Flem File: Great balls of pain
As part of my reporting for a treatise on testicles in the current Body Issue of ESPN The Magazine I traveled all the way to Bowling Green, Ky., to ask former Chicago Bears cornerback Virgil Livers about the grotesque injury he suffered in 1976 -- the one that made him, in my mind, the Joe Theismann of testicle trauma. And when I finally sat down in front of his spacious desk, decorated with four different spongy stress-relief toys (he's now an assistant principal at a high school) and posed the question in person, you know what Livers started talking about?
That, my friends, is what you call old-school cool in the NFL. That's Livers.
Using the physical strength of his father, a construction worker, and the spiritual fortitude of his grandpa, a Baptist preacher, in five years the 5-foot-8, 176-pound Livers went from putting his equipment on backward as a senior in high school in Bowling Green to the Western Kentucky Hall of Fame and then the fourth round of the 1975 NFL draft, where he was selected by Chicago.
Late in his second season with the Bears, Livers was blocking at the end of a punt return inside Soldier Field when a member of the Raiders jumped the pile to avoid a late hit and, instead, came down knee-first into Livers' lap. Just before the guy landed, Livers distinctly remembers a split-second moment when, he swears, they locked eyes and the player shot him a kind of "helpless, I'm sooo sorry" look.
It didn't help. The testicle exploded on contact. (Livers wasn't wearing a cup and, incredibly, wore one for only a short time afterward.) The testicle, in case you missed that, EXPLODED ON CONTACT. Livers, though, went back out onto the field for the next defensive series until his scrotum swelled to the size of a large orange and began obstructing his stride.
"I was the smallest guy at my position in the NFL, and I was determined to be the toughest -- and for six years I was," says Livers, 59, who still signs dozens of cards each year sent to him by grateful and grossed-out Bears fans. "Nowadays guys get a hangnail and they sit out of practice. My response was: 'That's all you got?'"
Oh no, not quite. There was more. Much, much more. After the game, trainers suggested draining the mangled orb with a needle before mercifully deciding take X-rays of the area instead. On film it looked like a shattered lightbulb, and Livers was immediately sent to the hospital for surgery. (He was told not to worry, that there was a reason most vital organs come in sets of two.) As he remembers it, Livers drove himself to the ER because news that he was injured and needed surgery sent his wife, Linda, who was nine months pregnant, into labor. Connie Payton, wife of the late Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton, drove her to a hospital in Des Plaines, Ill., and stayed with her while she delivered the Livers' son, Alexander, who weighed more than 10 pounds.
"Trust me, she was in way more pain than I was," says Livers, who looks as though he's put on almost 3 pounds of flab since his playing days.
Father and son met two days later after Livers persuaded his surgeon to release him early. A few years later the Livers added a daughter, Sacha, to the family. Livers went on to play three more seasons with the Bears and, after recovering from a bad knee injury, two more with the Chicago Blitz of the USFL. "It comes down to what you allow an injury to take away from you," Livers says. "For me it didn't take away anything, not football and especially not my manhood. I embraced what happened as part of my job. There are a lot of jobs out there that can take an arm, a finger or an eye."
What I learned from Livers and while reporting the rest of this odd but epic story for The Magazine is that sports takes only one thing.
"It's pretty simple when it comes to balls and sports," says UConn professor of physiology and biochemistry Dr. William Kraemer. "Any of the crazy people out there who want to question the importance of the testicles or testosterone, I say step forward and let me cut off your balls."
Brace yourselves, but one of the best-kept secrets in sports is just how often athletes suffer that fate during competition. From the self-explanatory karate move known as Monkey Steals the Peach to the rugby ruck phenomena of scrotal "degloving" to what seems like the NHL's annual Stanley (shattered) Cup playoffs -- severe testicle trauma is shockingly and gut-wrenchingly far more common than the average fan probably can stomach.
As proof, dear Flem Filers, I offer this horrible, flop-sweat-inducing list of The 10 Worst Testicle Injuries in Sports History.
(Got your own nominee for the testicle injury Hall of Fame? Tweet it to @daveflemingespn using the #FlemFile hashtag or vote on my Facebook poll at David Fleming ESPN.)
Wayne "Buck" ShelfordIn New Zealand, the Kiwis' laid-back approach to life apparently extends even to their kiwis. At the annual Shepherd's Shemozzle held each November in Hunterville, New Zealand, contestants race 50 meters with bull testicles in their mouths. According to 2008 Shemozzle champion Josh Masters, the best part of the competition is that the bull's balls "weren't connected to anything."
For half a rugby match in 1986, neither were Shelford's.
During a brutal game against France that became known as Battle of Nantes, Shelford, the former captain of New Zealand's legendary All Blacks rugby team, was bent over with his legs spread wide, setting up a ball in the tackle zone, when well, the chronology of what happened next is still up for debate. (As if anyone would have perfect recall after what Shelford went through.)
Anyway, in 2007, Shelford told ESPN The Magazine that Frenchman Daniel Dubroca was behind him on the pitch when he swung his cleat into the ruck trying to separate man from ball. He succeeded. In a way. Shelford already had lost several teeth and suffered a concussion during the match, so he wasn't about to leave the pitch to check his bits. "It bloody well hurt," he explains. "So I just chucked the old proverbial Jesus water down the shorts to make it feel better. That didn't do a lot, so we just played on. I went off the field with 20 minutes to go not really knowing where I was, let alone what day it was. And it was not until I got changed that I realized that my scrotum had been torn and that the testicle was hanging a good 4 or 5 inches out of the scrotum."
Nicklas LidstromThe first thing the doctor asked Lidstrom was whether he planned on having any more kids.
During the 2009 NHL playoffs, the former Red Wings captain and future Hall of Famer got speared in the gonads by Blackhawks winger Patrick Sharp. Lidstrom says it was the worst pain he's experienced. In the embryonic state, testicles start out in the stomach cavity next to the kidneys. They eventually descend, as the body develops, but the nerve endings remain connected deep within the retroperitoneum. Hence the feeling, even from a brisk gust of wind directed to the wrong area, like someone just crowbarred your kidneys.
Lidstrom reacted to this trauma kind of exactly how you'd expect one of the all-time greats to respond. He showed up for practice at the rink the next day. (Somewhere Allen Iverson weeps.) The pain didn't go away, though, and 24 hours later Lidstrom, who has four kids, required emergency surgery. He missed Games 4 and 5 of the Western Conference finals.
But he got to keep both of his boys.
Mike MetzgerIn December 2004, after over-rotating on a 70-foot back flip nac-nac, Metzger, a motocross legend, lay in a crumpled heap on the bottom of a stadium ramp. The Godfather of Freestyle wondered to himself, "Have I just ripped off my penis in front of 20,000 fans?" Instead, Metzger says he ended up impaling one of the bike's jagged-tooth, steel foot pegs into his left testicle, exploding the area and ripping his lower abdominal muscles away from the pelvis. He was rushed to the hospital, where he underwent emergency surgery to remove the testicle and wire his pelvic muscles back together. He spent seven days in the hospital.
Sami SaloHockey players do wear cups, but when they slide, so does the protection, exposing their tunica albuginea (the thin, leathery covering of the testicles) to a six-ounce piece of frozen rubber traveling at speeds in excess of 100 mph. As a result, in each of the past three Stanley Cup playoffs, an NHL player has nearly lost a nut while sliding to block a shot. This is why a cup industry insider told me an alarming number of NHL players leave the game as partial eunuchs.
During the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs Salo, a Vancouver defenseman, took a Duncan Keith slapper to the crotch. After the shot, Salo collapsed straight down like a dynamited building into the fetal position. The Canucks announcers wondered on air whether he had been hit in the wrist, somehow missing the universally recognized body language of a dude jacked in the jewels. Video of LeBron James in such a state, performing a howling death roll across a high school gym floor in Ohio, has been viewed by more than 300,000 people on YouTube. ("He traveled!" responded one viewer, presumably from Cleveland.) "The guy writhing in pain, yeah, he didn't get 'the wind knocked out of him' like the announcer says," says former Giants center Shaun O'Hara. "He got hit where it counts. Happens way more than you think."
(I can attest to that: While I was playing in an adult rec hockey league in the spring, a guy tried to clear me from in front of the crease by night-sticking me from behind, up and between my legs. As I lay crumpled in a heap with my shield the only thing preventing me from sucking my thumb, it took me several minutes to regain my composure and enough strength to shuffle like an invalid back to the bench, where my buddies greeted me with a typical hockey reception: "Is hims OK? Does hims need to sit for a widdle while? Youngblood, is that you?")
Salo, on the other hand, was treated as a conquering hero for dealing with pretty much every man's worst nightmare. Within hours after Salo's hospitalization, fans in Vancouver had constructed a Facebook page in honor of his ruptured testicle. It included inspirational messages like "Hang in there, buddy" and encouraged chants of "BALLS OF STEEL!" upon Salo's return to the ice, a miraculous two days later. (Salo's nut now has eight times as many Facebook friends as I do.)
Normally, injuries are fair game in hockey, especially in the playoffs, but in a classic exchange captured by ESPNChicago.com, the Blackhawks seemed almost certain they would make an exception in Salo's case.
"I'm going to give him a free pass," Chicago winger Patrick Sharp said. "It's funny for everyone looking on the outside, but for the players I don't think it's very funny."
Added teammate Adam Burish, "I don't want to cross that line, I can't imagine what that would feel like. If he plays tonight, that guy is an iron man. Maybe I will rub up against him so I can get some of that toughness, because how you can play through that blows my mind."
Then Burish reconsidered. "I'm not going near that thing. What if it pops?"
Of course, even the hint from Burish that he might target Salo's traumatized testicle seemed to set off Vancouver's Shane O'Brien.
"That's gutless, I would say, if you did that," O'Brien said. "That's guy code, isn't it? The Stanley Cup is the best thing to win in the world, but I think you draw the line there if a guy gets one in the family jewels. But who knows, Burish, that rat, he might try to do it. If he did rub up against him, that would be Burish's first hit of the series."
Adrian BeltreAll you really need to know is this: No, he wasn't wearing a cup; and yes, it had swollen to the size of a grapefruit.
In August 2009, Beltre, then with the Seattle Mariners, went on the 15-day disabled list after suffering a severely bruised testicle when a grounder to third by Chicago's Alexei Ramirez took a bad hop and devastated his undercarriage.
Somehow, Beltre was able to make a play on the grounder and attempt a wild throw to first. With shortstop Jack Wilson already out of the game with a pulled hammy, Beltre decided to gut it out, literally. In unbearable pain he hid the extent of his injury and played the rest of the game, scoring the winning run.
Although most catchers and third basemen wear cups (Reds catcher Johnny Bench famously broke at least seven cups during his Hall of Fame career), Beltre finds them uncomfortable and cumbersome. It's hard to blame him. Can you imagine if football players were still using the leather helmets invented in the 1920s? Well, since the jock and cup were patented in 1927 (one of the ads said they would cure "floppy man parts"), they have barely changed from the original, V-shaped trough.
Still, they might have prevented Beltre from watching his scrotum swell to the size of a grapefruit and then, upon his return to the team, having to listen to Ken Griffey Jr. play "The Nutcracker" over the PA system.
Felix PieWhile researching the Balls story in the Body Issue of ESPN The Magazine, one of the few times I experienced any kind of discomfort was when the topic of "testicle torsion" came up during my chat with Dr. Tobias Kohler, a media liaison for the American Urological Association and the urology chairman at Memorial Medical Center in Springfield, Ill. I was fine when Kohler talked about testicles cracking like eggs and how in surgery he had to just push everything back in, sew it up and hope for the best. I kept a straight face when he explained that "shrinkage" is actually a physiological response to fear or danger (or cold lake water) known as the cremasteric reflex.
But when he got to torsion, that's when the flop sweat really kicked in.
"It's literally like your scrotum getting hit by lightning," Kohler says. "The ball spins on its own blood supply, cutting off the blood supply, and the tissue is dying and the body is not subtle about saying, 'Hey, something's going on down here.' If not corrected the testicle just shrivels up and dies. It's the same thing as a heart attack, but it's happening in your testicles and it's always associated with instant, excruciating pain along with nausea and vomiting. That's why every guy who has ever experienced testicular torsion can tell you exactly where he was and what he was doing when it happened."
Kohler went on to explain that as long as the infarction is corrected within eight to 24 hours, there shouldn't be permanent damage. Thankfully, that seems to be the case from early 2008, when then-Chicago Cubs outfielder Felix Pie missed a few games with what the team described as a "twisted testicle."
He struggled most of that year, batting just 83 times and hitting one homer.
But let's be clear about this: Bartman had nothing to do with this ball painfully twisting out of bounds.
Joseph AgbekoIn August, Agbeko lost his IBF bantamweight championship when Abner Mares hit him with 28 low blows in the first six rounds of their title fight. The boxing world was so appalled by the outcome that a rematch already has been slated for December. The pain here, I guess, is getting roshambo-ed out of your championship belt.
The other thing is the difference between the way boxing and MMA handle their business below the belt. First of all, Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos, the current MMA middleweight champion, has heard the term "balls" used so often to describe her and other female athletes -- surfer Bethany Hamilton, jockey Julie Krone, U.S. soccer player Abby Wambach and Serena Williams, to name a few -- that the term has begun to lose its gender specificity. "Women will never be as strong as men," Santos says. "But women are tougher in many, many ways."
Not according to MMA rules. Regarding infractions: "Groin attacks of any kind" doesn't even crack the MMA top 5 no-nos. It's listed at No. 6, one spot behind "fish hooking" and one spot in front of "Intentionally placing a finger in any opponent's orifice" -- which, by the way, has to be the single greatest sentence in any rulebook ever printed. Ever. But apparently, it's very much needed.
"It happens a lot on low kicks," says MMA legend Dan Henderson. "If you get hit there, you just gotta catch your breath, get your composure back. They give you a lot of time to recover. But you've got to push through the pain. It's all about attitude. [Having balls] means you'll do whatever it takes, go through any kind of pain in order to get the job done. It means you know you can beat anybody's ass and not think twice about it."
Nick FotiuIt wasn't so much the initial agony that Fotiu, a former Calgary Flames winger, went through in 1986 after blocking a Charlie Huddy slap shot with his testicle. It was the that Fotiu says team doctors made him wait three days, with his privates packed in ice, before seeing a specialist, who then immediately removed the mangled plum.
"Pain? Fuhgedaboutit," Fotiu told Sportsnet.ca's Mark Spector. "There is no way to describe it. You could not believe the pain. @#*& it was bad. Bad, bad, pain.
"I had two tendons severed in my hand -- 90 stitches I took. I separated my shoulder. I blew out my knee. I had plastic surgery, cracked bones all around my eye. The doctor didn't want me to play in a playoff series with Philly? I said, 'Don't give a *&%$. I'll put on a shield and I'll be fine.'
"But that? That was the most painful thing I ever went through. I went down to block the shot, it went right under my cup. Hit me right on the testicle. It was the most painful thing I ever went through. If somebody says there is an easy way to play hockey, they are full of s---. Kids should be aware. "Make sure you have the right cup."
Patrick ThoresenAlex Ovechkin's teammates tell me he's a big teddy bear off the ice, but Thoresen knows better than anyone that Ovi's a stone-cold assassin inside the rink. During the 2008 playoffs, Thoresen was with the Flyers when he took a slapper in the scrotum from Mike Green during a Caps power play. Now, check this out: While Thoresen lay there on the ice in the fetal position writhing in agony, every other man on the planet was too queasy to move -- but not Ovechkin, who scooped up the rebound and slid it back to Green, who blasted a one-timer to tie the game in an eventual 5-4 win that evened the series at 1. "I didn't even have time to think because the pain was so huge," Thoresen said. "I was like, 'Get me off the ice and give me some ice.' It was a little scary."
Thoresen was released from the hospital and did not lose the testicle but missed the next game with swelling. His cup didn't fare so well. It was so damaged by Green's shot, it had to be replaced.
"I consider myself lucky," Thoresen said. "It could have hit me in the face."
And that pretty much sums up what I learned while working on this story the past few months.
They're all nuts.
David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for ESPN.com. While covering the NFL for the past 16 years at Sports Illustrated and ESPN, he has written more than 30 cover stories and two books ("Noah's Rainbow" and "Breaker Boys"), and his work has been anthologized in "The Best American Sports Writing."