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Inside The Training Room: Uncovering Football's Scars


This is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Laura Sullivan. And if it's anything like last year, tomorrow's Super Bowl will reach more than 111 million viewers, in this country alone. And while the game ends for the fans tomorrow night, for players, the effects will likely linger on.

Professional football players carry injuries with them as quietly as they can, behind a mask of bravado and toughness. But as this month's Esquire magazine points out, those injuries often go far beyond what the players admit to the press. Tom Junod wrote that article, and he joins us from WABE Atlanta, Georgia. Tom, welcome.

TOM JUNOD: Well, thanks for having me.

SULLIVAN: And joining us in the studio is Tre Johnson. He's a nine-year veteran of the NFL. He was an offensive lineman with the Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Browns. Tre, welcome.

TRE JOHNSON: Thank you for having me as well.

SULLIVAN: Tom, let's start with you. I mean, how widespread is the secret of injuries in football? I mean, what are these guys really choosing to live with?

JUNOD: Well, you know, on the one hand, they're not secret at all because they happen - so many of them just happen in public. In another way, though, they're extremely secret because once the injuries happen, it's like these guys go through a trap door, and they sort of disappear. And they experience the injuries in public, but they endure the pain in private. You know, I wrote this story in order to sort of peel that layer of privacy away.

SULLIVAN: Tre, you know, as an offensive lineman, you're really in the trenches. You're either initiating or receiving collisions on every single play. Give me a list of some of the injuries that you've put up with.

JOHNSON: As far as official injuries, well, I've had surgeries - and I've had like, seven shoulder surgeries. If you count scopes - like, 13 knee surgeries. I've broken my legs, my hands, my fingers, my elbow - I had to have repaired, my left wrist; knocked a bunch of teeth out. I always break a couple fingers. My hands is - your hands always feel bad.

SULLIVAN: Why your hands?

JOHNSON: Because my hands are my weapon. And throwing my hands into another 300-pound guy as hard as I can, into that plastic shell he's wearing - you know, you're going to snap a finger or two, or break a nail; or something like that, or something to that effect. It's just the way it is.

SULLIVAN: Tom, does this sound like a pretty standard list, for a football player?

JUNOD: Yeah, it sounds standard - I mean, sort of amazingly so. It sort of took my breath away, when Tre was talking about it. But I think that one of the things that I learned in this story was about just the word injury, in general, and how sort of ambiguous it is; that when players speak of being injured, they were actually being pretty specific about it. They hurt all the time, and they get hurt all the time. But injury refers to stuff that keeps them out of the game. Tre, is that - do you agree with that?


JOHNSON: That is...

SULLIVAN: I was about to say, Tre, you're nodding your head.

JOHNSON: That's 100 percent accurate. You know, hurt just means you feel bad. Injury means you can't play; meaning, you're injured to the point where me being out there may jeopardize the team's goal of winning. Everybody around you - if you go soft publicly, it's the worst thing you can do. You'd rather be carried off like a warrior, with your leg dangling, than to limp off and - has like, a cut or a broken finger or something, and doesn't even turn. You know what I mean? They look down on you for that. It's quite foolish now - as an older man, when you think about it. Like, if I was to look at my son, you know, and he got hurt, I'm pulling him off the field myself, you know? But...


JOHNSON: Yeah. That's my baby. That's my son. You look at them different. As with me, I can take anything - is what you feel.

SULLIVAN: Tom, the NFL at the corporate level, you know, has - you know, says that it's very concerned about player safety. This is a top priority for them. But what happens at the team level? Are the coaches really concerned about this? How are they dealing with injuries?

JUNOD: The coaches, I think, are - from what I was told, were mostly concerned with who's up and who's down; who they have, and who they don't have. I mean, I talked to Matt Hasselbeck, the quarterback of the Tennessee Titans, and he mentioned a coach of his acquaintance who would not even talk to players who were injured. I have talked to another player who said that when he was on injured reserve, it was like being in the dungeon; that people were mad at you. The coaches were mad at you, and the players were mad at you.

The thing that surprised me about this story was how much a part of the culture pain, and playing through pain, is. Just about everybody I talked to is - you know, this is the - the quickest way to become part of that team, is to play through pain. The quickest way not to become part of that team, is to not play through pain. It's the measuring stick.

SULLIVAN: Is that what you found with your coaches, Tre?

JOHNSON: Definitely. I think that there was a distance there, when you weren't up. If you were down for that game and they can't count on you, - I mean, this is full-speed, high-contact chess to them. So they want to know what pieces are on the board that they can put, you know, going forward into their strategy, Sunday after Sunday. If they can't count on you - I've got to move to the next player and what that player gives me, and how it changes my overall scheme. And they get a little disappointed.

SULLIVAN: You were never diagnosed officially, with a concussion. There wasn't a lot of talk back then; it's kind of come up only now. But you know, right now, we're sitting in the studio; we've got the lights turned down to dim because you have trouble with migraines and headaches. You've been out of the NFL since 2002, so about - over 10 years. What is your body going through now? It sounds like it's still going through quite a lot of aftereffects.

JOHNSON: Yeah. I think you - I think now, you know, with this much time having passed, you definitely see the full extent of the injuries because you're not on the drugs anymore. You know, every week and every day, I was taking something so I can get through practice, I can go to sleep, I can go for the game. You know, there's different levels of drugs, depending on whatever I needed to do.

But now, you know, when I stopped - I don't take anything now other than medicines I need - like, for blood pressure and stuff. But you can definitely feel like - like you say - I appreciate you guys for turning the lights down. I don't like the bright light. You know, you do get the headaches. And it's just the achiness, the achy - you know, I can't - you know, I have a bad hip, so it's hard to stand up straight. Everything aches. It's hard to sleep - for me - more than maybe two, three hours at a pop.

SULLIVAN: Two, three hours a night.

JOHNSON: Yeah. You know, I'm tired now, you know. So you're just exhausted. But I do think that football gives you the work ethic to fight through all that, you know? And I never was diagnosed with a concussion - and we didn't have that as often as you see it now. We - you get your bell rung. I got my bell rung. I saw the flashes; you get the nausea, you know. But I was never going to let anybody know I was hurt, you know what I mean? You just didn't do it like that. You know, I had a coach tell me one time: Oh, there's no such thing as concussions. It's a myth. I mean, I'm hoping he said it jokingly. We laughed about it. But, you know, you get rocked out there. It's a physical game.

JUNOD: I mean, they police concussions more so now than they ever have. I mean, they have a - you know, concussion specialists and concussion replays on the sidelines, and this and that. I mean, they are trying to police that. However, what they can't do is give players protection against being replaced. And that is the - what seems to me, the key. I mean, the players that I talked to - that sort of code that if you can't go, someone else can go, is sort of intrinsic to playing in the NFL. And for all of the furor and hue and cry about the injury issue, that, I think, is the one thing that is never going to change.

SULLIVAN: Tre, there are parents all across this country wondering, should I let my child play football? What do you think?

JOHNSON: Ooh. I think football is a great game. I cannot say, even throughout all the injuries and pain - I would do it all again. But as a parent of two - I have a 6-year-old and a 4-year-old boy, and they say they want to play football, I'm definitely - I would suggest that you hold off a little bit. I would say, let them develop physically; let them see what their natural ability or, you know, their abilities allow them to do before you put them in a sport like football because once you get into football, like, if you run into a kid, in football, you're going to get hurt. If you play long enough, you're going to get hurt. It's a certainty.

So are you willing to subject your child to that type of environment? You know, if you're somebody who doesn't have a - you know, you're not good at it, I'd pull them. I'd pull them and, you know, there's a lot of great sports. And I just wouldn't push thrm towards it.

SULLIVAN: Yeah. Tre Johnson played in the NFL for nine years. And Tom Junod just wrote the article "Theater of Pain" for this month's Esquire magazine. Gentlemen, both of you, thank you so much for coming on in.

JUNOD: Oh, you're welcome.

SULLIVAN: And enjoy the Super Bowl tomorrow.

JOHNSON: Definitely. Thanks for having me.


SULLIVAN: You're listening to WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.