Sunday, August 05, 2001

Football players pay high price to be tough

        A few weeks ago, a kid with asthma was struggling through a drill at a Moeller High football workout. His face was crimson, his blood pumped like a river over its banks. He took quick, short breaths. There never seemed to be enough air.

        “Where's your inhaler?” Bob Crable asked, because high school football coaches need to know these things.

        “I forgot it,” the player said.

        “Why are you running?”

        “I didn't want anyone to think I wasn't tough.”

        This is where it starts. Unless it starts earlier. Unless, when you're 8 years old, you fall and bloody your knee and don't cry, and your father tells you how tough you are. Or you take a drug to dull a pain so you can play a
game. Or you practice football in 90-degree heat while wearing a helmet.

        You dig deep. You gut it out, because you are a tough guy, until your body temperature reaches 108 degrees, your organs cook, and you die.

Game's mentality

        The autopsy will say Minnesota Vikings' offensive tackle Korey Stringer died of heatstroke, the 19th football player to perish that way since 1995. Technically, that's right. But the culture of football killed him, just as sure as the heat.

        “It is a very large part of the mentality of football,” said Crable, who would know. When Crable went to Moeller, football was his favorite thing. Not far behind was fighting. He had a friend who would trash-talk other kids. When the kids turned hostile, he'd turn them over to Crable, who made them wish they hadn't. Crable was a tough guy.

        Now, after four years at Notre Dame and many more with the New York Jets, he is a sensible guy. But he's still a football coach, so this is a point he makes with his players:

        You need to be mentally tough. Overcoming the elements is part of that. Can your mind overcome the weakness of your body?

        Now he wonders if that still fits: “I hesitate even saying that because of what has happened.”

        Kids who play football and kids who don't are trying to meet some tenuous definition of manhood. These players who die on the football field, in high school, college or even the pros, are seeking to define themselves as men.

Point of pride

        Toughness is a way to do it. You can't play football, son, if you aren't tough.

        As Crable said, “Toughness is part of being accepted.” Even now, when you ask Crable if he'd prefer being known as a tough player or a smart one, he says, “Tough. Absolutely.”

        Crable just lost a player, a sophomore who would have played a lot, because the kid ignored a tight hamstring until he pulled it. Crable's first thought was “What a shame,” quickly followed by, “But gosh, that kid's tough.”

        I cut weight as a high school wrestler. I remember losing five pounds in a practice, needing to lose a few more, and having a trainer roll me up in the mat afterward.

        All you could see was my head, which was sweating like a faucet. The coach nodded his approval. My teammates thought I was tough. I loved it all. I was a fool.

        Bob Crable told his asthmatic player to stop running that day. The kid was lucky. On Friday, a Northwestern University safety collapsed at practice. Rashidi Wheeler was an asthmatic. He had his inhaler in his pocket. He died.

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