Marvin Austin was born to his single mother, Donna Johnson, on January 10, 1989, in Washington, DC. Athletic as a child, by the time he was in high school, Austin was already a rising star.
He began high school at Coolidge HS, although other, bigger schools had made a run at bringing him on. As a junior in 2005, he helped Coolidge to the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association title game for the first time since 1986. It ended badly, though, with a 43–14 loss to rival Dunbar.
Coolidge assistant coach Moses Ware moved over to Ballou HS in 2006 and took Austin with him. That turned out well, as Ballou met Dunbar in that year's title game. This time, Austin, Ware, and Ballou triumphed 34-33. Austin made the All-Metro HS First Team as chosen by the Washington Post, in both 2005 and 2006.
That led to Austin playing in the 2007 U.S. Army All-American Bowl. USA Today named him to their All-American first team. They also chose him as their National Defensive Player of the Year. Rivals.com listed him as a five-star recruit for the class of 2007, ranking him above Drake Nevis, and Star Lotulelei. He had several college offers, but Austin went with North Carolina.
Austin played in all 12 games as a freshman (three starts), ending the season with 26 tackles, six tackles for losses, and four sacks. In 2008, Austin again played in all 13 games, this time starting 11 of them. He achieved a tie with E.J. Wilson for most tackles by a Carolina defensive lineman (38), adding 1.5 tackles for loss, one sack, one interception (returned for touchdown), and one blocked kick.
He improved even more as a junior. He finished his year with 42 tackles, six of them for a loss. He had four sacks, three pass breakups, six quarterback pressures, one forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. He achieved Second Team All-ACC for his play.
Before he could build on his draft stock, the Tar Heels' payoff scandal broke; Austin and five others were suspended. He was still permitted to play in the East-West Shrine Game. There, he recovered a Jerrod Johnson fumble on the three-yard line and ran it in for a touchdown.
Austin also had a good 2011 Combine, from a physical prowess standpoint. He ran a 4.84-second 40 yard dash, which is exceptional for a man of his size. He had a 30.5-inch vertical leap, and put up 38 reps with the 225 lb barbell.
The problems he ran into were in the interview room. Austin was accused of finger-pointing about the scandal, and of skipping the Wonderlic test. His character and work ethic came into question.
Marvin was chosen in the second round with pick 52 by the NY Giants. He probably fell from the first round due to the Chapel Hill scandal and his own reported behavior in interviews. The Giants still felt he was worth a second-round risk.
Hakeem Nicks was one of Austin’s biggest supporters, the first to call after Austin was drafted. Nicks commented,
He’s a great kid. He works hard, he loves the game of football. I know he’s going to come to work hard. He’s definitely not (a bad person). He’s a guy that just goes after it on the football field. He loves the game. He likes playing it.
Things didn’t work out for Austin in NY. He was on IR in 2011 with a torn pectoral muscle; 2012, his second year, was marred by a bad back. The problem was so bad that his right leg was giving out on him, and he could only play in eight games. He could only managed three games in 2013, between Miami and then Dallas. His back flared up again on November 3, 2013, and Dallas let him go two days later.
The Medical Issues
Austin’s physicians told him that he needed back surgery. That turned out to be an understatement. The problems were so bad that his surgeon later told him that it was a miracle that Marvin wasn’t paralyzed.
First, they did a discectomy and took out a section of herniated (bulging) disc, which was impinging on the nerves in the lower back and leg. The bulging disc was four centimeters across. Austin was told that the surgeons had never seen that big a bulge at that level, and they didn’t understand how he could walk.
They also had to remove part of the vertebral arch to make more space for the nerves - for the spinal cord or spinal nerve root. Finally, they removed material that had narrowed the spinal foramen. That's the hole through which the nerves pass. They used a laminectomy and had to open the spinal canal somewhat to permit normal nerve function.
It was a problem that he was born with, and the fact that he lived with it up to last year is a testament to the sheer guts of the man. I can’t speak to what might or might not have been happening in some of his Combine interviews. Playing college and professional football with that kind of difficulty says a lot about his character. Marvin Austin is one tough hombre.
Jack Del Rio took a reported malcontent in Terrance Knighton and turned him into a team leader and a force at DT. Until I understood what Austin has gone through, I thought that Del Rio’s influence might be the key factor in Austin’s return. It might be a part of it, but the overwhelming medical issues solved by surgery have to be the keys here.
You can’t get the kind of postsurgical recovery that Austin has made without courage and an incessant work ethic. As Austin has said,
I feel 10 million times better now. It just feels good to be able to run around, because I remember those days when I didn't have strength in my right leg, and I was taking all kinds of medicine and stuff to compensate.
I feel like I can be a story for anybody who has gone through adversity. Either you're going to come out punching or you lay down. And I'm a fighter.
Amen to that.
Health Care Options
We’ve been talking a lot recently about various options in maintaining players’ health in the NFL. We’ve covered CBD. We've discussed the problems with medical cannabis. It might be the best option for some players, but legal obstacles abound. I’ve talked at other times about acupuncture, Chinese herbology, and similar approaches.
Austin has been smart about the options that he uses to maintain his health and strength. He starts his home-care with yoga. It’s the modern adaptation of the ancient Indian art. Once considered a form of spiritual practice, it’s now one of the best ways for a player to maintain flexibility and strength. Similar approaches are Chinese qi gong and Japanese Shinshin-toitsudo. While yoga uses the term ‘prana’ (breath control and its energy), the Chinese use ‘chi’ and the Japanese ‘ki’ in much the same way. You control the breath to relax the body, improving movement, flexibility, and strength.
He’s also regularly employing acupuncture. Lutheran Hospital in Wheat Ridge, CO, just outside of Denver, ran a multiyear project. It showed that acupuncture used before, during, then after surgery diminishes the amount of pain the patient experiences. It also shortens the healing time and reduces the rate of complications.
For many other problems the use of acupuncture in pain management is finding a greater level of acceptance. Originally based in Northern India, the art migrated to China. It reached its zenith there before Mao’s ‘cleansing and modernizing’ programs. Japan, as well as China, has some of the best acupuncture training in the world. The term ‘balancing yin and yang’ may not make sense to the American culture. That’s okay. They’re just a way to categorize physical phenomena. This is a form of medicine that was doing brain tumor removals in the ninth century under general anesthetic. The patients recovered fully with no infection. What matters, always, is that it works.
Proof of the function of the meridians has been shown by injecting an isotope of potassium 14 into the LI-4 point on the hand. Over time, the isotope is followed with a scanner. The scanner shows that the isotope follows no known nerve or blood vessel pathway through the body. It does follow the acupuncture meridian(s) as described in texts that are now thousands of years old.
Austin also sees a chiropractor regularly. Many chiropractors use massage before performing joint manipulation. The body is then more relaxed, and the treatments have a deeper, longer effect.
In the US, we tend to see chiropractic as synonymous to joint manipulation. That’s a cultural tendency. The truth is that most cultures have had some form of that art. I’ve studied the Japanese version, called seifukujitsu, and another Japanese system called ‘Yumeiho’. I also was exposed to the Chinese system, cheng ti fa. I’ve been fortunate enough to study some Bohemian bone-setting (called naprapathy). I trained with practitioners of two systems of osteopathy. Each has its own strengths.
DeMarcus Ware uses and teaches the other linemen Orientally based hand-fighting techniques. It’s no surprise, then, that he also employs Oriental medicine in his own healthcare. He made the news recently because he uses an ancient technique called ‘cupping’, in English.
In cupping, the inside of a small jar is heated. It's usually done with a cotton ball dampened with rubbing alcohol, then lit on fire, creating a partial vacuum. The cup is then immediately placed on the skin over any site of muscle spasm. The partial vacuum creates a suction, much like physically holding onto the muscle for 15-30 minutes at a time. Some practitioners only leave them in place for a few moments, but do so several times per area. That can be helpful too.
It is like a jar, and you put a hot fire in there and the heat that’s in there just sucks the skin up in there. It keeps your pores open and it sucks that bad blood that’s on the surface of your epidermis - the skin. It helps with blood flow. It helps out a lot.
The skin is the largest organ of detoxification in the body. That’s why this approach to reduce muscular tightening and soreness is so effective. The round bruises left behind can be hard to explain if you’re not playing NFL football. When done on the back, they don’t show unless you’re at the beach.
Massage is a normal part of every player’s life, and the teams have massage therapists on staff. Massage relaxes spasms and tightness. It also clears lymphatic congestion and reduces the normal discomfort of training. Sports massage is a specialty that employs myofascial release. That’s the release or reduction in tightness of the connective tissue. It also works on specific areas of tightness, called ‘trigger points’. Most of them are acupuncture points.
Sports massage can combine with a variety of other massage approaches. Sports acupressure, combining modern and traditional techniques, can be very effective. At one point, I knew that at least one of the Broncos’ massage therapists was using that approach. He’d trained with me and one of my graduates, who specializes in sports massage.
Western physical therapy can be effective. One technique that I was introduced to when my chief resident was a PT was an approach called ‘microcurrent’. There have recently been tremendous improvements within this field. The machines used can provide a wide variety of waveforms. In the past two decades, I’ve seen remarkable results with it. The higher the level of training of the practitioner (and quality of the machine), the better the treatment results tend to be.
The Broncos also have an excellent nutrition program (Broncos TV).
This is only a small sample of the available techniques for dealing with the pain of high level athletics. Trigger point and facet injections are others. Deep tissue release works for many patients. My recommendation to anyone, athlete or not, is to develop a ‘toolbox’ of practitioners. That's a variety of professionals that you trust and connect with. You then have options when a problem arises. Most practitioners will do a structural exam for a certain fee. It can get them acquainted with your body and its potential areas of weakness or injury. If you don’t connect with them, you should move on.
Austin’s situation demonstrates a key reality. You can employ techniques of both Western and Eastern backgrounds. You should use medications and surgery when they’re appropriate. You can also choose from a wide variety of non-allopathic options, finding which ones suit you. Nothing works for everyone. It’s a good idea to visit a variety of practitioners, talk with them, and decide what you’d like to experience.
Being able to report Austin’s career as reignited is the best part of this. His courage is impressive. Once more, we can see that not reporting a health problem and looking for the right options led to a dangerous situation. Happily, this one worked out well.
Marvin was fortunate where others have not been. Seeing him playing at such a high level is both exemplary and gratifying.
Here’s wishing him a healthy, productive career with the Broncos.