The physical therapy an NFL player has to go through when nursing an injury is obviously very comprehensive and intense. To even make it into a sport that requires you to be a physical specimen is one thing, but to build your body back up from a serious injury, just so you can get back out and get battered and bruised once again, takes serious work, both mentally and physically.
In recent years, the league has come under fire for how it deals with concussions, which aside from being a major threat to a player's safety, could very well crumble the NFL itself one day. Later this year Concussion will be released, a film starring Will Smith as Bennet Omalu in the true story of the Pittsburgh forensic pathologist that discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in football players' brains. It's unlikely to cause severe damage to the NFL, but it'll highlight just how brutal the sport can be.
Beyond brain injuries, it comes as no surprise that just about every part of a football player's body takes a serious beating over a full career. Sometimes players ride off into retirement with few lasting ailments, but many have had their bodies so taxed that they live with various levels of physical pain for the rest of their lives.
A Washington Post survey of retired NFL players found that almost nine out of every 10 suffer from aches and pains on a daily basis, and 91 percent connect just about all of their pain to football. Interestingly, 93 percent said they're happy they played in the league, but less than half said they would allow their kids to play football at all.
Nine out of 10 former players also reported concussions while playing, and almost six in 10 reported three or more. 44 percent said they have had a joint replacement surgery, or been advised that they'll need one.
Despite these numbers, many retired players have said they knew what they were getting into. "If you have brains when you start, you are aware that banging your head into people is not the best thing for your body," said tight end Chris Cooley, a two-time Pro Bowler with the Washington Redskins.
Part of the issue in long-term pain comes from the unnecessary sacrifices made in the short term. NFL players, for the most part, all abide by a culture of playing through pain, acutely aware that if they don't, they will be perceived as soft and their jobs will be in jeopardy.
Nine in 10 players surveyed by The Washington Post said they played while hurt during their careers, and 68 percent said they felt like they had no choice in doing so. "If you don't play, they don't pay," remarked an anonymous player who reported having at least 15 concussions. "You will get cut if you are not on the field. This is why we play through injuries: We have to feed our families."
While the NFL has attempted to eradicate this self-damaging culture in recent years, it won't be easy to get rid of entirely. When your pride is at risk and your job performance is based largely on how tough you can be, it's hard to adjust your mentality to appropriately take care of your injuries in the moment. After all, the promise of glory for fighting through pain is much more tangible than a life of pain down the road.
Still, as rules surrounding concussions and serious injuries continue to tighten up, there's hope that future players who enter the league won't have to put their bodies through relentless, irreparable damage just to provide for their families. The future success of the NFL, and every professional football player, depends on it.
Cover image: Wikimedia