NHL Fighter or Little League Cry-Baby?
Issue   |   Wed, 10/29/2014 - 00:56

Injuries are inherent in sport. How do our responses to injuries shape our identity as athletes. Papa Cunny delivers yet again exploring both sides of the argument and also sharing an intense personal experience.

During the third quarter of this week’s Monday Night Football game, the Dallas Cowboys saw the face of their franchise fall to the turf with an apparent back injury. Tony Romo, a recent back surgery recipient, was forced to leave for two offensive series, but returned to the game in the fourth quarter after a painkilling shot. On that same evening Minnesota Wild forward Zach Parise took a high stick to the upper lip, received a mustache of stiches, and immediately returned to the ice.

Fans applaud the bravery displayed when returning to action after such injuries; anything less would be seen as cowardice. Every teammate wants the guy next to him to be relentless, possessing an undying thirst to accomplish the club’s goal, no matter the obstacles or circumstances. Everyone always remembers the Kirk Gibsons or Curt Schillings of the athletic world, who defy the odds and accomplish unthinkable acts of greatness in the midst of severe physical pain and agony.

I wonder, however, if playing through an injury is an act of valor, or an instance of foolishness? Where’s the line between being “soft” and displaying toughness? Predictably, such questions appear to be laced with gray areas and circumstance.

Injury in sports is often a “don’t go there” topic.

Most prominently at the professional level, different players are subject to different perceptions when dealing with an injury.
The perception of a star athlete is far different than that of a role player. It seems as though teammates and coaches are far more forgiving when a star player goes down with an injury than a bottom of the depth chart guy. Yes, there will be a collective disappointment when your top goal scorer leaves in the second period with a leg injury, but you do not want him to return to early and get re-injured. With a star player, coaches prefer to “manage” the injury, because the less time missed, the better. Returning to play two shifts in the third period is far less valuable for the team than regaining health for the remaining twenty games.

However, as twisted as it may seem, a bottom of the depth chart player is expected to battle through injury for the team, and himself, generally independent of the circumstance. The position of role player inherently comes with grit and fearlessness.

Thus, it is his duty to uphold such a position, no matter the obstacles, for the benefit of the squad. If he does not battle through an injury he is considered “soft,” will be cast to the wayside and the coach will find a player who will provide more grit. A star player does not deal with such issues. So how does one know if they’re being valorous or foolish, tough or soft? Such a question becomes difficult when applied at a more general level.

For me, there is an obvious distinction between a bump on the elbow, and a potentially season-ending injury (maybe it’s my hockey background). Sitting out for a leg bruise is “soft,” and lacks any form of courageousness. However, many athletes cannot draw such a clear line. Right or wrong, I have been taught if you can get up, you’re fine. My metaphor can be received literally, but is better analyzed figuratively. If you can physically play in the game or practice, without a high possibility of further injury, I believe you should. Pain tolerance is only a matter of the mind.

Yes, I am aware there are extenuating circumstances. If you have mono obviously don’t go to practice and get your teammates sick, but if your back is sore from sleeping on it the wrong way, get your ass up and sprint onto the field!
Some of you at this point probably think I am stating the obvious, which I may in fact be doing. However, every athlete has experienced the teammates who act like an NHL fighter, and the ones who are the Little League crybaby, and most likely understand where I am coming from. Athletes want a teammate they can count on, and your reaction to pain often determines how teammates portray you. Personally, I want the guy who will do whatever it takes to stay on the field. If my teammate is always lionhearted, I will respect him no matter what happens. However, If a teammate who generally displays lackluster effort frequently falls victim to what he describes as an “injury,” a sense of respect is lost. I know I may sound cold with such an assertion, but I am sure many athletes understand my point of view.

Ultimately, my own situation has sparked this article. This past summer my mother forced me to meet with an orthopedic surgeon. It was determined that I have hip impingements, a torn labrum in my right hip, partial tearing and degenerations in my left, and tendonitis in both my knees. Apparently I had been dealing with these issues for several years, but I felt, and still feel, fine. Thus I made the decision to heed the doctor’s suggestion of surgery, and elected to undergo cortisone shot treatments so I could play this hockey and baseball season.

It wasn’t so I could be remembered as a Kirk Gibson like figure (let’s be serious, I play Div. III hockey). As the goalie, I felt as though I had an obligation to my teammates and coaches, and quite frankly, I just wanted to play. I only have so many years left of hockey and baseball, and I didn’t want an “injury” to prevent me from playing.

With such a decision has come frequent periods of self-conversation. For example, I couldn’t tell if missing a lift due to hip pain was “soft,” or smart. Was I letting down my teammates, or in fact helping them in the long run? While my teammates say it’s “no big deal,” I still find myself troubled when I’m not sweating it out with them. I would like to think my decision, overall, display a sense of toughness, but I still sometimes think I am acting soft. It seems as though battling through an injury inherently possesses both aspects, if one wants to play for an extended period of time.

Regardless, I cannot perfectly place my decision under one specific category. I guess only time will truly tell if I have acted valorously or foolishly.

Much like me, playing through an injury is your decision as an Amherst athlete. You, and only you alone, know how badly you want to be on the field. You can tell if you are truly injured, or simply “hurt.” In the end it appears as though instances of playing through an injury cannot be appointed to one specific aspect of my paradigm. In certain instances valor and foolishness go hand in hand, while soft and tough also intertwine at a certain point. However, I stay true to my teachings: If you can physically play, get out there and do it. Our athletic careers are almost over, so battle through, uphold your duty as a teammate, and prove something to yourself, because pain is only a state of mind.