“Can You Play?” Don’t Leave It Up To Us!

Editor’s note: The following piece was originally published in November of 2010. In light of the allegation about Peter Nowak and the Union perhaps risking the health of players, TSG republishes it here today.

This is a guest post by Fox Soccer host and former USMNT player Kyle MartinoVisit Kyle’s new web site here.

Martino: The on-field celebrations are few and far between when you’re on the training table.

Every professional athlete has been there,from the David Beckhams to the Devin Barclays (look him up).

You go down on the field, in training, or–for the unlucky ones–while taking that midnight trip to the bathroom.

Before you know it, you’re injured­­­­­ (different from hurt) and the trainer gives his prognosis on how long you will be out of commission. The clock starts then; and so begins the work on getting yourself back, getting yourself “fit” again. The worst part about being injured (and I cant remember a time when I wasn’t), save from missing games, is that you work ten times harder when you are injured than when you are healthy.

You spend an hour before and after training meeting with the trainer and rehabbing, all the while getting ridiculed by teammates: “Look who’s on the table again!” “You ever going to play again, or are you working in the front office now?”

You leave the field lugging that heavy Game Ready ice machine so that when you get home you can attach it to yourself while watching Curb Your Enthusiasm or Arrested Development reruns.

Not an hour goes by during the day when you are not doing some form of rehab; whatever it takes to get you back in time.

I have seen guys try it all: acupuncture, chiropractors, holistic medicine, even meditation. The longer you are out the more desperate you are to find a way–any way–back onto the field. Being away from the team and away from the game begins to fill you with insecurities and doubts you never knew existed while you were playing.

“Is the guy playing my position playing better than I did? Is the team better off without me? Has the coach stopped talking to me, or is he forgetting about me? Am I getting fat?”(The latter obviously was no concern of mine.)

Martino: A rare playing day….

You torment and torture yourself with these thoughts and frustrations because one thing is true of every great athlete I have ever known: they are only truly happy when they are playing. We long so much for the happiness of being in between those lines that we can trick ourselves into believing we are healthier than we are. So, during that vulnerable time, a time where we would give anything to just be instantly healthy, the coach makes the biggest mistake you can make with a professional athlete. He asks these three seemingly innocent words: “Can you play?”

I can remember the time those three words changed my soccer life forever. I was playing for the U.S. Team in the 2003 Confederations Cup. It was my first major tournament with the U.S. Team.  There were expectations of me to be “The Next American Playmaker,” and so far I had not lived up to any of the hype.

Bruce Arena was giving me my chance to prove that all of my potential could translate into being an effective international player. It was a great opportunity for a young debutante in a very difficult atmosphere. Our group included the World Champions, Brazil, and the dominant African nation, Cameroon.

I didn’t get much burn in the first two games, but was given the starting nod for the final match against Cameroon. I remember seeing Samuel Eto’o right ahead of me in the tunnel as we walked out from the locker rooms and down the concrete ramp out onto that beautifully manicured field and thinking, “Is it too early to ask to exchange jerseys?”

“Act like you’ve been here before, Kyle,” I said under my breath.

Martino’s best & ultimately worst game in the U.S. kit. (Note: This photo *is* the specific moment that Kyle got hurt.)

I finally got my composure and played probably the best sixty or so minutes I had ever played wearing a U.S. shirt.

But then it happened.

I stole a ball off of a Cameroonian midfielder and dashed towards their goal. I cut across a defender, but after clearing him by one step I found myself writhing in pain on the ground.

I never saw the tackle coming, but immediately felt the pain explode in my ankle. I rolled on the cold, damp, French field, grabbing my ankle with one hand and waving the medical staff on with the other.

Before I knew it I was through the tunnel, in an ambulance, and lying down for an x-ray at the local hospital.

The scans showed that I didn’t break my ankle but had damaged ligaments and would not be able to travel with the team to the Gold Cup immediately following the Confederations Cup.

I was sent back to Columbus to begin rehabbing so I could get “fit” for the Crew and help the team push for a playoff spot. This is when I was asked those three words for the first time, and answered optimistically and mistakenly with, “Yes, I can play.”

So began my four year descent from “the next Tab Ramos” (a statement Eric Wynalda made during an ESPN broadcast in 2003 that still warms me) to another “talented disappointment.”

Every time during the last four years of my career that I was asked, “Can you play?” I answered “Yes.”

In order to make good on that answer I would go through any number of pain exterminating techniques.

In the game I would wear those God-awful neoprene shorts (if you’re not familiar and you’re a surfer, it’s like cutting shorts out of your wetsuit and wearing them under your playing shorts). At halftime, I would take a cocktail of painkillers to get me through another 45 minutes. The worst though, was when once a month I would have to go into the doctor to have him inject my hip joints with a number 2 pencil-sized needle filled with all sorts of goodies.

The last ditch effort was a concoction of synthesized rooster cartilage (yes, you read that right) that they referred to as “joint lube.” Kind of like Pennzoil for humans. I tell you all of this is to show you the great lengths an athlete will go to in order to get on the field. It is pretty easy to see why, when a coach leaves it up to us to determine whether we can play or not, we will convince ourselves almost every time that we are ready.

I am not trying to play the part of the victim at all. I take a lot of the blame for the way things turned out, mostly because I did not have the intense pressure that is put on most multi-million dollar athletes. Most of the pressure to perform and get back on the field I put on myself.

That’s the point though; even an athlete like me, making nowhere near the million-dollar threshold, will succumb to the urge to get back out there before reaching the necessary fitness.

So you can imagine what happens when we start talking about marquee players. For example, when you look at Wayne Rooney and Fernando Torres–both players of the highest profile–the amount of money invested in their performances and inclusions in the starting lineups is so egregious that it raises the stakes of the decision to play or not play.

By contrast, my case shows that a player, without a similar stature and big contract, would prematurely return to the field if given the chance.

In the cases when we are talking about BIG money is when coaches need to step up, and protect the players from themselves.

I watched it first-hand with David Beckham when he was with the Galaxy. David had a whole nation’s worth of pressure on him, not to mention $250 million reasons to lace ’em up.

Beckham, the most anticipated British arrival since the Beatles–a major career move for David–had a dark cloud over it because of an ankle injury he carried with him over the pond.

You could tell in practice he was hurting; you could see his swollen ankle on the training table afterwards, but regardless of how he was feeling he would submit to those three words: “Can you play?”

“Well, he looks exquisite, but…can he play?”

One time in particular, he had played 80 or so minutes with England, and then traveled all the way back to LA the next day to show up in our locker room for an MLS game. He walked into the locker room in one of his just exquisite custom suits (David, don’t forget we wear the same size when you throw some out) and not one of us, including him, thought there would be a chance he would play the day after a full international and a cross-Atlantic flight.

Sure enough, 30 minutes before warm up, Frank Yallop came into the locker room and walked up to David.

Since my locker was three away from David’s, I could overhear the entire conversation.

After some small talk and jokes about the trip, Frank asked it…”Can you play?”

David paused for a second, looked down at his feet and then back up to Frank and said, “Sure.”

You know how this story goes: David tweaked his ankle in the game and began a two-year battle with injuries ending in a blown-out Achilles.

Frank, whom I respect as a coach tremendously, came forward and admitted he should have never asked David that question and left that choice up to him–because Frank knew that David is the sort of guy that loves the game so much, and cares so much about changing soccer in America, that he would say, “Sure.”

Frank was dealing with something that coaches often don’t in MLS but do on a daily basis in Europe; multi-million reasons to put an injured player on the field. Wayne Rooney, Fernando Torres, and most recently Owen Hargreaves– like many have before them, and many will after them, all said “Sure.”

And when the goals dry up and the injuries pile up, whom do the fans often criticize? The players who tried to play when they should have never been given the option to do so.

Managers need to have the courage and fortitude to stand up to pressure and protect their players.

They need to make the decision to keep them off the field when everyone in the clubhouse knows they shouldn’t be playing.

With the depth of the medical staff at these big clubs and the advancements in sports medicine, there should not be as much of a gray area as there has been in the past.

There should not be the sort of ambiguity surrounding fitness where a coach trusts a player to “know his own body.” Rooney and Torres’ form at the World Cup, and Essien missing out on South Africa completely, are but a few examples of managers who sacrificed the health of their players for the chance to lift trophies and large sacks of money. Until coaches take the decision to play away from the players, we will watch these amazing talents play themselves into the ground or end their careers as many in sports do: well before their time.

…don’t leave it up to us.

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29 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Kevin on 2010/11/16 at 5:59 PM

    Wow. Just wow. What an interesting and Insightful article.

    Reply

  2. Posted by JasonPrice on 2010/11/16 at 6:07 PM

    US soccer is very blessed to have Martino writing and commenting about the game, especially when one considers the likes of Lalas and Harkes…. Keep it up, sir!

    Reply

  3. Posted by Alex on 2010/11/16 at 6:46 PM

    What an amazing article. I know that even on my high school team, if the coach asks me to play I’m playing. Love and devotion to the game and to ones team does that. Its nice to see an intelligent voice from an ex-US soccer player (finally). I think anybody who plays the game can read this article and instantly relate to it. Thanks for this good stuff TSG and Mr. Martino. Keep it up.

    Reply

  4. Posted by Wolf Ford on 2010/11/16 at 7:04 PM

    Brilliantly well thought out and written in a fresh, direct way. Kudos!

    Reply

  5. Posted by Ben on 2010/11/16 at 7:31 PM

    A truly insightful article and a heart wrenching story. I’m sure every player, whether pro or amatuer, can relate to the desire to get back on the field and play despite fighting an injury. I have gone through it myself a couple times and I know for a fact that I have come back before I should have. Now I am coaching and realize that I have asked my players that very question. I will have to reconsider the question and look for more then a simple “yeah, sure”.

    Reply

  6. Posted by Russ on 2010/11/16 at 7:49 PM

    Great, now I’ll spend the rest of the evening thinking on what a completely healthy Martino could’ve done for the USMNT.

    Reply

  7. Posted by Arkstfan on 2010/11/16 at 7:57 PM

    The problem is with the idea of coaches protecting players is that they get paid to win.

    Reply

  8. Posted by Shane on 2010/11/16 at 8:29 PM

    Good read.. Well done Mr. Martino

    Reply

  9. Great advice. Something I will take to heart as I am 28 now and still an avid soccer player.

    Reply

  10. Posted by kaya on 2010/11/16 at 11:22 PM

    I don’t mean to sound like a total grump, but the urge to get out on the field is hardly limited to the realm of professional athletes. I ran my ankle into the ground until it was painfully obvious I had to end things, and by that time, I was “pushing myself” for indoor rec teams.
    In theory, it’s straight forward advice to take the decision away from the players, but I think the it’s a bigger problem for soccer because the professional and national coaches are competing for the same “shelf life” of a player and have a lot of incentive to get it while the getting’s good.
    The only sport that comes close is basketball and the olympics, but it’s a far cry as it’s once only 4 years with no qualifications or interim tournaments/friendlies.

    Reply

    • Kaya – I sympathize with you. Myself and two teammates all suffered painful injuries; I went to the doctor and eventually sat out the entire last month of my season while doing PT, one of the other guys went to the doctor then ignored the doctor and ended up in a walking boot for 4 months, and the last guy just ended up popping pills to make the pain go away. All of this for a men’s summer rec league team…

      Reply

  11. Posted by Ryan Rosenblatt on 2010/11/16 at 11:32 PM

    Oh great, Kyle has found another medium to beat the crap out of all the other guys in. All this does is make me angry when Kyle is hanging out in Venice and I have to listen or read my dribble from the “experts.” Seriously, great work, Kyle.

    Reply

  12. Posted by Bella on 2010/11/17 at 6:35 AM

    This is an article that I have been waiting for for a long time. The syndrome you describe has had an impact on everything from my beloved Liverpool to my kids’ high school playing days. Liverpool loves nothing more than to play our boys while they are injured, to the point that one begins to wonder if there is something particular Liverpool lads do with their groins as they seem pull them with such great frequency.

    You may have had nicer coaches than some, or don’t want to speak out of school. But its not uncommon to hear coaches at both the professional and amateur levels berate and/or ridicule injured athletes to get them on the field when they clearly shouldn’t be out there. And of course athletes don’t contradict the coach.

    Sadly, the history of revenue sports is a history of the expendable athlete — boxing being the prime example. Particularly in the U.S., where the talent pool is so large for the big revenue sports, when I am dumbstruck by the treatment of what I consider to be these cherished talents, I am told that management doesn’t care how long they last (or the condition they end up in when they retire or are permanently disabled), that they can squeeze the most they can get out of them and then toss replace them with the next kid waiting to take their place. Its sad, but not surprising to know that the career of an American (pointy) football player’s career average is three years. So athletes also say yes because they never know how many more times they will have the ability to do so.

    It would be nice if every team had facilities and philosophy like AC Milan, whose medical staff is spoken of as if they were sorcerers while they simply apply theories of prevention and full recovery to players whose careers last until they are ancient in athletic terms. It is possible.

    Reply

  13. Posted by GeorgeCross on 2010/11/17 at 6:38 AM

    Great and very insightful article from the inside. Thank you.

    I always thought at the elite level that the managers didn’t really have too much choice as to when a player was ready (not talking about very minor niggles) – I always thought they the medical team had to give the green light. The reason is that on the medical team there are doctors. And these doctors, regardless that they are employed by the football team, are still doctors that have taken the Hippocratic Oath, and have a ‘duty of care’ towards the patient not their employers. It always amazes me to see players come back too early and break down…

    For the Beckham thing, it was just appalling for LA to sell “Beckham packages” and then for Beckham to have to play some part of these games when he was injured.

    Reply

  14. Posted by Marc on 2010/11/17 at 10:14 AM

    Excellent article. The give and take between player and coach is a tough one. Players play coaches coach. All with the idea of winning. That is what makes asking and answering that question so tough for both sides, but it needs to be done. Where I would love to take this article is to the youth club/academy levels. This is something that is happening at that level at a frightful clip. Usually in the name of winning and at the youth level that is absurd as the kids are going through so many changes, both physical and emotional. While my tendency is to just nod at the professional level that just cannot be done at the youth level. This is an excellent article that can add to the ongoing discussion of what should be the “true” focus at the youth club/academy level.

    Reply

  15. Posted by Kevin O' on 2010/11/17 at 11:27 AM

    Kyle, great article. I was lucky enough to be living in Charlottesville and attended most of the Wahoos home games during you time at Virginia, and I agreed with Wynalda’s Tab Ramos comment. MLS fans never really got to see your full potential because of your battles with injuries.

    On the flip side, I love the direction you’ve gone with your career. You’re not pouting about what could have been, instead you’re doing well, the Roy Hobbs from the Natural move, sticking with the game you love but redefining yourself and using your knowledge to become a legitimate American voice for the game. Keep up the good work. I hope you usurp Harkes sooner than later!

    Reply

    • Posted by matthewsf on 2010/11/17 at 11:52 AM

      Kevin — thanks for the comment.

      I concur on the “not pouting” comment. I’ve been fortunate to interact with Kyle on multiple occasions and there isn’t even a hint of “woe is me.” He’s continually looking forward.

      Here’s the interview we did with him earlier this year: http://theshinguardian.com/2010/05/13/kyle-martino-tsgs-favorite-mls-color-guy/

      Reply

      • Posted by Kevin O' on 2010/11/18 at 1:42 PM

        Yes, it’s nice to have a charismatic, grass roots “he’s one of us” figure in place that speaks words that don’t seem to come through a filter. (Like his tweet about Rogers in the US vs. SA game you referenced, for instance.) Let’s hope ESPN pays attention to prominent sites like this one regarding who the fans really want sitting beside Ian Darke in 2014.

        Keep up the good work yourself, Matthew, I love this site!

        Reply

        • Posted by matthewsf on 2010/11/19 at 6:37 AM

          Thanks for the compliment. Just re-used some of your Martino commentary on Twitter.

          Reply

    • Posted by KickinNames... on 2010/12/09 at 1:19 PM

      I know this is like a month late but I just noticed this story and thought that with 4, yes 4 negative references to John Harkes’ abilities as a broadcaster in one article that someone should come on here and defend him. So…………………….ahh nevermind.

      Looking forward to more Kyle Martino on the broadcasts.

      Reply

  16. [...] read: Kyle Martino authors a guest piece on The Shin Guardian on his horrific battle with [...]

    Reply

  17. [...] David Beckham suit, as he mentions here. Congrats to our good friend Martino who will now be know always be +1 (and be better for it.) Get [...]

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  18. [...] » “Can You Play?” Don’t Leave It Up To Us! [...]

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  19. Posted by Kay20 on 2012/07/26 at 11:18 PM

    Wow. Not only is this article insightful, it is also extremely well written. It reads like a story, and a humorous and touching and insightful one at that.

    Quality read Shin Guardian, and quality writing Mr. Martino.

    Reply

  20. Posted by Dan on 2012/07/27 at 9:07 AM

    Great post. Better still that it’s reposted now. Very timely.

    Reply

  21. Posted by SamT on 2012/07/27 at 9:33 AM

    TSG Hall of Fame right here. The clarity and empathy in Kyle’s writing is fantastic, and this one will easily stand the test of time.

    Great to see Martino keeping up the quality behind the mic as well. Live commentating is a different kettle of fish than writing, and he seems to be taking to it.

    Reply

  22. Posted by Gregorio on 2012/07/27 at 12:34 PM

    I concur, a really good interesting read, i think its a hard choice for an athlete to refuse the call of “are you ready?” Its in the American psyche to play the through the pain. “shake it off” “ithere’s a diference between injury and pain”, use your own cliche.
    I wonder if not for Kyle but for other American athletes, if our collective american belief system of true men play hurt or don’t cry, somehow is interwined with refusing to play when still hurt or not. The flip side is to be labelled soft by society & your teammates (peer pressure amongs other pressures) or somehowthat you are less than a man. How many atheletes have we ridiculed for not being able to play for what we think are minor injuires? or do we label them as soft.weak, etc because they are injury-prone in our eyes? Read comments about Zak Whitbread for instance
    This piece certainly makes you wonder about the player’s responsibility for their own self-care, it also makes you (me) think about players similar to Kyle who have lost their careers to injuries that might have been avoided, if they only learned how to say “no” to themselves & others.
    I don’t know just wanted to put that out for food for thought, although I must confess I have the same mentality.
    But don’t let me piss on the Kyle parade. I think its a great peice & I love his sincerity & honesty.

    Reply

  23. Posted by euroman on 2012/07/27 at 5:19 PM

    interesting article and thanks for it Kyle. There is another story here too. There are many players who do self advocate and protect their careers by saying “No I can’t play tonight” and those are the ones still playing. You see this is a business and a player has to remember that he is a “piece of meat” and there is no loyality either way. The coach/team doesn’t give a crape about the player once he can no longer play so the real lesson here is protect yourself young man!

    Reply

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