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Hardy or Foolhardy? : Football Players Often Perform in Pain Despite Risk of Exacerbating Injuries

November 12, 1987|RICH TOSCHES and RALPH NICHOLS | Times Staff Writers

Quarterback Rob O'Byrne lay on the ground after a particularly big knock and glanced down at his right arm, which was feeling a bit nasty. He noticed that the arm made a couple of mountain road-type turns between the elbow and the wrist. And then the pain washed over him.

Both bones in his forearm had been shattered. A few moments later the arm had been immobilized with an inflatable cast and he was led off the field by orthopedic surgeon Richard Ferkel. Later that night, the Crespi High senior would have holes drilled into the bones and large metal pins inserted and fastened to hold the splintered bones together. All of this, of course, is accompanied by pain that would make your hair stand up.

"As we're taking him off the field," Ferkel recalled, "he looks at me and asks, 'Can I play next week?' That's how these guys think at first. All they want to do is get back out there."

O'Byrne, obviously, did not play the next week. His high school career came to an abrupt end and he might never play again, although Ferkel said that with a normal healing process and lengthy rehabilitation program, he might be able to play again next year if any college gives him the chance.

But often, football players--even on the high school or college level--do play within days of suffering a serious injury. Broken bones, severely sprained ankles and wrists, separated shoulders. Even neck injuries don't stop many players from pulling on their uniform and charging into action again.

In a 10-game season, players do not have time to sit out six weeks for an injury to heal. Players take the field wearing inflatable casts, knee braces or mountains of wrapping tape, anything that will get them through another game.

Playing with pain is just another part of the game.

Sophomore offensive tackle Eric Litmanovich spent the first two weeks of Valley College's season on crutches but has played since then with a swollen ankle. He strained ligaments in his right ankle during the last week of practice. A cast was recommended but Litmanovich refused it. His hopes of playing for a Division I college are riding on this season. A cast meant missing more games and, he reasoned, that meant no scholarship offers.

"They don't give scholarships to nice people, you know what I mean," he said. "I was told that it should have been in a cast but I didn't want to sit out six weeks."

Cal Lutheran defensive end Earl Bentancourt knows the feeling. He injured his wrist in the second game of the season. He plans to have it examined and X-rayed and put in a cast, if necessary, after the season. For now, the senior, who leads CLU in sacks and is second in tackles, plays with the wrist taped.

"I can't pick up my book bag sometimes, I can't grip it. It might be broken," he said. "I keep saying I'll go to the doctor, but I won't. I'll let it heal after the season is over."

Valley fullback Howard Howell played this season with a fractured wrist. Howell sat out a few games when the injury became too painful, but now he's playing with a flexible cast on his wrist. He exchanges that for a stiffer cast for practice.

"If any other bone was broken, I probably wouldn't take the risk," Howell said. "But the way I look at it is that it's a small bone."

Division I scouts often rely on game film to evaluate junior college players, and Howell was piling up valuable video time before suffering the injury five weeks into the season. He earned Western State Conference player of the week honors. But now, his chances of playing for a Division I college are jeopardized.

"There's no telling where I might go now because of the injury," he said. "I'm sure the injury has had some impact because I haven't played the whole season.

"The doctor told me that I was taking a risk by playing, but I was willing to take the risk for the win," he said. "At this point in my career, sitting out wouldn't help. I really wanted to help out the team."

Potential scholarships. Helping out the team. Those are two reasons why players go back onto the field with pain. But there are other reasons. Peer pressure is a factor. Staying in the spotlight is another.

Bentancourt is in the healthiest season of his college career. He has suffered severe injuries to both knees, including a 1985 blowout in which all of the ligaments in his right knee were snapped. He underwent three operations on the knee, exhausting his $30,000 insurance policy, then dipped into his own pocket to cover the remaining costs.

But through extensive rehabilitation, he brought the battered knee back to health and returned to the Cal Lutheran team for the 1986 season. And then, before the season started, he completely tore his calf muscle.

"I heard that one," Bentancourt recalled. "It sounded like someone clapped their hands together. But it just felt like I pulled something, so I walked home. The next morning, though, I couldn't walk. Then I got kind of worried."

Cancel Bentancourt's 1986 season.

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