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.
“I started shaking on the ground,” he says. “My wife was trying to pick me up. I was in tears.”
Help came to get him back upstairs … to get another needle in a different spot on the spine. He won Defensive Player of the Year that season, believe it or not. Still tells Nick Saban that he won that award because of how little he practiced that year, keeping his body fresh from the daily ravages of the job.
“There was a period of a year and a half or two years when I couldn’t put my kids to bed,” he says. “My wife and I laugh about it. You have to bend down. I couldn’t with their weight. I would just hover. I would get as low as I could, and then drop them, and they’d bounce.”
He isn’t bragging, and he isn’t complaining. He wants to make sure you know that. He feels lucky and blessed to have done what he did. He is just answering questions matter-of-factly about the insanity of the world where he worked. It is a barbaric game, trying to be more of a man than the next man, putting your pain threshold against your muscled opponent’s, all of these competition-aholics colliding at an inhumane rate of speed.
So did he lie to the doctors?
Did he get in that player deli line outside the trainer’s room before the game to get that secret elixir, a Toradol shot in the butt that would lubricate and soothe away the aches for three hours despite its side effects (chest pains, headaches, nausea, bloody stool, coughing up blood, vomit that looks like coffee grounds)?
Did he think this was smart or healthy?
Did he care that it wasn’t smart or healthy?
Taylor was leg-whipped during a game once in Washington. Happens all the time. Common. He was sore and had a bruise, but the pregame Toradol and the postgame pain medicine and prescribed sleeping pills masked the suffering, so he went to dinner and thought he was fine. Until he couldn’t sleep. And the medication wore off. It was 2 a.m. He noticed that the only time his calf didn’t hurt is when he was walking around his house or standing. So he found a spot that gave him relief on a staircase and fell asleep standing up, leaning against the wall. But as soon as his leg would relax from the sleep, the pain would wake him up again. He called the team trainer and asked if he could take another Vicodin. The trainer said absolutely not. This need to kill the pain is what former No. 1 pick Keith McCants says started a pain-killer addiction that turned to street drugs when the money ran out … and led him to try to hang himself to break the cycle of pain.
The trainer rushed to Taylor’s house. Taylor thought he was overreacting. The trainer told him they were immediately going to the hospital. A test kit came out. Taylor’s blood pressure was so high that the doctors thought the test kit was faulty. Another test. Same crazy numbers. Doctors demanded immediate surgery. Taylor said absolutely not, that he wanted to call his wife and his agent and the famed Dr. James Andrews for a second opinion. Andrews also recommended surgery, and fast. Taylor said, fine, he’d fly out in owner Daniel Snyder’s private jet in the morning. Andrews said that was fine but that he’d have to cut off Taylor’s leg upon arrival. Taylor thought he was joking. Andrews wasn’t. Compartment syndrome. Muscle bleeds into the cavity, causing nerve damage. Two more hours, and Taylor would have had one fewer leg. Fans later sent him supportive notes about their own compartment syndrome, many of them in wheelchairs.
“I was mad because I had to sit out three weeks,” he says. “I was hot.”
He had seven to nine inches of nerve damage.
“The things we do,” he explains. “Players play. It is who we are. We always think we can overcome.”
Everything is lined up to get the unhealthy player back on the field — the desire of the player, the guy behind you willing to endure more for the paycheck, the urging of the coaches and teammates, the culture that mocks and eradicates the weak and the doctor whose job it is not necessarily to keep the player healthy but healthy enough to be valuable to the team, which isn’t the same thing at all. The doctor gives the player the diagnosis and the consequences on the sidelines with in-game injuries, without the benefit of an MRI, and then the player makes a choice with the information about whether to take a pain-masking shot. And the choice is always to play.
“Damn right,” Taylor says.
You never know if all those needles — and Taylor took a lot — produce more pain. Science has linked Toradol to plantar fasciitis (the aforementioned torn tendons in Taylor’s feet), so Taylor might have been taking one painkiller … that helped create a different pain … and thus required a different painkiller. That was certainly the case after his compartment syndrome. He developed a staph infection that required that catheter to run from armpit to heart with antibiotics. He’d hook himself up to it for a half-hour a day, like a car getting gas, letting the balls of medicine roll into his body. Then he concealed the catheter in tape under his arm so that an opponent wouldn’t know he was weak. Opponents will find your weakness, At the bottom of a fumble pile, a Buffalo Bills player once squeezed the hell out of Taylor’s Adam’s Apple to try and dislodge the football. Anything you read about the PICC line catheter (peripherally inserted central catheter) Taylor used will tell you to avoid swimming or weightlifting or anything that might get it dirty or sweaty. Taylor was playing with it in for weeks while colliding in the most violent of contact sports. Doctors told him it wasn’t a good idea to play with it in. He ignored them.
The training room? Taylor hated guys who “took up residency” there, calling them “soft.” His mentor, Dan Marino, has a quote up on one of the walls in there, something about how being in the training room doesn’t make you part of the team. Taylor was proud to learn that one of his own quotes has been put up in there, too: Be a player, not a patient. So even the one solitary place designated for healing in football, the one safe haven, is literally surrounded on all sides by walls of voices telling the player to get the hell out of here.
“Would I do it all again? I would,” Taylor says. “If I had to sleep on the steps standing up for 15 years, I would do it.”