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Playing Hurt a Way of Life in NFL

September 13, 1987|JOHN NELSON | Associated Press

Marty Lyons dreads the thought of the next needle.

"I keep telling myself, no more shots," Lyons said, "but I love the game. So, if it comes down to taking another shot to play, I'd have to do it again."

Lyons, a defensive tackle for the New York Jets, is trying to play hurt in the NFL. He is not alone. Hundreds of NFL players do it--or try to do it--every season.

Knees. Ankles. Shoulders. Elbows. Hamstrings. Hips. The average number of injuries per season in the NFL boggles the mind.

According to figures kept by the union, each NFL player has averaged more than one injury per season--1.1 to be exact--for the last seven years. Pain is a constant companion.

Last season, Lyons took two injections of a local anesthetic, the same kind a dentist uses, to still the pain in his injured shoulders enough to start a playoff game against the Cleveland Browns. He also wore a canvas-and-leather shoulder harness that tied his arms to his sides.

"I took an injection before the game and an injection at halftime," Lyons said. "I was hurt to the point where it was hard for me just to raise my arms.

"The next day, I hurt so bad I couldn't push myself up to get out of bed. I had to role over onto my shoulders, back onto my back, then onto my stomach until I could sort of roll out of bed. I could hardly get out of bed, but I know I could have played if we had a game the next week."

The Jets lost 23-20, and Lyons didn't have to take the next injection.

In the last four seasons, beginning in 1983, NFL Players Assn. statistics show there were 1,450 injuries reported among 1,582 NFL players, for an average of .92 injuries per player.

The NFLPA's chief researcher, Mike Duberstein, said that of those injuries, more than 55% were serious enough to keep the player out of action the following week. Figures were not kept on how many played anyway, but certainly some did.

"There's a difference between playing injured and playing hurt," Lyons said. "You can play hurt, but you can't always play injured. Once you start playing, you're always hurt. Everybody plays with pain. That's part of the game."

And so are the painkilling injections, but not to the extent that some people think, says Jets trainer Bob Reese.

"In the old North Dallas Forty days, those things did go on," Reese said, "but people don't realize how long ago that was--20 to 25 years ago. We've learned from our mistakes. It looked like a good idea at the time, but then we found that the downside risks weren't very good."

The biggest risk of numbing injections is that of greater injury. While shots of cortisone are common after a game or during the week, "the number of individuals we inject with painkillers like Xylocaine is really minimal," Reese said.

"A couple of years back, Richard Todd had a broken rib that we injected," Reese said of the former Jets quarterback. "In that case, it was just a matter of a pain block. It was decided that the risk of the injury getting worse was minimal. He stood the chance of making the break worse and puncturing a lung, but we laid it all out for Richard, and when it came right down to it, it was his decision."

Lyons began his career with the Jets in 1979. In 1981, he missed four games with a hamstring injury. He had the same injury again in 1982 but still came back for three playoff games. He once had a broken thumb, but that was not considered serious enough to keep him out of action. He missed three games in 1985 with shoulder and ankle injuries, and he spent part of last season on injured reserve with shoulder injuries.

During the offseason, Lyons had both shoulders surgically reconstructed, and he's trying another comeback. He tries not to worry about hurting himself again.

"If you go out and worry about getting hurt, you're not going to go 100%," Lyons said, sitting in front of his locker at the Jets training camp in Hempstead, N.Y. "You'll either get yourself hurt again, or you'll get one of your teammates hurt because of your stupidity."

Before going out for practice, Lyons wraps surgical tape around his wrists and hands. The white gloves of tape are the insignia of a lineman. His big shoulders hunch forward, scars stitched in welts of angry flesh over his pectoral muscles, the hash marks of a battle-tested veteran.

Dan Alexander, an 11-year veteran guard, sits not too far away from Lyons. He has a brace on his knee, and he's still wearing short pants, unable to work out in pads. Kyle Clifton, the Jets' left inside linebacker, places rubber pads on the back of his hands and forearms, then tapes them down. More armor.

Reese says the club uses 400 cases of 1 1/2-inch tape and another 400 cases of tapes of assorted sizes per season. At 32 rolls per case and 15 yards per roll, that's 384,000 yards, or more than 218 miles of tape.

The quarterbacks, Ken O'Brien and Pat Ryan, sit off in a corner. They're wearing flak jackets. One wide receiver also is wearing a jacket. It looks like a bullet-proof vest.

Lyons disappears into Reese's training room and comes back a few minutes later with the shoulder harness on. Boot laces are pulled tight across the front of the harness. More boot laces tie his arms to his sides. He's going to try to play in an exhibition game.

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