"I went to see Doctor Avanzi and told him to cut off my legs. He looked at me and told me I was crazy."
Those are the words of the much revered and celebrated Argentinean soccer legend Gabriel Batistuta. A professional for 17 years, Batigol was a towering powerhouse of a man who bullied defenses in Italy and on the international level. He would lash the ball so hard that it seemed as if the net would burst as the keeper watched the inevitable goal in despair. Batigol retired in 2005, and overnight, he could no longer walk. At the age of 35, his ankles had deteriorated to the point that standing on them alone was excruciating. He imagined that his future was amputation. Just cut them off, he begged the specialist. A pitiful fate for a wonderful man.
"I wet the bed even though the bathroom was only three meters away. It was 4 a.m. and I knew if I stood my ankle would kill me."
Arsenal midfielder Jack Wilshere was just diagnosed with a hairline fracture on his right ankle. An injury that looks to keep him out for two months. The news was as disheartening as it was expected. Wilshere has been suffering from injury problems for the last few years and at the age of 23, he has had multiple surgeries on both ankles while sustaining other wears as well. Death, taxes, Wilshere ankle injury. He's now often referred to by rival factions as Jack Wheelchair.
The world of science and medicine are far more advanced now than even a decade ago in the days of Batigol but one can still imagine Wilshere in his early thirties, face flushed with tears in the light of early morning, begging for the amputation of his legs as the simple act of walking to the bathroom becomes too painful. Flesh and bone are as fragile now as they have ever been.
It seems that the key to the utopia of athletic life is signing a deal with the devil. Ambition in exchange for health. A chance at immortality with the stairs to your HOF bust composed of splintered bones and stacks of painkillers. The then for the now. Most of us don't even blink when these terms are read out to us. And an equal number would still sign their fate away if given a second chance.
It reminds me of a silly exchange that I always have with my mother. It usually takes place when I'm laying down on the couch with an ice-pack strapped to my elevated leg. She walks in and sees me pitifully struggling with the cold bag and jokes that by the time I'm 30 I will need a cane to get around. And I always reply that we'll light that firecracker when we get to it.
The body is a means to an end. I suspect that most athletes believe in this. It's less of a temple and more like a vehicle. You don't necessarily take care of it, rather, you try to break it. You torture, stretch and train it, pushing past limits and dealing with the pain of torn and regenerating muscle tissue for an objective. To jump higher, to be a millisecond faster, in order to manage two plates on each side of the bench-press. To be better than the other person working just as hard as you. The cliché states that while you're sleeping, your opponent is out there working. And the one thing you can control is how hard you work.
It's perfect for motivational speeches. It also means that you live a life in pain. It wouldn't be far fetched to state that no athlete is ever at 100 percent. At least not any person who's in season or working to improve themselves. What you learn early on is how to be a good manager -- since pain is apparently weakness leaving the body, you control the ebbs and flows of both. You become familiar with the knocks and bruises that you can play through, while on guard for snaps, twists and rips that collect their debt in the passage of months as you rehab and learn to walk again.
But when the tragic does indeed happen, it's a long plummet into despair.
I injured my right knee again not too long ago. The first major injury to it was torn cartilage during college preseason soccer training in 2009. That happened during practice for a semi-pro team just two days before an away trip where we would play two games over the weekend. I went on the trip and I played in the first one. By the second game, my leg had swollen up so badly that I came to tears during the warm-up.
The more recent assault to the joint took me back through the usual trance of doctor visits, X-rays and MRIs. This time, X-rays showed no structural damage and the MRIs were negative.
The conclusion was that it was just a flare-up of my old problems and I was put into an eight-week rehab program. If it didn't improve after a few weeks, injections would be necessary to smooth things over. A definite cause for celebration, but before the diagnosis, I had resigned myself to actually having that surgery. I had bought a ton of books and other stimulants that I believed could help me survive those incoming months of inactivity.
What I was afraid of wasn't necessarily the laying down, but as any athlete who dealt with a long-term injury can attest to, the fear was for the inevitable depression of it all.
FIFPro released the results of a mental illness study in current soccer players last year. They were as staggering as expected. Up to 26 percent of current professional players (180 were in the study) reported to have some mental health problems. Signs of anxiety and/or depression and adverse nutritional behavior were most reported. Nearly 20 percent admitted to adverse alcohol behaviors.
"This group reported a total of 174 severe injuries (so far) during their career (one injury: 32 percent; two injuries: 20 percent; three or more injuries: 17 percent), from which 31 percent were related to the knee joints and 12 percent to the ankle joints. Also, the current players reported that they underwent a total of 170 surgeries (one surgery: 22 percent; two surgeries: 13 percent; three surgeries or more: 18 percent), from which more than 50 percent related to knee or ankle injuries."
It's an unnerving experience. One day, you're in the one percentage of human beings in terms of fitness and athletic ability, the next you're wincing when sharp pains shoot through your leg as you struggle down a flight of stairs. After the surgery, you just can't do anything at all. You're a pile of limbs plopped down on a bed somewhere as you wait for your body to heal, for the stitches to be taken out, the swelling to go down and then finally, to wince again in pain as an athletic trainer bends your leg mercilessly in order for it to "regain mobility." Liars. They're sadists, all of them.
But in these months, you encounter a familiar beast in the tall grass. It's an old enemy with a new face -- crippling self-doubt.
We accept that one of the most critical weapons an athlete has is confidence. Without it, even the most talented of us are reduced to rubble. But that extends into human life, if you are not sure of yourself, you wither away under anxiety and inaction.
Doubt is always present, even during the time that you are active. A bad shooting night, too many interceptions, you lose the ball too many times in midfield and so on.
Then it questions your talent. Are you really capable of playing at this level? Is everyone just that much better than you? Maybe it's time to just give up the dream? It's routine but the saving grace is that you can transcend the feeling in those moments. You can choose to pass more, to throw a touchdown on the next drive or play a through-ball for an assist. Focusing on another skill when you're failing at the first.
That ability doesn't exist when doubt gleefully returns as you're injured. Instead, it feasts on your life force freely. You question if you'll even be the same player as before. If it's worth it to begin with. The answer always seems to be no, you will not and it is not. Each day becomes a trudge through endless hours of self-examination. Minutes begin to feel like centuries and the internal frustration of wanting to scream and cry manifests itself in lashing out at any and everybody. The world becomes hateful to you and in turn, you become toxic.
And at the center of it all is the simple fact that you're incapable of doing what you love. Worse, you're powerless to change it. All you can do is wait and count the seconds on your fingers.
In rehab, the biggest challenge for the athlete is to overcome the belief that their body will break again. It's impossible to live, much less play with that fear. The usual for leg injuries is that you're instructed to jog for around 10 minutes after the weeks of stationary biking and elliptical have done their job. Yet, as soon as you start, you can feel yourself limping around the track even as your physician orders you not to. Then you try again. And again. Then one more time. You keep going until your mind begins to heal from the pain of the initial betrayal that you yourself ordained -- that is, your body breaking.
I have a personal way of jumping this hurdle that speaks to my overall ideal of dealing with fear. When I encounter this struggle, I usually return to the track alone at a later time. Then in the same fashion that I would say "screw it!" before asking the instructor to jump out of the plane while skydiving, I close my eyes and sprint down the track with reckless abandon.
If I survive and nothing cracks, I move on. If it does, well, tears are better shed in private. I would assume each person has their own coping method since each person's pain is unique.
Sometimes though, the damage done is too much. The player never recovers their confidence. They come back into the living world in a semi-able body but with glazed eyes and a fractured psyche. You watch them perform and it doesn't take but an instant to notice that something is off. They're not the same. They float from one team to the other 'til eventually the well of second chances dries up. Their careers then whittle away to be stuffed under the remorseful category of "What could have been."
But the end, the post-career, for a large number of athletes is even more bleak. No one leaves unscathed, that much is true, yet the lucky ones are able to leave on their own terms: they have the energy and capacity to go into coaching, take up commentary work or even retire quietly into the woods somewhere.
According to the FIFPro study, the rest can look forward to the original 26 percent of mental health issues jumping up to 42 percent for the retired. Up to 20 percent in the burnout and distress category and around 30 percent for adverse alcohol behavior.
There are studies for NFL players -- most reported that they have difficulty dealing with pain after retirement. NHL players. And even college sports where the number of depressed players is skyrocketing.
All the while those former athletes wake up every day with the accumulated pain of years of toil. Batistuta begging for doctors to amputate his leg, Brett Favre losing memories of his daughter's youth camps, Michael Young leaving baseball with pain in both shoulders and Achilles problems and each painful case of players taking their own lives after suffering from brain trauma and/or depression.
It's the reality of sports that the laborers enjoy both the glory and endure the pain long after the games are played. I know what the future holds for me every day that I go into rehab to work on my knee. Most of us are aware of the stakes. A small window in time glittered with trophies, money and adoring fans in exchange for a life after. Glory on the field, just to be a rotting carcass off of it.
For those who ascend into rarefied air, who become legends in their vocation, the trade-off becomes everything, and it's not surprising to see them bitterly defending their name and accomplishments to the younger generation. It's not just the numbers that are stake, but the memory of every torn ligament, broken bone, headache and rehab session that's behind all of it. It's their life. That was the bargain.