Deep Impact


They say that when standing on the sidelines of an NFL football game, the force of the collision between a 250-pound linebacker and a 200-pound wide receiver sounds like buckshot coming out of a 12-gauge shotgun— but it doesn’t hurt nearly as much as it sounds. Or does it?

“The amount of force involved is extremely high,” says Dr. Edmund Y.S. Chao, director of the Orthopaedic Surgery Biomechanics Laboratory at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. “The rib cage compresses. That happens all the time. But it’s a well-made structure. Neck injuries are the most severe. Also, organs below the rib cage and the spine are not that well protected. Internal organs most likely compress and deform a little bit.”

Most likely Terrell Owens’s insides were compressing and deforming
on Sunday. When the San Francisco receiver grabbed his playoff-game-
winning touchdown, he was immediately crunched by two Green Bay defenders, and piled on by four others. One of the blows snapped Owens’s neck a bit, and this is where the real danger lies. As Dr. Chao puts it, “It is the brain that is most susceptible.”

When a player is listed as having a “concussion,” most likely, it means “the brain has a bruise,” says Dr. Tony Keaveny, director of the Berkeley Orthopaedic Biomechanics Laboratory. “When you get tackled to the ground, your head is moving forward and suddenly it comes to a stop, but the brain is hitting the inner wall of the skull. Things might stretch a little bit, the tissues will deform a little bit, but it will spring back.”

“Think of it this way,” says Dr. Ken Ermann, team chiropractor for the Giants. “One of the analogies that best describes what it’s like to be an NFL football player: Put on some football gear, place yourself about five feet in front of a garage door, run into it about 200 times, and you’d accurately feel the forces that a linebacker endures in a game.”

As a result of this repeated colliding, certain tackling techniques that can cause serious traumas are now outlawed. Spearing, a maneuver where the player tackles head-on, can cause paralysis to the person employing the move. “What happens is that by diving headfirst into your opponent, it can cause your neck to compress,” says Dr. Ermann. “If it compresses enough to break your neck, it’ll force pieces of broken bone into your spinal cord, cutting off the nerves. But some players still do this.”

Another outlawed maneuver is head-hunting, where the player makes an uppercut-type blow, often on the quarterback. This technique can cause a whiplash motion in the recipient’s head and neck, leading to a concussion.

The constant collisions also eat away at the body’s joints and ligaments. “It’s the body’s first line of defense,” says Dr. Ermann. “The ligaments, cartilage, and joints are always bending and twisting. When you see a pileup it’s not a gentle thing. Joints are being stressed almost to the limit.”

When the limits are reached, the pro player can incur a tear in the cartilage and ligaments, or a shoulder knocked out of its sockets— the most common injurious effects of the hard tackle. “But it is actually the non-contact forces that create more injuries,” says Jeffrey B. Wheeler, president and senior biomechanist for Biomechanics Research & Consulting, Inc., a firm that analyzes the effects of impact on the human body. “When they’re coming down on a landing or when they are running fast and stopping quickly. Or when they stress their knees. This can cause ACL (the ligament from the shin bone to the thigh bone) tears, really common for football players.”

As hard as the players get hit, there usually isn’t enough force to cause any injuries to internal organs. “Velocities and energies required to cause internal organ trauma are not reached in competitive athletics where your running speed is not that fast,” says Wheeler. “There are those rare stories of high school players getting hit in the abdomen that feels like a stomach ache, but then they die the next morning due to a spleen rupture. For that to happen there would have to be a real good helmet impact into the spleen. But this is generally not a problem in pro football. Major injuries, like Bryant Young’s, are rare.”

November’s spine-tingling, it-hurts-too-much-to-see-on-replay leg snap of 49er Bryant Young reminded the nation of Joe Theismann’s brutal incident 13 years ago when the Giants’ Lawrence Taylor awkwardly spent his weight on Theismann’s leg, causing a compound fracture. For football fans, this was an event equivalent to the assassination of Kennedy— everybody remembers where they were when they saw it. But how did it happen?— medically speaking.

“You have to get hit just right,” says Dr. Ermann. “It’s like getting all the joints in your body caught in a vise and if you apply pressure on one immovable part of the body, of course something’s going to give. It’s not pretty.” Adds Dr. Stephen O’Brien, associate team physician for the Giants, “It’s like getting hit with a two-ton car going 20 miles an hour.”

But when considering that most injuries associated with pro football are fairly minor, some may argue that getting sacked, for instance, by 6-3, 258-pound Jets linebacker Mo Lewis doesn’t hurt that much.

“Football is a relatively safe sport,” says Dr. Stephen Nicholas, team orthopedist for the Jets. “They’re better padded than most athletes in any sport. They’re protected very well.”

Altogether, football injuries are on a steady decline. The latest comprehensive study conducted by Dr. James Nicholas, chairman of the medical staff for the Jets, shows that since 1960, “[the Jets] suffered fewer injuries with the passing of time, primarily in injuries that caused a player to miss at least eight consecutive games.”

But in a sport where the average playing life span is anywhere from three to eight years and a player who retires in his thirties can have the body of a 50-year-old, some long-term effects of being a pro player are significant. “The worst effect is numerous concussions,” says Dr. Ermann. “Some players end up with post-concussional syndrome, which means anything from slight memory losses to real severe cognitive problems.”

However, according to Dr. Stephen Nicholas, “most stop playing not due to injury. It’s usually up to their talent.”