Life In The NFL Trenches, And The Disconnect Between Logic And Love

Kris Jenkins played 10 years in the NFL, and at his peak, he was on of the best defensive linemen in football. Then, toward the end of his career, his body began to wear down.

The numbness started at the very beginning. I couldn’t feel part of both arms. I couldn’t feel part of both legs. It was worse on the left. I’m just starting to get feeling back in my left side. Look, football is no joke.

That comes from the New York Times, where the recently-retired Jenkins opens up to Greg Bishop about everything from injuries, cliche-happy coaches, adjusting to making the NFL, to the dangers facing offensive and defensive lineman in the modern era. It's all a pretty fascinating read from a guy without much to gain from speaking out.

But then he hints at something deeper.

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First, some excerpts from what he said. On Roger Goodell's fines for big hits:

Roger Goodell said something to me that always stuck in my head: We’re ambassadors for the game. O.K., well, if we’re ambassadors for the game, then we should be able to have a voice.

[...]

What you hear from guys like Ray Lewis, James Harrison, what they’re saying is we’re well aware what we’re signing up for. The violence, we love it. The madness, we love it. We love measuring ourselves in it. Those guys express themselves with their pads. You soften the game, you’re taking away their freedom of expression. Nobody wants to see flag football, and now, you might as well give guys flags, tell them to hug afterward, all that.

On his first concussion:

I got my first N.F.L. concussion against Green Bay, my rookie year. I jumped, and my feet got clipped, and I hit the ground face-first. Bang! No shoulders. No chest. Nothing. Just my face hit. I got up, and I had the punch-drunk feeling, seeing starbursts and feeling giddy. I knew where I was. I knew what was going on. I also knew I had my bell rung. I made tackles back to back, and I remember one coach saying, the way he’s playing right now, the concussion probably did him some good. I played the whole game.

On the effects of football:

The brain fog? It still hasn’t stopped. It feels like you’re punch-drunk, like someone hit you over the head. It’s like you knock yourself stupid. When you have to concentrate on things, then it becomes an issue. My head gets foggy to the point where I really can’t function. Then I get acupuncture. I get massage treatments.

On the choice all players face:

I made the choice to play football. I made the choice to walk through the concussions. I could have stopped. I could have said, my head hurts. It was my choice, as a man. We consider football a gladiator sport because we understand you’re going to get hurt. You’re putting your life on the line. You might not die now, like in an old Roman arena, but 5, 10 years down the road, you could. You know that. I wouldn’t change anything.

To review: He hates Goodell ruining the game, even if the game has robbed him of his health down the road. But of course Jenkins wouldn't change a thing. And that's the fundamental problem.

The ones you try to protect love the game most because of what you want to eliminate. In other words, for anyone trying to make football less violent, the biggest enemies you face are football players. This has been argued before, but nobody's spelled it out quite like Jenkins.

Players love football so much that they'll accept the massive damage it does to their bodies. Then when they give up the game, they'll spend a lifetime dealing with the psychic and physical consequences, and a lifetime missing the game that did it to them. And what do they miss?

"The violence is what I remember," Jenkins says. "The mayhem, finding the line between insanity and sanity, that’s the exact reason why you play. That’s the reason fans like football in the first place."

He's probably right about fans, and he's speaking from experience as a player, so it's hard to argue. Straddling "the line between insanity and sanity" sounds so cool, too. But then you remember the "brain fog" and half his body going numb, and it's all harder to romanticize.

Jenkins begins his piece saying, "N.F.L. fans, people outside, they have no clue what goes on", but we kinda do. More and more, we learn and understand what's really at stake in all this. And the more we learn about what football does to football players in 2011, the weirder it feels to revel in it all. This isn't new, but it's not going away. Nobody knows knows where the line between sanity and insanity actually falls, and nobody knows whose place it is to decide.

I just know I couldn't help thinking of Kris Jenkins' interview when I saw his younger brother Cullen Jenkins lay down the hit of the night on Sunday. Then I saw D.J. Ware blinking his eyes and writhing in pain on the ground while Cris Collinsworth erupted in praise, and thought, "God damn, football makes no sense." And to guys like Jenkins, maybe that's the point.

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