After five years, he discovered that what had taken him 30 minutes as a young player — dressing for practice and getting his ankles taped — took him two or three times as long. The agility of youth is first to flee. By 2000, “I’m in the training room, stretching, getting massages and heat packs, just to loosen up so I can practice for two and a half hours.” In 2006, at 30, he had just agreed to a contract with the Browns, even though he was pushing the age limit for linemen. After one week of practice, he realized that “I can’t move anybody; on pass protection, I can’t redirect fast enough; running drills and conditioning after practice, I’m the last to finish. That wasn’t the case when I first got to the NFL.” He called his wife and said, “Honey, I’m done.” Then he told the coach: to continue playing at his diminished level would diminish the team’s strength.
For most players, whether they stay the three- or four-year average or they stay longer, as Washington did, wear and tear spells the end. Though he “was blessed” not to have a concussion, he did suffer the typical lineman injuries: sore knees, neck, and shoulders. One position Washington played was blocker for the kickoff return team. Once the kick was in the air, he and three or four other linemen would form a barrier, or wedge. They would block for the kick returner, racing like a Humvee up the field. A 300-pounder, Washington would get “hit by 250-, 260-pound linebackers, coming full speed, headfirst.” (One linebacker described the collision as running all out for 50 yards and smashing into a garage door.) “Concussions were very, very common,” Washington says. “The joke we used to tell in the NFL was, ‘I came in at 6' 4", now I’m at 6' 2."’ ”
Beginning in 2009, the NFL banned the wedge because of the number of helmet-to-helmet hits that resulted in head trauma. The astonishing statistic for pro football is that there are 5 injuries for every 100 regular plays and 7 for every 100 kick plays; there are many more of the former than the latter. “Unfortunately,” the ban “didn’t happen when I was playing,” Washington says. “Still,” he notes without any bravura, “I did it for eight years.”
(Two years ago, the NFL instituted concussion guidelines. The rules include a neurological baseline test; a policy that instructs coaches that a trainer’s or doctor’s medical decision overrides any competitive consideration; and a whistle-blower system so men can report medical problems anonymously without fear of jeopardizing their careers. The big problem for ex–football players with concussions is depression: according to the American College of Sports Medicine, those with three or more concussions are three times more likely to have depression than those who don’t suffer head trauma.)
Though Washington so far has no symptoms of memory loss or confusion, he says he has seen former teammates “struggle with later effects of head injuries. They’re forgetting things, taking longer to do things, or starting to feel weird.” He says “some doctors,” those who diagnose these injuries, “are not educated about what NFL players go through.” Washington knows guys who are “depressed and have stopped being active. For some of these guys, it’s too late.”
The Virginia native is paying a price for his years of bone-rattling contact. His biggest problem (and the reason he has filed a workers’ compensation claim with Ron Mix) is that at 33 he has degenerative arthritis. Arthritic pain and tightness trouble his neck, wrists, abdomen, fingers, and knees. He wakes up stiff, and it takes him a long time to loosen up. “Things hurt where they’re not supposed to hurt. You can be sitting down and turn your head one way or the other, and you’ll have a sharp pain in your neck.”
Worse, it’s compromised his ability to coach.
“I really take pride in being a hands-on coach. I’ve had coaches in my life who were hands-on. They were actually able to show me how things were done. I’m trying to show the same things to my players, but I have to be careful because I can’t do those things anymore. I can’t run like I used to run. I can’t bend down in the stance. I can’t bend my knees the way I feel comfortable. All these things take their toll. I have to find alternative ways of coaching — whether it’s by words, by video, by diagrams, by handouts. I can’t be hands-on.”
Washington tells me that he hasn’t sought treatment for his arthritis yet, but he does stretch more and uses heat pads. “If it flares up real bad, I’ll rest. I know I’ll seek medical attention in 10 or 15 years. Hopefully, by then, there’s some procedure or treatment that will get the job done.”
Like many players I speak with, blame doesn’t enter his vocabulary. Injury, he says, “is something I have to learn to live with.” He adds that he’s often been asked — and he’s asked himself — would he do it again? “Injuries or not, I’d definitely do it again.”
His experience brings clarity about the pro’s conundrum. “It’s hard to beat running out on the field on game day. Your adrenaline kicks in, and you feel perfectly fine. But as soon as it’s over, your body is back to where it was, and whatever injury you have, it’s worse.”
A Much Deeper Issue
Perhaps the most telling tribute I read in the wake of the death of Steve McNair, a victim of a murder-suicide last July in Nashville, came from his former teammate, Tennessee Titan running back Eddie George. A married man, McNair had purportedly been seeing the woman who shot him. For George, McNair’s end was by no means his friend’s story or legacy. How to explain his murder? The Titan quarterback was lost after retiring from the game he played with such passion.
“I just know from experience,” George said, “that when you’re used to doing something for so long that you love to do, how do you fill that void? You’re in search of something. Most players may go back to things they used to know. They may revert back to drugs, divorce rates go up, obesity. You’re looking for something comforting. For Steve, it was uncharacteristic for him to be out there with this young lady like that. However, he was in search for something. So there’s a much deeper issue here than just Steve and extramarital affairs.”