Sunday, December 9, 2007

The price to be paid

Talk to a football fan of a certain age and they'll tell you that the greatest running back they ever saw was Earl Campbell.

He combined overwhelming power with speed and deceptive grace. Here is a play that sums up Campbell: the speed to get to the outside and the power to send the defender flying. His running style, which required a posse to bring him down, took its toll and he only had six good years in him (78-83).

My father's generation speaks of Campbell in the same reverent tones that my generation speaks of Bo Jackson. Both may have been the greatest running backs to ever carry the ball. But each brings forth feelings of sadness. Fans are always tantalized at the prospect of how good Jackson could have been if he had not suffered the hip injury against the Bengals. And Campbell brings up sadness for having to see him realize his potential, but play beyond that point. No one wants to remember him struggling for the Saints. There was no slowdown. Campbell went from Hall of Fame running back to mediocre has-been seemingly over night.

The same man who single-handedly destroyed opposing teams is now effectively wheelchair-bound. He denies that his career is the reason that his body is breaking down, citing a back defect. But I was reminded of a paragraph I once read from this article:

And the savagery takes a toll. Steve Young, Troy Aikman, Al Toon --all forced from the game by repeated, malicious head injuries. Nor should we stop with the brain. Look at Johnny Unitas, with his chronic limp and his ruined right arm. Johnny Unitas' body was broken for your pleasure.

It's the flip side of being a famous athlete. For all of the adulation that comes with being Earl Campbell or Brett Favre or Dick Butkus, there is the enormous physical toll. Just as the cheers stop, the physical pain begins. It is the Faustian bargain that they make. But it cannot be denied. Their body was broken for your pleasure.

Dire Straits -- Fade to Black

Van Morrison -- What's Wrong With This Picture?