time Taylor questioned the worth of what he did for a living, while crying and curled up on the pavement of a parking lot outside his doctor’s office. It was the needle in the spine that made him wonder about the price of this game, but those questions were every bit as fleeting as the soothing provided by those epidurals. He didn’t practice much in 2006 because of a herniated disk in his back, and he needed the medicine pregnant women use for labor just to get to Sundays. Taylor’s wife was helping him down the stairs as he left the doctor’s office after one such epidural, but that wasn’t the bad part. His back locked up as he tried to get in the passenger seat of their car, making him crumble.