HOUSTON -- Wade Smith reached into his locker and pulled out the exact set of pads he used almost a year ago to protect the broken ribs that never kept him out of a game.
The injury struck on Nov. 18, 2012, in the second quarter of the Houston Texans'' overtime win against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Smith blocked a Jaguars player, then that player fell on him, breaking his ribs. One was just cracked. Another jutted out at a sharp angle. The left guard was in pain after most plays, despite the anti-inflammatory shot he took at halftime. A glance at the film shows Smith wincing after many plays -- but only if you're looking for it.
"Every play is painful but you can recover from it," Smith said.
One day after Smith broke his ribs, Texans coach Gary Kubiak said this about him: "He’s okay. He’s sore, but he took part in practice. He did play the whole game. All expectations are that he’ll be ready to go."
"Sore" is also the word Kubiak used to describe former Texans nose tackle Shaun Cody last year. He had broken ribs and a collapsed lung.
The injury changed the way Smith moved, the way he walked and the way he stood. In the first few weeks after it, he had to tell his daughters, "Daddy can't play right now." He remembers how painful laughter was one night, lying in bed, talking with his wife.
"I’m like stop; it hurts," Smith said. "I remember that vividly."
But, just as his coach expected, Smith was ready to go after a measly three days of rest. He played on Thanksgiving as the Texans won yet another overtime game.
"That was a rough stretch, but we won two overtime games so it was kind of cool," Smith said.
Smith didn't talk about that injury last year. He wouldn't have even if asked. That insulated him from the questions running back Ben Tate gets this season: What does it feel like to play football with broken ribs? But Smith knows exactly how tough these few games have been for Tate, who broke his ribs against the Kansas City Chiefs on Oct. 20.
There's hope for Tate in Smith's story. Even though Smith continued to play with the injury, it healed over time. By January, when the Texans were in the playoffs, the pain was gone, though his ribs still feel awkward to this day.
"It’s just part of the game," Smith said.
He's not alone in feeling that way.
Cornerback Johnathan Joseph, high ankle sprain, 2010
The impetus: Joseph missed two games with the injury in the middle of the 2010 season, his final year with the Cincinnati Bengals. When he returned, the injury still lingered but he started three more games before re-aggravating the injury while high-stepping into the end zone after his second interception against the Buffalo Bills. He played in four more games after that one, never quite healed. A shot would numb his ankle on Sundays, on Mondays he put on a walking boot but could barely walk. He wouldn't practice until Friday and then start the process again over the weekend.
In his words: "I didn’t think I could play on it at all, but when I got the numbing thing it totally went away. But the next day I paid for it every time. It's kind of one of those injuries that needed time to heal. We didn’t have time to let it heal, of course during the season. It was not much that I could do, and I was a free agent at the end of the year. I had to fight through it. Your shin area, like needles. Pins and needles in your shin area. Non-stop, constant throbbing pain."
Safety D.J. Swearinger, broken foot, 2011
The impetus: Running, Swearinger turned on his foot in early November of his junior year at South Carolina. They lost to Arkansas that day. At first the injury, on the outside of his foot, was just a fracture. After playing on it for a few weeks the break opened up more in a game against Clemson on Nov. 26 and landed Swearinger in a cast. He told reporters at the time that it wasn't painful at all. Last week he admitted it was. Luckily for him, college football bowl games come after a comically long break. So when the Gamecocks played again on Jan. 2, in the Capital One Bowl against Nebraska, Swearinger played. He had surgery two days later.
In his words: "You feel it [despite the cortisone shot]. You just don’t feel it as much. Later [you think] you can’t play. 'There’s no way I can play with my foot like this.' But when the light’s on and football’s in the air, it’s different. Adrenaline and fans and knowing that I needed to be in there for my team. I was player of the game in the bowl game. Actually a lot of people -- my mom thought I was playing better with a broken foot."
Linebacker Whitney Mercilus, amputated fingertip, 2011
The impetus: Mercilus smashed the tip of his left index finger while lifting in college. It was the spring of 2011. He still has the photo saved on his phone of what his finger looked like just after the injury -- a bloody stump with a sickening hint of bone sticking out from the middle. He didn't play until it healed, but the injury happened while training and impacted him when he did play.
In his words: "It was weird at first. I’m not going to lie about that. I wanted it to be there. Sometimes I would try to go grab somebody, but I would remember I don’t have a fingertip so I would slip off somebody. It pissed me off. I was so pissed. ... [When it happened] basically I came into the room, [the athletic trainer] was like, 'Holy [expletive].' Started cleaning it. After a while he started laughing. This thing is gone. I couldn’t get mad at him because I kind of laughed at it, too. This thing is gone."
Defensive end Antonio Smith, various body parts, many different years
The impetus: I'll just let him tell you.
In his words: "Me? I’m from a different era. Broke leg, broke foot, broke hand, broke ribs. Torn cartilage in the ribs. I can’t remember [when], I just had them. I played a whole season with my ribs. Probably two, three years ago. Maurice Jones-Drew hit me with one of them chip blocks. I still to this day [feels funny]. Oh yeah. To this day. I guess because I tore the cartilage and it didn’t heal right or whatever.
"[Feels] like somebody’s stabbing you with a knife repeatedly every time you moved a certain way. It’s not a sharp shooting pain. They can give you something to numb you up a little bit. It helps. Oh, they got some stuff. You don’t feel nothin’. After the game you feel like crap. Your whole body’s sore. ... It don’t happen right after the game. Monday night you wake up and it’s just pain.
"Probably wasn’t all the way broke (his leg). Just a fracture. That was college. But I had chipped bones in my ankle, all kinds of stuff. It gets worse, you can’t hardly move your ankle. I had to have surgery on it later on. I’m from the old school. We don’t even take pain killers. These young whippersnappers today, they get shot all up, take pills every day. Me, probably [take painkillers] like the first day after a surgery. After that I just take the pain. Got the ninja blood."