A new level of respect for the physical pain that professional athletes must endure

Doug Pensinger

I recently suffered a sprained knee ligament while playing recreational volleyball. It's up to me whether or not I decide to play through the injury. Unfortunately, for most professional athletes, they don't have the same kind of choice. Injured or not, they're still expected to perform at a super-human level. Failure to do so could cost them their livelihood.

Two weeks ago, at the beginning of my co-ed volleyball game, I dived for a teammate's blocked spike and managed to keep the ball in play long enough for my team to turn the hustle into a point. Unfortunately, as I went to get up, I noticed that my right knee/calf felt really unusual, and I couldn't stand or walk properly. I had to hobble back to the bench and sit there while my teammates finished off Game 1 of the three game match.

After about 10 minutes, I felt well enough to go back in and finish the match. The following week, after another trip to the gym floor, the same pain returned, so I decided not to mess around with fate and got myself to the doctor's office for a physical. It turns out I have a sprained LCL (the LCL is a ligament that runs along the outside of each knee).

It's not a debilitating injury at the moment, and the only thing that seems to aggravate it is diving and putting unusual torque on my knee.

If I can avoid this type of activity, I should be able to get through the semi-finals and (hopefully) finals next Thursday without doing further damage.

Of course, that's the difference between an average Joe like me and your average professional athlete: I have a choice in the matter. If I want to give it my all in the volleyball playoffs and risk further injury, it's up to me. But if I don't, nobody will think lesser of me. After all, it's only recreational volleyball. I have my quality of life and well-being to consider. Why risk a few extra months of pain just to try and capture some recreational glory?

A professional athlete, on the other hand, doesn't have that same choice. Take an NFL player, for example. Injured or not, he's expected to go hard on every play and throw his body all over the field. And if he can't perform at a high-level, he's replaced by someone who can--often permanently.

If a football player is injured too much, his toughness is often questioned, and he gets labeled as "Injury-prone."

One would think damage to a knee ligament is something that is out of anyone's control. But the professional sports world can be a cruel one, and both coaches and fans, alike, will often show frustration with a player who repeatedly suffers these types of injuries.

Truth is, when you have dozens of over-sized men banging into one another 60 times a game, ligaments are bound to bend the wrong way, tendons are bound to rupture, and bones are bound to break.

As fans, we'll often celebrate an athlete's ability to play through pain and injury--and it really is something to be applauded--but the reality is the pressure is so great on these handsomely paid athletes to stay in the lineup and perform along side their teammates, they simply have no choice but to do whatever they can to get back out on the field as quickly as possible--often well before they're fully recovered.

Right now, I'm afraid to pivot the wrong way while walking for fear of aggravating my knee. I can't imagine what it must be like to participate in an NFL game with any body part at less than 100 percent (especially a knee ligament), but so many players do, week after week and year after year.

We often take it for granted when we hear that a player "toughed out" a high-ankle sprain or a torn calf muscle, but I can't even imagine climbing stairs with either injury, let alone having to wrestle a 300 pound lineman or chase down a cat-quick receiver.

I realize these athletes have access to some of the best medicine and therapy money can buy. I also realize they get paid millions of dollars to put their health and well-being on the line. And at the end of the day, they really do have a choice--nobody forced them to become professional athletes.

But this knee injury has given me a whole new level of respect for what professional athletes have to go through in-order to earn their money and entertain fans like me.

They might not be super heroes, but they are pretty super.

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