Playing Injured in the NFL

Y.A. Tittle is on his knees after a game, face bloodied. He was also suffering from broken ribs

Link to blog post

I was fortunate to get the opportunity to play in the NFL, but like most players, my career ended as a result of the injuries I sustained.

I can’t help but wonder how many players that were injured in Pop Warner, High School and College – and never got the chance to play in the NFL – could have been the next Andre Reed, Jim Kelly, Bruce Smith or Thurman Thomas.

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I wanted to be the next Paul Krause, or the next Dick “Night Train” Lane. Intercepting passes was my forte. I had 23 career interceptions in college and I wanted to be right up there with the all-time great defensive backs in the NFL.

I had some early success in the NFL, but I never had a chance to show what I could have done if I had played for a long time. In my very first game as a starter, we played the Minnesota Vikings. It was Paul Krause’s last season in the NFL. He’s a Hall of Famer that played 15 years and has the record for the most interceptions in a career with 81! The announcers for this 1979 game said I had a great future in the NFL.

When I picked off Terry Bradshaw in the last game of my rookie season the announcers said “This kid’s gonna be in the NFL a long time” They said the same thing in 1980 when I was leading the National Football League in interceptions with 5 picks in the first 4 games.

As I soon found out, the NFL also stands for “Not For Long” and in the 5th game of my second season, I injured my knee in a game against the San Diego Chargers – an injury that would haunt me for the next 4 years and eventually end my playing days in the NFL.

Unfortunately, injuries take most players away from the game they love. It’s impossible to know what would have happened if I had remained injury free. I often wonder how some players can play 8 or more years in the NFL without getting a career ending injury. Is it fate….luck…..skill?

The answer is none of the above.

The truth is, the NFL is a violent game and players are going to get injured no matter what they do or how well they are conditioned. Some players beat the odds, but like most gamblers – and we are gambling that we won’t get hurt – the house (the NFL) always comes out ahead. The NFL has an ample supply of bodies waiting in the ranks to take the place of a gladiator that has gone down. The show must go on………..and it does!

I have to admit that it bothers me when fans, announcers and writers say a player just can’t seem to stay “healthy” – as if they had the flu or some virus that was keeping them out of the game.

Most players are much healthier than the general population because it’s their job to be in top physical condition. I also scoff at the suggestion that certain players are injury prone. To a certain degree, that might be true if a player is getting leg cramps or pulled muscles because they aren’t stretching properly, or their conditioning is not up to par, but don’t confuse that type of injury with a broken bone, a ligament stretch – or tear, hip pointers, turf toes, head, neck, back, knee, arm, shoulder, thigh, wrist, or an ankle injury.

Sammy Watkins has received a lot of criticism for supposedly being injury prone and not playing due to his ankle injury. To a certain degree I understand Sammy’s frustration and why he has lashed out at some of the fans that think he should just “tough it out” and get back in the lineup, but I hope it’s not the reason he is determined to play this Sunday.

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During my stint in the NFL, I didn’t see any players that wanted to sit out a game if they thought they were “healthy” – there’s that word again. Apparently, Sammy feels he is ready to go, but is he really 100%? Probably not. That doesn’t seem to matter to some fans who will never understand just how devastating some injuries can be, especially if they are not allowed a reasonable time to heal and are continually reinjured. Back in my day, the players were routinely pressured to play injured not only by the fans, but by team doctors. A shot of Lidocaine or Toradal and we were ready to go!

This week, 338 players were listed on the NFL’s injury report as being Out, Doubtful, Questionable or Probable.

Every season, hundreds of players sustain injuries that eventually become what are commonly referred to as career ending injuries. No one likes to think about that – especially the players. I’m not even sure if it should be called a “career” ending injury because no one really has a career in the NFL. The average player last about 3 to 5 years in the NFL – not much of a career by any stretch of the imagination.

Today’s players have a better chance of extending their playing days because the surgical techniques and treatment protocols have significantly improved. They have benefitted from the trial and error of surgeries performed on former players over the past 80 years. We were essentially the guinea pigs for the NFL. My first injury – a medial collateral ligament stretch – could have been easily repaired in today’s NFL via an arthroscopic surgery. It could have lengthened my career, but that procedure was not available when I played. Instead, I have two 12 inch zippers on my left knee from a surgery that ended my playing days.

For those that make it to the professional football level, I have this one small piece of advice. Start preparing today for your “real career” after football because the NFL is Not For Long.

“Fame is a Vapor, Riches Take Wings………the only thing that endures is Character.” – Saying from a poster that my Buffalo Bills Trainer, Eddie (Abe) Abramowski had next to his tape station in the training room.

Jeff Nixon
Jeff Nixon is a former defensive back for the Buffalo Bills. He played six seasons with the Bills from 1979 to 1984. During the Buffalo Bills football season, Nixon works as a sports analyst on WKBW-TV's AM Buffalo. He also hosts an internet radio show "The Jeff Nixon Sports Report" that airs every Monday night on VoiceAmerica and he is the host of the blog "Fourth and Goal Unites". He currently works as the Youth Employment Director for the City of Buffalo.
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