In a car, on a Texas highway, within the pages of a novel called "North Dallas Forty", quarterback Seth Maxwell talks to teammate Phil Elliott about football and pain.
"I'm actually getting to where I don't think I mind the pain," Maxwell is saying. "Remember when I dislocated my elbow? For a minute there it hurt so bad I thought I'd go crazy. There was no way I could stand it. Then all of a sudden . . . Well I can't explain. . . . Except that it hurt. And it didn't hurt. I mean it still hurt really bad, but I could stand it and actually sort of liked it, in a different sort of way. . . . "
To the business side of football, pain is a distant and disturbing abstraction, one best dealt with through such euphemisms as "nicked" or "dinged" or "80 percent."
To the coach, pain is a condition meriting great attention and concern, especially if it has an affect on performance.
To the player, pain simply is a way of life and as much a part of football as first downs and forward passes.
When highly motivated 270-pound men who can go from zero to 40 yards in 4.6 seconds interface, pain is the only sure survivor. And during a seven-year career, the average NFL player will be involved in 130,000 collisions in games and practices, according to Rox Mix, a Hall of Fame lineman and now an attorney who represents players in disability cases.
A basic reality of football is that to play the game, one must be willing and able to play in pain. In high school, that may mean performing with a contusion or simple sprain. In college, dislocations and hyperextensions don't necessarily keep one sidelined. In the NFL, the limits may approach life threatening.
New England Patriots quarterback Steve Grogan waived his rights to future litigation regarding a neck injury in order to get back on the field two weeks ago. New York Jets wide receiver Al Toon admitted recently he has played much of this season with a broken back. New York Giants linebacker Carl Banks played virtually one-armed last month before succumbing to wrist surgery.
"Pain is such a constant companion that it's a friend, not a foe now," says Chicago Bears defensive lineman Dan Hampton, whose eight knee operations have left him with more zippers than a motorcycle jacket.
Author Peter Gent, who wrote "North Dallas Forty" after playing for the Cowboys five seasons, explains the pain-pleasure syndrome as it applies to the NFL.
"Once you get into professional football you're basically dealing with a pretty elite group of ball players," Gent says, "so who makes the team and who doesn't is over and above physical talent. What coaches look for in a player is his ability to survive in the National Football League. And the single most important thing is the ability and the willingness to play with pain. So if you're playing with pain then you know you're doing something that is absolutely necessary for survival.
"You're really dealing in masochism at this point. You start to derive a certain pleasure out of the fact that you're feeling pain. Because if you're out there doing what they ask you to do and you're hurting real bad and they know you're hurting, then you can't be doing anything wrong."
Thus is it any wonder that toward the end of his career former Houston Oilers quarterback Dan Pastorini was taking 12 shots of painkiller in his ribs before games, and 12 more at halftime?
How much pressure is there to play in pain in the NFL? Before 1959, 32 percent of the players left the NFL because they were cut, according to a study done by Ball State University. In the 1980s, the number leaving via the ax had increased to 64 percent.
The Ball State survey of 635 retired players also offered some insights into the amount of pain players endure. According to the study, since 1970 42 percent of the players questioned said they left the game because of a disabling injury. The study also found that 65 percent of those who left the game in the 1980s did so with a permanent injury.
Ralph Mansell, head athletic trainer at the University of Connecticut, says when pro scouts come to see him about a player, they often want to review the film of the player's first game after coming back from an injury. "They want to see how he plays hurt," Mansell says. "They want to see how he performs when he is playing with pain."
A common explanation of football players' ability to deal stoically with injury is they possess a high threshold of pain. To some degree this may be true.
"The mentality of football players is different from other athletes," Mansell says. "Football players just accept injury, half the time they don't even tell you about things that are bothering them. Athletes in other sports are in looking for treatment for every little thing."
Gent agrees that a high threshold of pain is common among football players, but he also says pain is something you just get used to.
Among the injuries Gent sustained: broken feet, broken ankle, broken leg, broken ribs, broken vertebrae, stress fracture of spine, separations of both shoulders, nerve damage in both hands, slight paralysis on left side, torn hamstrings, eight broken noses, a scar on his eyeball and numerous strains, sprains and contusions.
"After a while you quit paying attention to your body's warning system telling you it's time to stop," Gent says. "Over the years pain tends to become undifferentiated and pretty soon you have pain all over your body and you don't know where it's coming from. At this point the pain is really all in your head because you've ignored the pain and short-circuited your whole nervous system, which has taken millions of years to develop."
Gent says he never got to the point where he decided enough was enough. However, after waking up from surgery for the broken leg and dislocated ankle he sustained in a playoff game against Cleveland, he came to a disturbing conclusion.
"They had put me in a leg cast up to my hip, which meant the hamstring muscles I had torn were also going to be pulled out straight for the next 13 weeks. That led me to the next thing, which was earlier in the season I had broken my back. Suddenly I realized there wasn't a place on my body that wasn't directly related to this injury, which wasn't injured. Like they say the hip bone's connected to the thigh bone . . . Well, this awful realization dawned on me that everything in my body, everything that attached to everything else, was broken."
Gent played the next season.
"You 'heal,' " he says, "but what you find out as you get older is that you never really heal. All these injuries eventually come back to haunt you.
"And there is nothing more exhausting than pain. It's constant. There is never any relief. Never any rest. It takes a lot of your energy just to deal with the pain, just to keep the pain blocked out. It becomes an incredibly grinding way of life."