Injuries and the lockout: what to expect

Last week, Yahoo's Jason Cole covered an aspect of the lockout that most people haven’t gotten to yet - the issue of the players' health once the lockout ends. The subject matter hasn’t gotten a lot of press so far, but I have spoken with other docs and healthcare providers since early last year about this same issue. The concern revolves around what will happen when a lot of players - veterans and rookies alike - hit the field after an extended layoff. Relatively few of them will be in ‘football shape’. Many won’t even be in shape to get into shape, as it were.

Brett Fischer, the founder of Fischer Sports in Phoenix said, “There’s no light at the end of the tunnel to those guys.”

There actually is a light;  the problem is, it appears to be an oncoming train. Probably for the majority of the players, muscle pulls, tears and other soft tissue damage (like torn ligaments and tendons) are going to happen quite a bit more than usual. As far as the rookies go, there's not that much similarity between conditioning on the college and NFL levels, and concerns about this aspect of the issue go back to last season, where a lot of folks on the doc and trainer side saw this one coming.

When players go without being properly pushed and conditioned yet without being overtrained, physically, you’ll always see some additional level of injury, such as the players who like to overdo the squat. Pushing a 600-lb squat is impressive, but if you can't push a whole lot of weight using the hamstrings just as easily, you'll wind up with hammie pulls at the least and in many cases tears. There's not much question that such a scenario is very likely with a lot of players, veterans as well as rookies. The rookies will probably suffer more, unless teams take the opportunity to develop them off the field as much as possible. And to be honest, forward-looking franchises haven't been in the majority so far, so Cole is likely to be right as far as that goes.

I noted in Rahim Moore's Broncography that while it's likely he would have started in a year of labor peace, the year 'off' of that could have substantial benefits - both he and fellow rookie safety Quinton Carter need to work with strength coach Rich Tuten's people as much as possible to prepare themselves for the NFL’s physical stresses as well as to learn their positions. That’s true of many of the players, but safety is a position that is as much cerebral as physical. The only good side of the lockout for the young rookies (Rahim only turned 21 in February, so he's even younger than usual, whereas Carter took a redshirt year in 2007 and graduated before declaring for the draft - he'll be 23 a month from today) is that many of the young players won't have time to learn their roles. The teams could use that to their advantage and set them up immediately with individually tailored programs to improve strength and flexibility, while working with them on the playbook. It would be more a matter of emphasis - you're going to do both with all newer players or new schemes, but changing the emphasis to conditioning will make more sense if we wind up with half a season.

One team doctor quoted in the article said earlier this offseason that he met with a veteran player who ‘admitted’ to trying a ‘radical’ therapy of injecting stem cells into his knee. The procedure is similar to what New York Yankees pitcher Bartolo Colón reportedly had done to his shoulder after missing all of the 2010 season and pitching in no more than 19 games in any single season from 2006 to 2009. Similar or not, there’s nothing radical about some of the stem cell applications for joint problems.

“I just looked at him and said, ‘There’s no such thing as injecting stem cells in a joint, that’s not how they work,’ ” the doctor said, quietly incredulous. “I was lucky because this is a player who trusted me and was willing to tell me what’s going on. I can’t even imagine some of the things we’re going to see when players come back, what kind of surgeries they had that nobody knew about or the kind of rehab they may or may not have done.”

While I understand the thrust of the above-quoted doc’s feeling on this and I’ve no doubt that he’s sincere, he is also completely wrong on his ‘facts’. Actually, Dr. Chris Centeno of Broomfield, CO has developed, along with several other docs, a whole series of methods of using one’s own stem cells, in this case taken from bone marrow and grown in laboratory conditions and injecting them into joints to do things as divergent as to rebuild missing cartilage in a knee or ankle, to regrow deteriorated spinal discs and to eliminate non-healing spiral fractures of the humerus. These are not the embryonic stem cells that so many arguments are about - they are a variety that has certain specific limitations and uses. We’re in the stage right now of getting the procedures approved by Medicare.

As it happens, I know about this for a fact simply because in addition to having served on the Board of the Spinal Injury Foundation with Dr. Chris, I’ve got a six-mm hole in the talus bone of my right ankle and I’m waiting for Medicare approval to get it fixed. In my case, along with the stem cells a structural matrix or ‘scaffolding’ of material will also be injected into the site, and that matrix then fills in with the appropriate stem cells. Specific support nutrients are also involved. I’ve been monitoring Dr. Centeno’s work for some years now, and some of the results he’s achieved have been staggering. The procedures have been highly effective in a vast array of sports and other types of injuries, from typical age-related disc deterioration to motor vehicle accident victims and sports injuries patients.  It will remake parts of medicine, saving vast amounts of money on surgeries and other procedures that will become unnecessary due to the value of this approach.  I’m sure that there are some doctors who are are doing the procedure incorrectly, but done right, it’s an extremely valuable tool.

However, that one factual issue aside, the overall article makes a lot of good points. Linemen who play at 325 pounds may come in at 375 or above. Players rarely can push themselves to the point that a good trainer can, and not every player can afford private trainers - something that’s particularly true in the case of rookies who haven’t even received a single paycheck yet.  Players will ‘lose’ weight via stimulants and/or diuretics, depend on crash diets and otherwise, throwing their metabolisms out of balance and stressing their hearts. Brett Fischer makes a valid point as well:

I think you’re going to see more hamstring injuries and muscle tears than you have ever seen before. Even for the guys who have been working out with us, we’re doing the best we can to get them ready, but you can’t hit and you can’t even replicate that speed and tempo. We’ve had guys working in cleats a lot just to get used to running again, but that’s really the best you can do.

Few of us saw the ‘downsizing’ of the team’s staffs coming very far in advance. The problems with the communities who took on tax burdens to help build stadiums are caught with a continuing level of cost, but the potential for a major loss among all the citizens who would be running parking, concessions, pre- and post-game meals and drinks, taxis and dozens of other ways to make a living may take a huge hit. When the Eighth Circuit's judges intimated that they may have a solution that neither side likes, a number of options emerged, including that the players may not re-form into a union, just as Gene Upshaw suggested a couple of decades past. That might let the legal options meander onward while putting the teams - and more importantly, the communities - back to work. But when it comes to the health of the players, it’s more than likely that a lot of them are going to take a hit on injuries, some of which will end careers.

It’s a good lesson for all sides. It’s not unusual for a team’s season to depend on injuries to just one or two players - the extent of the effects on the Broncos' defense from Elvis Dumervil’s injury last year is one example. Would Indy be Indy if Peyton Manning went down for the season? When they write the story of this work stoppage, I hope that they give some ink to what happens after the players return, as well as to what happens to the community when there is a lockout.

To borrow a phrase from baseball - play ball, dang it! Here’s to hoping that Lady Injury doesn’t wreak havoc on the Broncos any more than on any other team. Here’s to hoping that the players show some sense and maturity in maintaining the source of their livelihood - their physical conditioning. And here’s to hoping that the owners recognize that the outcome of the phase of returning to the gridiron counts greatly on them.

Go Broncos!

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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