Men In America
3:30 pm
Thu August 7, 2014

For NFL's Jason Taylor, Playing Through Pain Was Part Of The Game

Originally published on Thu August 28, 2014 5:43 pm

When Jason Taylor played professional football, his name struck terror into opposing quarterbacks. Now that he's retired, that name may soon adorn a plaque in the Hall of Fame.

For a reason why, look to seasons like the one Taylor had in 2006, when he was playing defensive end for the Miami Dolphins. He was named the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year that season, racking up 13.5 sacks, recovering two fumbles and even returning two interceptions — quite a feat for a lineman.

In that same year, though, he also played through a gruesome spate of injuries. In his own words: "A bad back and broken right forearm; tore both plantar fascias; multiple dislocations on fingers, thumbs; broken collarbone; ... MCL [medial collateral ligament] sprain several times."

He also suffered from compartment syndrome that year, a condition in which internal bleeding causes pressure to build up in one of the body's "compartments" — either an arm or a leg, or another enclosed space in the body.

In Taylor's case, it was his left leg. The injury led to 9 inches of nerve damage, a staph infection and 10 months of terrible pain. At one point, doctors even warned that Taylor might need surgery to remove his leg entirely. Luckily, he avoided amputation; it was still his worst injury in a 15-year NFL career.

Just one of those injuries would cause the average person to take some time off work. But Jason Taylor is not your average person. He tells NPR's Audie Cornish how playing through such pain has become ingrained in the game of football, and how bearing it is often necessary to keep a job.


Interview Highlights

On why it's difficult for football players to admit when they're hurt

Everybody's hurt. That's what you have to understand: Everybody's hurt. The day you play football will be the last day you're pain-free. It's a physical game; you're going to be hurt. But being injured and hurt are two different things. ...

Guys will certainly be apprehensive about disclosing some injuries. Unfortunately, when you see a situation like Alex Smith, so to speak — out in San Francisco, when he was the starting quarterback. He missed a game because of a concussion. [Then-backup quarterback] Colin Kaepernick came in and played well, and that was the end of Alex Smith in San Francisco — for being out one week. It makes that 52nd guy on the roster kind of worried.

On "manning up" and playing through pain

It's part of life. I mean, when you sign up to play a game like football, you have to deal with certain things and a certain level of being uncomfortable and a certain level of pain. ...

Some guys have higher pain thresholds than others. I've always been a guy that has a high pain threshold and also refused to accept not trying, or losing, based on being uncomfortable or in pain. I probably have a bit of a twisted outlook on playing through things like that, but everybody's different.

On concealing a catheter in order to play

It probably wasn't wise, medically. The doctors weren't happy about it, but I prided myself on being there every week, playing at a high level, and was hard on myself when I didn't. I wasn't going to let a catheter ... hinder me, if at all I can get out there and do it.

On notions of masculinity in football

There's probably an antiquated view on that by some guys. As medicine has changed, as the attention on concussions and ... such has changed in sports, I think people are taking a more educated look at treating athletes, and the way they kind of program athletes into thinking that if you sit out because of an injury, you're soft. Was that kind of thinking around before? Yes. Is it still around nowadays? Yes, in some ways.

But [sitting out an injury] doesn't make you less of a man. It means maybe you have a lower pain threshold; maybe you just aren't willing to push yourself through it. And that doesn't make you less of a man. It might make you a different type of competitor. It might make you less intense than some guys, but it doesn't make it wrong.

On the lasting effects of his injuries

I'm good. I've got nothing lingering right now. Am I 100 percent comfortable every day? No. There's things that nag a little bit. You know, joints don't bend as much as they used to. Hopefully I won't have any major issues in the future, but we shall see.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. This summer we're exploring the lives of American men and their ideas about masculinity.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN # 1: Toughness, strength, protective nature.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN # 2: Macho. I mean, you were just supposed to fight at the drop of a hat - as teenagers.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN # 3: I hate the phrase man up. That phrase is blatantly saying you're not subjecting yourself to what we think you should be as a man.

BLOCK: Yet man up is the directive most men will hear at some point in their lives.

CORNISH: Part of manning up is not giving into physical pain. Today we're going to hear about that from Jason Taylor. He's likely a lock for the NFL Hall of Fame. Mostly because of years like 2006 when he was a defensive end for the Miami Dolphins. That year he had 13 and a half sacks, recovered two fumbles and returned two interceptions for touchdowns. He also had...

JASON TAYLOR: A bad back and a broken right forearm, compartment syndrome in my left leg, tore both plantar fascias, multiple dislocations on fingers, thumbs, broken collarbone. MCL sprain several times.

CORNISH: The MCL is one of the four major ligaments in your knee. Compartment syndrome is when internal bleeding causes bad pressure, in Taylor's case it resulted in nine inches of nerve damage, a staph infection and 10 months of terrible pain. Now anyone of these problems would make the average person take some time off from work - not Jason Taylor.

TAYLOR: The beat goes on. The game doesn't stop, you just keep going.

CORNISH: Can you remember the first time somebody said, you know, be a man suck it up?

TAYLOR: Yeah, I mean my mom probably told me that when I was five - crying about something. So, it's - it's part of life. I mean it's - when you sign up to play a game like football, you have to deal with certain - certain things and a certain level of being uncomfortable and a certain level of pain. You understand that, some guys handle it more than others, some guys have higher pain thresholds than others. I've always been a guy that has a high pain threshold and also kind of refused to accept not trying or losing based on being uncomfortable or in pain. I probably have a bit of a twisted outlook on playing through things like that. But everybody's different.

CORNISH: Can we talk about that out a little bit more? 'Cause I'm trying to understand how much of that outlook and that culture is tied to masculinity in football and the idea of what being a man is.

TAYLOR: Well, there's probably an antiquated view on that by some guys. As medicine has changed, as the attention on concussions and the such has changed in sports. I think people are taking a more educated look at treating athletes and the way they kind of program athletes into thinking that if you sit out because of an injury you're soft. Was that of thinking around before? Yes. Is it still around nowaday's? Yes, in someways but doesn't make you less of a man. It makes - maybe you have a lower pain threshold, maybe you just aren't willing to push yourself through it and that doesn't make you less of a man. It might make you a different type of competitor. It might make you, maybe less intense than some guys but it doesn't make it wrong.

CORNISH: But at one point you were concealing your catheter on the field right?

TAYLOR: Yeah.

CORNISH: (Laughter) I mean, you were suffering with an injury that most people would go to the emergency room for and you were still on the field. And help us understand why.

TAYLOR: That was different. And yes, it was a - probably wasn't wise medically. The doctors weren't happy about it. But, you know, I prided myself on being there every week, playing at a high level and was hard on myself when I didn't and I wasn't going to let a catheter - a PICC line, which, you know, was not very safe, and I wasn't going to let it hinder me if I at all I could get out there and do it.

CORNISH: So given this mentality, how hard is it going to be going forward for football players to admit that they're hurt, potentially expose that they're vulnerable?

TAYLOR: Everybody's hurt. That's what you have to understand. Everybody's hurt. The day you play football will be the last day that you're pain-free. It's a physical game. You're going to be hurt. But being injured and being hurt are two different things. So, guys play through a certain level of things. Guys will certainly be apprehensive about disclosing some injuries. And unfortunately when you see a situation like an Alex Smith, so to speak, out in San Francisco, when he was a starting quarterback. Missed a game because of a concussion. Colin Kaepernick came in and played well and that was the end of Alex Smith in San Francisco. When you see a starting quarterback lose his job for being out one week it makes that, you know, 35th for that or that 52nd guy on the roster kind of worried. That's a natural way of thinking for players and I understand that. Again if there's an injury that you physically can't go out and do it, you just can't go out and do it. But there are certain things that we can play through.

CORNISH: How are you doing today? What are your lingering injuries?

TAYLOR: I'm good. I've got nothing lingering, right now. Am I 100 percent comfortable everyday? No. I mean there's things that nag a little bit. You know, joints don't bend as much as they used to. But hopefully i won't have any major issues in the future. But we shall see.

CORNISH: Well Jason Taylor thank you so much for talking with us and sharing your experiences with us.

TAYLOR: Well thank you for having me.

CORNISH: That's retired football player Jason Taylor. He spoke to us for our series about the lives of men. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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