Aching to play

Especially in Super Bowl, pain often overlooked for good of team

By Kay Lazar
Globe Staff / February 4, 2012
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Imagine being tackled by a baby killer whale, or belly-flopping from a 12-foot platform.

That’s how much force, roughly three-fifths of a ton, professional football players encounter during the bigger collisions in a game, according to football physics guru Timothy Gay, a professor at the University of Nebraska.

More garden variety tackles involve forces of a mere half-ton, but multiply that by about 550 - the number of hits in a typical NFL game, by Gay’s calculations - and the math begins to paint a picture of the battle-scarred bodies that will be squaring off in tomorrow’s Super Bowl between the Patriots and Giants.

From the time training camps open in June until the season ends eight months later, the players routinely rack up strains, sprains, and dislocated joints - in addition to the headline-grabbing injuries such as Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski’s sprained left ankle.

They manage to overcome the aches and nagging injuries to perform at peak level in the biggest game of their lives because of their training, strength, tolerance for pain, and, when that fails, powerful drugs, say retired players and team doctors.

Playing through pain and injuries has a cost, however: Much attention has been paid in recent years to long-term brain damage caused by repeated concussions and head banging, and now some ex-players have sued the NFL over the use of the painkiller Toradol, which they allege has the potential to worsen injuries because it masks pain.

Most players accept the pain and injuries as an inescapable part of the game.

Popular wide receiver Troy Brown, who played 15 seasons with the Patriots and set the franchise record for receptions before retiring in 2008, said he was lucky that he didn’t suffer “major, major stuff like complete knee tears’’ during his tenure.

Still, Brown, now 40, remembers several severe ankle strains and underwent knee surgery during his Patriots days, which made it tough to climb out of bed some mornings after games.

“It feels like crap,’’ he said, “but it’s something you get used to it and you deal with it.’’

He said it was easier to push those aches aside in the weeks leading up to the three Super Bowls he played in - after the 2001, 2003, and 2004 seasons - because it was a “childhood dream’’ that blocked out everything else.

These days, pain and anti-inflammatories are frequent companions.

“I have tendinitis,’’ Brown said, “in all my joints.’’

The increasing speed and weight of football players has combined to produce more brute energy, enough during the course of one game, Gay calculates, to lift a 1.5-ton truck about a mile and a half in the air. The speediest players, moving at about 10 yards per second, have about 800 pounds of force shooting through their ankles, particularly on some tight turns.

“That’s why ankles and knees get blown out,’’ said Gay, whose book, “The Physics of Football,’’ contains a foreword written by a guy named Bill Belichick.

The two were classmates at Phillips Academy in Andover, where Gay was the football team manager during the 1970 season and Belichick played center.

The collective bargaining agreement signed last year between the NFL and its players aims to reduce injuries in part by limiting the number of full-contact practices, but contact - and often pain - can’t be avoided during games.

Dr. Brian Wainger, a neurologist who studies and treats patients for pain at Massachusetts General Hospital, said research has shown that the human body is able to produce powerful hormones, called endorphins, that can suppress pain signals to the brain from an injury.

“The best example of this is in soldiers, who despite having horrific injuries, don’t feel pain,’’ Wainger said.

While he hasn’t studied NFL players, Wainger said they likely experience a similar, though not quite as powerful, endorphin release during competition. Brown said that in the heat of a game, being on the receiving end of a hit usually didn’t hurt much.

There is tremendous variation among people when it comes to pain thresholds, Wainger said, with some evidence that genetics and environment can affect those thresholds.

Also playing a role is the use of the potent anti-inflammatory Toradol, which is commonly injected into NFL players before games.

Dr. Matthew Matava, a professor of orthopedic surgery at Washington University School of Medicine, and the head physician for the St. Louis Rams, said the “vast majority’’ of teams use the painkiller.

“It’s typically used before a game if a patient has an injury and if they know it’s going to hurt afterward,’’ Matava said.

In December, 12 former NFL players sued the league, alleging that it did not warn them and sought to conceal information about the lasting dangers of repeated concussions - and repeated injections of Toradol that allowed them to play through pain.

Included in the group is Scott Dragos, 36, a former Boston College player signed briefly by the Patriots and the Giants in 1998 for their practice squads, before playing three years with the Chicago Bears.

“Plaintiffs have described the situation as one of being in a pregame locker room with players lining up to receive injections of Toradol in a ‘cattle call’ with no warning of any sort being given, no distinguishing between different medical conditions of the players, and regardless of whether the player had an injury of any kind,’’ alleges the complaint, filed in US District Court in New Jersey.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in a statement that use of Toradol was “a medical decision made by the team physician and the player.’’ He added that “any allegation that the NFL intentionally sought to mislead players has no merit.’’

Just how much Toradol may be used for tomorrow’s game is unclear. Giants spokesman Pat Hanlon said in a statement that the drug “is prescribed for a player on occasion when the team doctor and player believe it is appropriate, the same as other prescription medications are prescribed.’’

Patriots spokesman Stacey James did not respond to an e-mailed inquiry.

Kay Lazar can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.

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