Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Football and the human body

Fraser Smith Big


For some reason, various expert observers, coaches and physicians wonder why football causes so many gruesome injuries — the torn ACL and concussions in particular.

The variety of grass, artificial turf, the wrong shoes, less-than-serious pre-season conditioning, head-to-head tackling get their share of blame. All of these factors may deserve some of the blame.

But you would think the various experts and coaches would be more forthcoming. They know the real reasons. They’re afraid to say the words for fear of putting an end to the whole entrancing, balletic, violent enterprise.

Injuries, as former coach Brian Billick said recently, are the obvious result of a violent game.

But there are other two factors that — two numbers — that may make the game unsustainable: 300 and 4.5.

Many linemen weight well over 300 pounds. Many of them, even at that weight, can run 40 yards in 4.5 seconds. They’re big and fast and, usually, pretty athletic.

These factors work for them individually. But when football players engage in their violent game, physics gets into the lineup.

One of the observers I read recently talked about what he called “unexpected angles.” Unexpected, though, isn’t part of the equation. If you play football you know that every angle must be expected.

The right adjective is “unsupportable.” The human body is a sitting duck for football injuries. There’s no way to defend yourself against a posture in which a knee or shoulder or wrist or — you name it — can withstand the weight or a huge tackle falling backward against the knee of your quarterback. Ask Joe Flacco.

Out for the season

Even a professional athlete, well-conditioned and hyper-aware of the dangers, can’t extricate himself from an inadvertent falling body.  If your leg is extended or hyperextended and 300-plus pounds lands on it, a season-ending injury is your fate.

I love the grace of Odell Beckham and his one-handed catches, the speed of Mike Wallace, the cunning of Dennis Pitta. The much-maligned Flacco has been without peer in throwing to his wide receivers and tight ends; he makes throws few others can match.

Nothing he could do about the rollup injury that resulted in his injury to not one but two cruciate ligaments. Beckham’s ankle apparently got trapped under a defensive back’s body. Jason Peters, a Philadelphia Eagles tackle, suffered another of those injuries where one 300-pound body was knocked into him when his knee joint was vulnerable. Verdict: out for the season.

The Ravens on Wednesday had 15 or so players on the injured reserve list. They have 10 or 15 others who were listed “out” or “questionable” for Thursday night’s game versus Miami, which probably had a roster with the same or similar list of non-walking wounded.

We get a daily dose of the NFL and, of course, injuries to the Ravens. Before last night’s game it sounded like there were at best three Ravens receivers ready to play. No one would have wanted to bet on the likelihood of getting through the game with all three healthy enough to play again next week.

Three or four other Ravens pass catchers were listed as “questionable” or “game time decision.” Guess how these players responded to the coach or trainer who wondered if they could play? It’s a violent “next-man-up” kind of game. Even if you weren’t making a ton of money you want to play. No wonder the coach says it’s up to the trainers and the doctors.

Not about hustle

I was never fast or big or strong enough to play football, but I tried for two years at the University of North Carolina way back in the last century.

Jim Tatum, formerly of Maryland, was the UNC coach.

One day in practice, a back named Giles Gaca got hurt on a running play. I think he’d been hurt before.

I remember Tatum standing over him.

“Giles,” he said, “you have to hustle. You have to run hard. When you don’t you get hurt.”  I didn’t see the play. I didn’t see if Gaca ran hard or not. I assume he did. He wanted to make the team.

This was before linemen began to weigh at least 300 pounds. This was before they were so frighteningly fast and athletic.

So, I’m guessing mere hustle will not protect from you the inevitability of a completely fair hit. Check any team’s injury report.

The human infrastructure just doesn’t match up well with the guys packing 300 or more pounds and 4.5 speed.

C. Fraser Smith is a writer in Baltimore. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. He can be reached at [email protected].

To purchase a reprint of this column, contact [email protected].