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.
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.)
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.
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?”
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.