I watched in disgust as Shane Morris, the quarterback for the Michigan Wolverines, braced himself against an his offensive line, woozy from a likely concussion after taking an unnecessary pounding from a Minnesota defender. It was unnecessary because he should have never been in the game after injuring his ankle and unnecessary because the defender should have been flagged for targeting. I watched Morris struggle to stay in the game as he limped around, barely able to put pressure on his leg. He waved off coaches who only seemed half interested in taking him out of the game in the first place. I watched as he ran back on the field when the quarterback who replaced him lost his helmet. I listened to the parade of boos as the clearly injured kid gave his body up for The Team The Team The Team. And as they carted Shane Morris off the field, I thought about March 30th, 1997.
On March 30th, 1997 my life changed. I didn't know it at the time; because I was a naïve sixteen-year-old who's only cares in the world were watching sports and playing sports. Typical meathead. Mostly I was just happy to be alive. It was Easter Sunday and my family and I had just finished our dinner when a good friend of mine came over with his new car. He offered to drive my brother to his girlfriend's house. I was happy to come along because when you're sixteen and one of your friends has a car you are able to experience freedom for the first time. The world grows around you.
After leaving her house at dusk, we began the 15-mile trip home. As we passed a gas station, a man driving an antique Ford truck crossed four lanes of traffic into our space. My friend was left with a decision: get sideswiped into a telephone pole or veer off down a large embankment towards a building. He chose Option 2. The car clipped us as he yanked the wheel to the right. We slammed into the curb and bounced, going airborne for a moment before hitting the grass. The car slammed into the side of a Presbyterian church that was having an evening service. Member of the congregation flooded out to see the commotion and to see what had just made their building's foundation shake to find four kids painfully climbing out of the window of the new pancaked Cutlass. Maybe they had asked for a sign from Jesus that day and received one. Maybe he was looking out for us because none of us were seriously injured.
The adrenaline flowing through my body masked the pain I was feeling as I fell out of the window and collapsed to the ground. I sat there for a long time in shock trying to figure out how quickly that had escalated from a simple drive home to a near-death experience. As the adrenaline wore off later in the evening, I noticed a sharp pain in my side that I disregarded as a strained muscle from the accident.
Fast-forward three weeks. Spring football. I've now woken up every morning with the same searing pain in my side only now it's running down my back. All the bruises are gone but my side feels like someone's sliding a hot knife between my ribs every time I move. This is amplified by the fact that spring football has begun and the daily beatings delivered and received on the offensive line have me filling up my bathtub with ice for hour-long baths at the end of each day.
At every competitive level, pain is seen as weakness. At least it was when I was in school. Water breaks were for pussies. Concussions were for the weak minded, and injuries meant you were soft. When I was a freshman, a defensive lineman had grabbed me by the facemask and ripped my head backwards until I thought I felt something tear. When I told my coaches about it on the sideline, complaining of injury this was his standard injury response:
"Kick your knee and get the sand out of your vag. Get back in there."
Our coaches always claimed that had our best interests in mind. They wanted to make us strong men who dealt with pain and grew from it. Our coaches also wanted to win. The school I attended was a local power and losing was not an option. There is pressure that comes from losing. If you're not helping the team win, get out of the way. I learned early that if you were hurt, you didn't let on. You played through it and that was that. When the coaches asked you if you were hurt, you said, "I'm good."
Defensive lineman takes out your knees and you slam down on your side. "I'm good."
You chip the nose guard and take on a linebacker at the second level who spears you to remove you from the play. "I'm good."
You're holding your side and panting so hard that your friends call the trainer. "I'm good."
You sleep on one side of your body because you can barely breath when you sleep on your right side. Friends ask you if you're okay when you gasp from picking up your backpack. "I'm good."
You look at the X-Ray of the large crack in your rib and all the cartilage that should be there. You listen quietly as the doctor says if you take a hard shot in that side you could puncture your lungs. You hear the words "Can't play anymore" and can only sit in stunned silence. When your family asks you how you're doing, you lie and say, "I'm good."
When I told my coach I told him I couldn't play any more because the cartilage on the right side of my ribs had worn away to the point where if you took a hard enough shot to the side you could collapse a lung, he was sympathetic. He said there would always be a spot for me with the team. I pulled my jersey out of my backpack and tossed it into the pile. "I'm good." I said.
If I had rested for six months, or taken the year off the ribs would have healed and I would have been able to play the next season. I pushed it out of fear that someone would take my place. I pushed it because I didn't want to look weak. I pushed myself to the point of no return because I thought the people around me had the best interests in my mind. I'm sure they thought they did. I'm sure they were trying to teach me what was taught to them so long ago. I don't harbor ill will towards them to this day. I don't harbor any ill will towards Shane Morris for waving off the coaches Saturday.
Despite everything, Morris wanted to prove himself. He'd been dreaming of this opportunity since the day he committed during his junior season, perhaps longer. It's up to the coaches to protect the players. It's up to Brady Hoke to recognize that he's putting his quarterback in danger by leaving him out there. It's up to Doug Nussmeier to look at his hobbled, glass-eyed quarterback and only ask "You good?" Players already know the answer to that question. It's been programmed in them since peewee football. You're always good. Morris was the opposite. He had to be carted off the field at the end of the game. It's up to the medical staff to look at the coaches and say "No dice." Morris would have continued to push himself, perhaps to the point of no return. He came awfully close. Stop him from going back out there, Brady. Stop him from putting his life and career at risk, Doug.
This Saturday, Michigan travels to Rutgers. Shane Morris will most likely miss the game with his injuries. My wife will ask me Saturday if we're watching the Michigan game.
"No, I'm good." Will be the response.
You can follow Mark on twitter at @markthenomad.