Playing through pain is just part of the game

Tania Ganguli

Despite the guarded optimism coaches and teammates show when aplayer gets injured, players said they immediately knows how bad itis — whether they admit it or not. After Jenkins got over theinitial disappointment and pain, he had to focus on the healingprocess.

Other athletes have injuries which won’t worsen if they play.For them the rehabilitation process is delayed until the offseason.Physical therapy helps keep players healthy enough to contribute,and painkillers help but can’t eliminate the pain.

Then there are those for whom the pain probably never will goaway. Their chronic conditions are often aggravated by the strainof playing and training for football. They work to forget the pain,and say it is just another part of football.

After all the treatment and therapy, Jenkins’ hand still doesn’tmove like it used to, but it doesn’t affect his game as much sincehe switched to safety this spring.

Jenkins tried to play through the pain because he knew he wouldhave had to come out of the 2002 game if he told coaches andtrainers. Since he only played in one other game that season, hedidn’t want it to end.

“I was so mad,” Jenkins said, looking back on it. He shook hishead and looked down at his hand which still has a distinctscar.

“I waited all year to play.”


Ike Ndukwe knows that surgery might help his back pain, butnothing is certain.

Regardless, the offensive lineman doesn’t want to take thechance that he’ll never be able to play football again.�

Deciding whether to sit out or play isn’t always up to theplayer, but many would rather play in pain than watch from thesidelines.

Two years ago Ndukwe was diagnosed with spinal stenosis, ahereditary condition which narrows his spinal canal. Normal spinalcanals widen widen until adulthood.

“I’m a 320-pound man and I have the spinal canal of an8-year-old boy,” Ndukwe said.

He also has two herniated discs in his back, the last time hechecked.

A back condition also has plagued running back Noah Herron sincemiddle school. Herron says nothing will completely fix hisproblem.

Ndukwe’s spinal stenosis does have a solution — surgery — buthe won’t accept that.

Around Christmas of 2002 Ndukwe was scheduled to have surgery tofix his spinal canal, but after talking to several specialists hechanged his mind.

“I wasn’t going to be able to play if I had surgery — it wouldhave made my spine too unstable,” Ndukwe said. “I lovefootball.”

Cornerback Jeff Backes didn’t have time to make that decisionbecause he didn’t really know what was wrong for weeks. Last seasonhe had a shoulder injury that he thinks he suffered in the seasonopener against Kansas.

“I had two injuries, and one was worse than the other,” Backessaid. “I thought I tore my deltoid, but I also messed up myshoulder.”

Doctors allowed Backes to continue playing because there was norisk of further damage to his shoulder. Likewise, defensive endLoren Howard played on a sprained ankle in the Motor City Bowlbecause it wouldn’t get worse.

If the team doctor and trainer decide an injury can be playedwith, the rest is up to the player and how much pain he cantolerate.

“You separate the pain,” Howard said. “You have bumps andbruises and you get hurt all the time, but an injury that’s gonnahold you out is gonna hurt a lot more.”


During the latter half of last season’s practices, Backes’practice jersey marked him as an injured player. But when reportersasked him what was wrong, he dodged the question.

“Lets just say I’m a little banged up,” he said in November.

When playing with injuries, players take precautions andpainkillers. They say they play only if their performance won’t beaffected, but sometimes it’s inevitable.

Backes played the entire season but never talked publicly abouthis health problems. Players often conceal injuries so opponentscan’t target their weaknesses — former NU running back JasonWright taped both ankles before the Cats’ game against Illinoislast season to confuse defenders.

Backes’ injuries were especially difficult because it was hisfirst year on defense. He couldn’t participate in full-contactdrills, making it difficult for the former running back andreceiver to prepare for tackling on Saturdays.

“It’s frustrating because it kind of just hinders you,” Backessaid. “You play football because you like to do the hitting and youlike to be out there. I had to go through a lot of the season inpractice where I couldn’t hit.”

It’s the transition periods in training that effect Herron’sback the most. It hurt when the team started heavy lifting in thewinter and again in the spring when they started hitting. A fewweeks ago in practice he had one of the worst flare-ups he canremember. But he says he hasn’t had a bad episode in gamesrecently.

“It hasn’t the last two (seasons),” Herron said, relieved.”Thank God.”

Painful spells during games are combatted by painkillers andnon-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Backes said he received ashot before each game to “take the edge off” the pain.

In 2002 NU quarterback Brett Basanez broke his fibula thenplayed just two games later with a cast. The cast limited hismobility, and Basanez couldn’t run as much as coaches would haveliked. Basanez’s break was minor so he was cleared earlier thanexpected, but playing would delay the healing process.

When the team lost badly during Basanez’s absence, he didn’twant to nurse his leg any longer.

“We only had a couple of games left,” Basanez said. Then heechoed a sentiment expressed by Backes as well. “You can rehab inthe offseason.”


Whether the injury is chronic, short term or season-ending,physical therapy becomes a large part of the lives of injuredplayers.

For receivers Ashton Aikens and Mark Philmore, there would be noplaying through the pain, at least not until they had healed.

Aikens tore his anterior cruciate ligament in the Cats’ 2003loss to Minnesota. Philmore hurt his knee two games later againstWisconsin.

Philmore was carried off the field just before halftime. Headtrainer Tory Lindley and team physicians examined Philmore’s kneeimmediately, and an X-ray and MRI soon confirmed that he wasfinished for two months. But Philmore said he knew right away bythe way his knee felt.

Aikens, whose injury was more severe than Philmore’s, said ittook a while for him to come to grips with watching the rest of theseason from the sidelines.

“I mean, I was hurt,” Aikens said.

You get the feeling he wasn’t just talking about his knee.

“It’s probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had toovercome, sportswise and in life in general,” Aikens said.

Aikens said recovering from the knee surgery was a humblingprocess as he lost the strength in most of the muscles in his kneeand much of its mobility. That’s where the training staff comesin.

Lindley said he and his staff deal with two types of therapy.First is treatment in which they use ice, heat and forms of musclestimulation. Once the injury is treated, the next step isrehabilitation.

“A lot of exercise, therapeutic exercises, physical therapy withthe athletic trainer, balance, agility work,” Lindley said. “Itdepends on the injury.

“Each session is about an hour, that puts them in the bestsituation to get better but to make sure they’re not at risk toreinjure that body part again, and to make sure that other partsdon’t get injured.”

Both Herron and Ndukwe spend extra time with trainers. Herronworks mostly on stretching his muscles.

“I’ve just got to work on my flexibility make sure my backdoesn’t lock up,” Herron said.

Ndukwe’s therapy is more extensive. He works six days a weekwith the training staff and then goes to Athletico, a physicaltherapy center in Evanston, for treatment three days a week.

Lindley said that although NU’s training staff has thecapability to fulfill all the players’ needs, in spec
ialized casesa player might need extra attention from specialists.

Surgical injuries, such as Aikens’ ligament tear, take six tonine months to heal. Although Backes’ injury didn’t keep him outduring the season, he had corrective surgery in January and was’tcleared for contact during spring practices. Neither was Howard,who had surgery on his ankle after the bowl game.

“After surgery it’s almost like you’ve got to learn how to walkagain,” Aikens said.

But all the physical therapy he does to rehabilitate his kneemay eventually make the injured leg stronger than the other.

Others won’t be that lucky.

“When football’s long gone,” Ndukwe said. “I’ll probably have tohave back surgery.”

For now he’ll just keep playing.