Kill the head and the body will die. It’s a governing principle of football culture. If you beat down a man’s psyche, he will bow to your will. Then you own him. But those who kill must be willing to be killed. To take another man’s spirit, you must give up the rights to your own body. And each man has to decide how much he needs to give and how much he wants to keep for himself.
On a typically wet Seattle Sunday in mid-December, Ricky Watters goes about his job. He catches a pass in the middle of the field. When Cowboys linebacker Dexter Coakley and defensive tackle Brandon Noble close, Watters slams his right shoulder into both, splitting them for an eight-yard gain. It’s not a remarkable play, except that it occurs in Watters’ first game in 11 weeks. The shoulder he now uses as a weapon was cracked in three places during a Sept. 30 game in Oakland.
At the time, he could have had a pin inserted into the shoulder and missed four games. But Watters, although always known for his impetuousness, needed to think about it. Before having his first major surgery in 10 years, he wanted another opinion. No one in the Seahawks front office or on the coaching staff stood in his way. “It shouldn’t be a slap in the face to the organization when you ask questions,” Watters says. Some doctors recommended surgery and the insertion of a pin to help the shoulder heal. Others said a pin could make the bones crack more. Watters decided he would let the shoulder heal by itself.
Yes, he missed more games, but don’t be misled. Ricky Watters’ passion for the game hasn’t subsided. Few backs tote the rock as ferociously. That high-stepping style and volatile temperament are marks of one of the most competitive men in the league. But while Watters is always ready to spill it all on the field, he wants to be able to take the container with him when he’s done. “You can’t always think the organization is gonna take care of you,” he says, voicing an attitude that increasingly influences medical decisions in pro sports in general, and football in particular. In NFL Nation -- where life expectancy is just 4 1/2 years -- players who once believed they’d give up anything for the team have learned to put themselves first.
Any of the Nation’s working stiffs will tell you there are two types of men who stroll through a locker room: those who wear jerseys and those who wear suits. Doctors wear suits and, medical degrees or not, they have to gain a player’s trust. And when they evaluate injuries, team doctors could -- consciously or subconsciously -- balance what’s best for the franchise against what’s best for the player. “There are players who feel certain team doctors are not that good,” says NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw. “They want to go outside the team but get pressure not to.” This trust issue has Upshaw currently working with the league to create a mutually agreed upon panel of doctors available to offer second opinions.
Until then, players like Jets rookie receiver Santana Moss are on their own. After Moss tore the meniscus in his left knee last summer, a team surgeon could have had him back in four weeks, tops. But Moss opted for a second look from Dr. John Uribe, who had been his team doctor at the University of Miami. Uribe told Moss the Jets were right: He could play soon with minor surgery. But that could cause a chronic problem down the road. To ensure a complete and permanent fix, Moss needed more complex surgery that called for eight to 12 weeks of recovery. Moss may be only 22, but he already has a sense of his athletic mortality. He had the major surgery. The decision was not popular with some members of Jets management, who were anxious to put their $7.1M investment to work. But Moss was unfazed. “You have to think of your longevity first,” he says. “And your life after football.”
Some players don’t recongize that ’til it’s too late. The rest of Dolphin O.J. McDuffie’s life started three years ago. He was 10 weeks into the ’99 season, coming off a year in which he had led the NFL in catches and earned a four-year, $20M extension. Then, in a game against the Patriots, he caught a slant and felt searing pain in his left foot. “I’d always heard guys talk about hearing something pop when they got hurt,” says McDuffie. “I heard one that day.”
It was initially diagnosed by a member of the Dolphins medical staff as a sprained big toe. “I never practiced after that,” McDuffie says. “But I was coming off my best season, so I wasn’t about to stop playing.” Wednesdays through Fridays, his preparation was limited to film study and walk-throughs. On Saturday afternoons, 24 hours before kickoff, a trainer plunged a one-inch needle filled with up to 3 cc’s of novocaine into the ball of McDuffie’s foot. He’d feel a sting, a burning and, finally, blissful numbness in the toe. The next day, McDuffie would play, exploding off the ball, planting, cutting, making plays -- in short, forcing defenders to submit to his will. But each time he pushed off the toe to cut right, a little more life was drained from it. Now, where there was once connective tissue, bone grinds against bone.
Two hours after a game, what McDuffie calls his “medication” would wear off. It dissipated with the same superficial tingling you feel after a dentist’s novocaine shot -- except, in this case, it wasn’t a molar returning to life, but a primary extremity. After a three-hour game spent running on half-inch cleats, you can feel like you’re walking on nails -- and that’s with a healthy foot. Each time the nerves started firing again in his mangled toe, McDuffie suffered an agony that is hard to imagine. Excruciating pain is the brain’s way of begging you to stop what you’re doing. McDuffie covered his ears.
McDuffie eventually ventured outside Miami medical circles and found himself in the office of Dr. Robert Anderson, the Carolina Panthers orthopedic surgeon. Anderson, a foot-and-ankle specialist whose expertise has earned him the title “Turf Toe Doctor,” was also treating Deion Sanders and Eddie George. His diagnosis of McDuffie’s condition: a torn ligament. “Most people underestimate these injuries,” says Anderson. “They don’t pick up on the subtleties, and they think it’s just a sprain.”
It’s a moot point for McDuffie. After two surgeries to remove scar tissue and bone spurs, he can’t do even light running without his toe swelling like a water balloon. He hasn’t played since 2000, and faces the inevitable with matter-of-fact candor. “It’s been two years,” he says. “It’s not ever going to get any better.”
McDuffie maintains, adamantly, that no one in the Dolphins organization pressured him to take the shots. Rather, the pressure was self-inflicted. “I did it because I wanted to,” he says. The locker room is an insular world where petty concerns about title, salary or lifestyle take a backseat to a common goal-winning. A man competes for his team almost more than he competes against his opponent. Sacrifice is honored.
“In a team sport, you have to hold up your end of the bargain,” affirms McDuffie’s protégé, Oronde Gadsden. Born with degenerative arthritis in both big toes, Gadsden has walked more than a painful mile in McDuffie’s shoes. After his rookie year in 1998, he decided against surgery, because having both feet in casts and missing all of training camp wasn’t an option. Gadsden decided to live with the pain. “Everybody’s hurtin’,” he says. “Even if I’m at 75% and my routes aren’t as crisp as usual, I gotta be out there, giving you something.”
While that stoicism -- and that self-inflicted pressure -- may be good for the team in the short run, it can be crippling for players in the long run. Just ask former Broncos lineman Mark Schlereth, who had 20 knee surgeries in his 12-year career. Schlereth was so old school, he once had kidney stones removed on Sunday and played on Monday night. Another knee injury finally forced him into retirement after last season. He can’t bend down to tie his shoes, but when he applied to the NFL for disability insurance, he was turned down without, he believes, being given a valid reason.“If I’m not eligible,” Schlereth says, “then there must be very few people who are. And that’s wrong.”
Ricky Watters won’t end up like Schlereth. In that first game back against Dallas, an hour after splitting Coakley and Noble, Watters’ longevity was put at issue again. Running off left tackle, he was stood up by Coakley. When Watters landed, his right foot was twisted grotesquely, and the ankle snapped. Once more, Watters faces the questions. “When I was younger, I probably would have done anything to play,” he says. “Now, I know football is a brief period of time, compared to the rest of my life.” Even with his career on the line, he’s not rushing back. Two weeks later, the Seahawks beat the Chargers, and Shaun Alexander carried the ball 29 times. Watters watched it all, his face placid, free of frustration or panic. You wonder if Watters cares that, right before his eyes, Alexander is becoming The Man in Seattle.
Of course he cares. You don’t make it to his level without being selfish. And that’s why Ricky Watters is looking out for Ricky Watters -- not the Ricky who’s turned 32, who over the past decade has run for 10,643 yards, who, if he keeps running, has a shot at Walter Payton’s all-time record. No, he’s looking out for Ricky Amir Watters Jr., who’s turned 1 and is just beginning to walk. Mention little Ricky, and Watters’ close-set eyes glow. “I know he wants his dad to be able to play with him,” he says.
It’s been a gradual process, but Watters has come to the realization that his body is his instrument -- and he owns it. He knows the day approaches when he’ll use his 217 pounds not to wreak havoc on linebackers but, like everyone else on the planet, for the simple drudgery of transport. Which is why, when Watters is asked his view of former Viking running back Robert Smith, who abruptly retired last year at age 28, he answers with his own question:
“What’s that he said? About getting out while he could still walk?”
This article appears in the February 4 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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