Pain at an Extraordinary Threshold, on and off the Field

Former Redskins coach Joe Gibbs with his grandson Taylor, who has been battling leukemia with frequent chemotherapy treatments.
Former Redskins coach Joe Gibbs with his grandson Taylor, who has been battling leukemia with frequent chemotherapy treatments. "It's just part of his life," Gibbs said. (Photo Courtesy Of Don Wright -- Washington Redskins)
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By Sally Jenkins
Sunday, October 18, 2009

Unless you're a protozoa, you've felt pain. If you're anything like me, your way of dealing with it is a cheerful skipping and dodging avoidance. Athletes, however, meet it head on and play through it at peril of being judged worthless or overpaid. What is our stake as an audience in watching them endure the varieties of pain, stingers, torn muscles, fractures, until some of them are practically outpatients by the end of a season?

The question has been popping up a lot lately. Redskins offensive lineman Chris Samuels is weighing whether to play again despite a neck injury that leaves him numb. Florida quarterback Tim Tebow returned to the football field just two weeks after a skull-rattling concussion, despite evidence that such behavior can lead to dementia. They apparently subscribe to the view that "pain is weakness leaving the body," as someone once said.

When your value is constantly measured by winning and you're compensated for it with millions of dollars, pretty soon competitive conquest gets confused with actual character. Athletes can be a pretty fraudulent bunch in this respect. But there's nothing phony about their willingness to confront pain.

The athletic mentality toward pain leads to the piercing question: How do athletes stack up with patients dealing with involuntary suffering, such as cancer, AIDS and other mortal illnesses? The intriguing juxtaposition of athletes and patients is of special interest to former Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, who on Wednesday was named honorary chair of the Festival of Heroes fundraising event for the Cancer Program at Children's National Medical Center. Gibbs's grandson Taylor had leukemia diagnosed at age 2, and is about to complete several months of spinal taps and chemotherapy treatments, hopefully without any regression. "And then you're gonna pray for the rest of your life," Gibbs says.

Gibbs regularly takes Taylor to his treatments, which has led him to ruminate on how a football player's courage compares to that of someone coping with illness. It's his observation that physical tolerance can be as randomly distributed as the lousy lottery that gives a child leukemia.

"There's mental toughness, obviously, and there's physical," he says. "Two guys can actually have the same injury, and one can play with it, and one can't. Then, there is the fact that some guys just don't get hurt -- they can play forever -- and some get hurt a lot. And there's always been the matter of, how much are you born with, and how much do you acquire? That's a wild one."

In Taylor's case, his first year of chemo was so severe he was left with no immune system and his parents needed rubber gloves to hold him. He had to be kept isolated in a basement for eight months. "The little movie 'Cars' bailed us out," Gibbs says. The boy appears to have a near-bottomless tolerance for pain, but Gibbs doesn't know if that's a result of his natural makeup, or the fact that he has become so conditioned to it. "Watching him go through it, he can't eat, he doesn't like it, doesn't like the feeling, but he didn't complain at all," Gibbs says. "It's just part of his life."

Athletes, unlike patients, seek out pain by choice. More important, they aren't satisfied unless they're feeling it, according to the actress-author Anna Deavere Smith, whose new Broadway show, "Let Me Down Easy," focuses on the capacities of the human body. Smith, who studies a wide variety of athletes in the show, observes that pain and contention are their ways of checking for vital signs, competition to them is life, and if they aren't working and suffering at it, then they're just barely living. Her character studies range from a boxer who was punched into a four-day coma to a rodeo cowboy who got stepped on by a 1,500-pound bull.

"I learned a valuable lesson," Deavere Smith says, channeling the boxer. "When you get hurt, as a fighter, don't panic."

Deavere Smith, a Tony-nominated actress-journalist-playwright, morphs into 20 different characters in 90 minutes, using the same acute ear and mimicry with which she studied race riots in "Twilight: Los Angeles." In the process she (like Gibbs) discovers "two extremes of toughness" in completely disparate personalities, a bull rider named Brent Williams and the physically clumsy yet mentally tough-as-nails film critic Joel Siegel, who was so ill with cancer he couldn't sit up when she interviewed him.

According to Williams, the bull rider, there's no legitimate explanation for how a 150-pound cowboy is able to stay on the back of a rearing bull weighing more than a ton. "What keeps you on the bull is det-er-min-ation," he says emphatically. On one occasion, Williams was trampled so badly he broke four ribs and two vertebrae and lost half his kidney. Another time, he asked a doctor to set his broken nose without anesthetic, so he could return to the ring and compete that night.

Siegel fought colon cancer for more than a decade, locked in a contest to see which would kill him first, the cancer or a chemo regimen so brutal he described it as "beating a dog with a stick to kill fleas." Never athletic, he surprised himself with his ability to withstand the beating. "I'm pretty tough," he said. "It shocked the [expletive] out of me to find out I was tough. I don't know where it comes from. I was always the last kid chosen in football, baseball. I think it comes from 3,000 years of being kicked around Europe."

What these athletes and patients have in common is an understanding that pain leads to self-discovery. Competition is about asserting one's physical dominance over the opponent, but real toughness is about asserting physical dominance over oneself. The most stirring victories are not just over foes but personal challenges.

Tiger Woods winning the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach by 15 shots was a feat of brilliance; Woods winning in 91 holes on one leg at Torrey Pines was a feat of toughness. The first is so otherworldly all we can do is gawk at it; the second is something we can admire in a more personal, human way. The cyclist Lance Armstrong discovered himself as a champion while fighting testicular cancer, because "cancer taught him about winning by presenting to him a real, palpable fear of failure, failure as death," Smith says. Armstrong told her, "I just didn't want to face this, this, this, demon called failure."

Athletes' continual engagement with pain is what gives them real moral weight as performers. Maybe the most important thing they offer us is the notion that ease is not the only thing worth seeking. Whether pain is voluntary or involuntary, in the long run it's inevitable for all of us, so we better learn to deal with it. So many of us treat pain as an alarm, a message to stop, whereas athletes treat it as a message that they're reaching their limit -- right where they're supposed to be.

"I don't read sports, don't watch, I barely know what third base means," Deavere Smith says. "But what athletes and athleticism has given me, as I think about wellness and health and winning and losing, and why some people die and why some don't, and knowing it has nothing to do with moral correctness, athletes taught me something about fearlessness with the hurt. That's not what animates them. And so many of us, our lives are animated around this avoidance of hurt, harm, doing anything we can to avoid being touched by pain."

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