During training camp in 2006, Ryan started experiencing excruciating pain in his feet. He said it felt like someone was stabbing his heels with knives (whatever that feels like). It was later determined that he had plantar fasciitis in both feet. The condition is not uncommon - athletes and non-athletes alike can develop the painful inflammation of the connective tissues in the foot. Properly treated with rest and physical therapy, 95% of those afflicted with the condition can return to "normal" activity without the need for surgery. What's normal? For a football player, that's two-a-days. Ryan received treatment on his feet several times a day, but there was no time to rest. Training camp cuts were coming. His job was on the line. He had to be out on the practice field.
Ryan had to take pain medication to get through every practice, sometimes two a day. He'd soak his feet in ice baths for twenty minutes after each practice to get some temporary numbing relief from the pain. He'd limp walking back to the dorms, not sure which foot to put more pressure one because both were in such pain. Some days, he just had to catch a ride. He'd even wear uncomfortable orthopedic boots at night to stretch out his feet so that his first steps in the morning would be tolerable. The average Joe wouldn't have been able to handle the pain. Ryan had to play past the pain and get back on the field, because that's what football players do.
Luckily, Ryan survived cuts and ironically ended up having one of his best NFL seasons. Fortunately, Ryan was the third-string tight end that season so his time on offense was limited. Yet he still managed to score his only touchdown as a Bill that season against the Lions in Detroit on October 15th. Ryan continued to be a standout on Bobby April's special teams unit - he was busting up wedges and making plays after sprinting down the field. And I knew he felt it every single time his feet hit the turf.
By November that year, the coaching staff began to take notice that the second string tight end was under-performing and before the bye week told Ryan he'd be going in as the number two when the team played Green Bay in a couple of weeks. The only thing I could think to say when Ryan told me the news was, "Well, that's great, but you can hardly walk as it is so how is that going to work?" Under any other circumstances, we would've been thrilled.
The good news is the coaches didn't make Ryan practice during the bye week so he could rest and the rest seemed to help because he was able to make it through the next game against Green Bay. The morning after that game, I had to help Ryan down the stairs in our apartment because he couldn't put much weight on his feet. It was so difficult to watch him in so much pain just walking - I couldn't imagine what it was like when he was in practice or in games.
The following weekend, the team traveled to Indianapolis to take on the Colts. I noticed at one point Ryan wasn't in his usual spot on special teams. I got a little worried but figured if something bad had happened, the trainers would've called me. Sure enough, I looked down at my cellphone and had a missed call from a 716 number. The trainer didn't answer when I called, so I hunted down the team's director of player programs who managed to find Ryan in the shower. He was hurt, bad.
Ryan was running down the field on a play when he felt a painful "pop" in his left foot and he went down. He managed to get up and hobble off the field but he knew his season was probably over.
After meeting with the team trainers and doctors, Ryan asked if there was a way he would be able to come back that season - he wanted to be back on the field with his teammates. The staff recommended that his left foot be given a couple of weeks to heal, then they would perform surgery on his right foot to release the fascia. Recovery from that would take another two weeks. By then, the season would be over. The training staff in Buffalo is just amazing. They were devastated for Ryan because they cared so much about him and they knew how hard he worked. One of the trainers though told Ryan he was glad the fascia finally snapped - he'd become increasingly worried about Ryan and the potential for him to be further injured if he continued to play in that state. The head trainer even took the time to call me and explain to me what was going on. Ryan was devastated when the team placed him on injured reserve ending his season.
I tell this story in light of the recent injury to Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin, III, better known as RGIII. During last weekend's playoff game, an obviously injured RGIII struggled to make plays while trying to lead his team to victory. After telling his coach he was okay to play, RGIII went back on the field for one more play - a play that the Monday morning quarterbacks would be analyzing ad nauseum. Here's how it went down - RGIII was attempting to recover the ball on a bad snap. Without being touched, his knee buckled in that awkward yet familiar way where instantaneously, everyone knew he'd sustained a significant knee injury. Most likely an ACL tear. It was a frustrating and criticism-garnering final play of this rookie's standout season.
The questions started after the game. Reporters asked Coach Mike Shanahan if he regretted keeping RGIII in the game. He responded that his player had assured him he was okay to play (despite having been evaluated by the team doctor on the sideline who, recognizing the potential for a serious injury, reportedly advised him not to return to the field). Later that night, RGIII himself said, "Mike asked me if I was okay. I said yes." In hindsight he replied, "I think I did put myself at more risk by being out there."
People have been calling for Shanahan's head - how dare he allow a hurt/injured player back on the field. But here's the way I see it - Shanahan was in a no-win situation. Hold RGIII out of the game, and the Redskins fans revolt because they don't understand why their franchise quarterback isn't on the field and their on the verge of losing the game. Put RGIII back on the field and your the bad guy who put your player in harm's way, all for the sake of a game. LaDanian Tomlinson was on the radio this morning and said he doesn't think anyone is to blame for RGIII's injury. He can't think of anyone who, if in RGIII's position, wouldn't have been out on that field.
This morning, my Twitter feed and Facebook wall were full of messages like, "Pray for RGIII today as he has surgery to repair his knee." My reply? Yeah, pray for him, but while you do, pray for all the other NFLers going into the offseason with surgeries set and months of rehab planned. You see, the average fan doesn't understand the personal cost to players for their Sunday entertainment. By mid-season, half the guys on the 53-man squad might be playing injured, with bad feet, partially torn ligaments or muscles, etc. It is not unheard of for several members of the team to require surgery to repair injuries they sustained at some point during the season. Ryan actually had major surgery during every offseason in Buffalo and he was not the only one.
You see, the NFL is a tough business. If you're unable to practice and can't suit up on gameday, you will eventually be replaced. Guys like Ryan aren't in the position to say, "Hey coach, my feet hurt. I think I'm going to sit this one out." Neither would they want to. It's part of the game. Injuries happen. Lots of guys play hurt, and are further injured because of the previous damage to their bodies. What happened to RGIII is not the exception. People shouldn't be so appalled - it happens all the time. Unfortunately, this time it happened to a superstar who everyone cares about and has a vested interest in, so now it's a problem.
I read an article today by Nate Jackson that mirrored some of my thoughts over the past couple of months. I've tweeted that the NFL should stop changing the rules of the game in the name of safety and start taking care of former players better. I've often stated that former NFLers should have lifetime health care coverage. I was glad to see the article state that same notion. The article also tackles this is - injured or hurt, hurt or injured - it's football. Stop flipping out about the injuries and demand that the NFL take care of RGIII when he's 65 and needs his knee replaced. Read this article - it's one of the best I've read on the subject because this guy gets it.
My prayers go out to RGIII and the rest of the beat up players going under the knife hoping to be back on the field next season.