Pint-sized Kerri Strug was a publicity black hole at this summer’s Olympics. She sucked up every inch of newsprint within lightyears after she vaulted with a sprained left ankle, clinching the gold medal for the American women’s gymnastics team. The New York Times compared her to a wounded soldier carrying the American flag up a hill in the heat of battle. Even sportswriters forgot that serious, occasionally life-threatening injuries happen every week in a popular game called “football.” And they forgot that football players don’t merely perform one vault, they routinely play entire games while in dire need of surgery.
Let’s not hear any complaints that it’s unfair to compare 87-pound Kerri Strug to a nearly 300-pound football player. It would be patronizing not to compare them. It would suggest that due to her size or sex Strug is less of an athlete. But a sport that demands a workout and diet schedule that stunts growth, delays puberty, and causes osteoporosis and eating disorders is every bit as crazy as a sport that blows out knees, commonly causes concussions, and sometimes creates quadriplegics.
So let’s see how Strug compares to just a few of this year’s NFL casualties.
“It hurt a lot.”
Fellow gymnastics team member Dominique Dawes, though a bit catty, put the vault in perspective: “If I was in that situation after 14 years [of gymnastics training] and had to do that ten seconds of vault, I would have done it.”
MARK SCHLERETH Denver Broncos guard
Left knee; surgeons removed loose meniscus cartilage.
Five NFL football games.
“It just feels like there are raw nerve endings exposed, and if I hit it or bend it a certain way it feels like someone’s driving a nail in you. On every play out there, it feels like you’re getting stuck with a knife.”
Less than two weeks before he started against Baltimore.
This was Schlereth’s 13th knee surgery, the 8th on his left knee. He’d had the 5th surgery on his right knee after an injury during preseason. While playing on the injured left knee, he also sprained an ankle so badly that the shoe had to be cut off, and ruptured a tendon in his little finger.
JOSH MILLER Pittsburgh Steelers punter
Five NFL football games.
“It hurts every time you take a step when you walk. It hurts in the morning when you wake up and open your eyes. It hurts when you’re in bed rolling over to the other side of the pillow.”
Miller was punting 12 days after surgery and played his first game four weeks after surgery.
Miller intended to play the entire season with the hernia, but the team gave him permission to have surgery soon after he told reporters during a practice, “If I was a horse, they’d shoot me.”
CARY BLANCHARD Indianapolis Colts kicker
At least one NFL football game. He played against the Cowboys September 15, scoring a game-winning 43-yard field goal, then drove himself to the hospital the next day.
“It was more painful than anything I have ever experienced.”
Five days. Blanchard could have passed the stones naturally, but chose surgery because it was quicker and he wanted to play a Monday-night game against the Miami Dolphins the following week. He watched his team practice the day after surgery, worked out that Friday, and played on Monday, kicking three field goals of more than 50 yards.
Perhaps Blanchard had the equivalent of a gold medal to inspire his quick recovery: “I didn’t get to where I’m at right now to let a Monday-night game come around and me not be playing in it.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Jeff Heller.