LANDOVER, Md. -- He limped. He grimaced. He ran to the sideline with the staccato gait of a man missing a shoe, pigeon-toed and flashing teeth. By any reasonable standard, Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III probably shouldn’t have been upright, let alone scampering across a slippery, painted-dirt field, attempting and mostly failing to dodge large men with bad intentions.
Of course, football is not a reasonable game.
If you want to understand why Redskins coach Mike Shanahan allowed his quarterback to play for most of a 24-14 NFL wild-card loss to the Seattle Seahawks at FedEx Field, despite an obvious knee injury -- and why Griffin demanded as much -- it helps to start with a story. Once upon a time, there was a player at Eastern Illinois, a Division II school as far from the bright lights and big money of professional football as, well, the surface of Mars. One spring day during a practice scrimmage, the player was speared in the ribs, so hard he could barely breathe. He stayed in the game. Went home. Urinated blood. Began throwing up. He went to the emergency room, where doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong -- because his ruptured kidney had been jammed behind his spine. The player passed out from the pain. His heart stopped. He was revived with a defibrillator. A priest administered last rites. Following kidney removal surgery, his football coach told him he would never play again. He was lucky to be alive.
He responded by petitioning the school to be allowed to suit up.
The player’s name? Mike Shanahan.
Following Sunday's Redskins-Seahawks game, even during the game, Twitter was ablaze with outrage. Shock. Fainting-couch incredulity. Why was Griffin playing? Why didn’t someone protect his knee, his health, his future in the sport? Griffin had already sprained a knee ligament during a Redskins victory over the Baltimore Ravens last month. He was wearing a brace. He wasn’t his speedy, elusive self. He was in obvious pain. Before every snap, the entire stadium seemed to be holding its collective breath. Unable to fully plant his leg, he underthrew a deep pass; after absorbing a late hit, he ducked into a sideline examination room, doctors in tow.
When Griffin’s knee twisted gruesomely in the fourth quarter, forcing him out of the game, prompting stunned silence in the building and audible, frightened gasps in the press box, it seemed all but preordained. Recriminations came in real time, most of them directed at Shanahan. Playing Griffin was irresponsible. Barbaric. Gwen Ifill (yes, that Gwen Ifill, even-keeled PBS newscaster and former Vice Presidential debate moderator) simply Tweeted “Fire Shanahan.” Hashtag knee. A seemingly reasonable request, at least by OSHA standards, except for one thing.
This is football. It is not a reasonable game. Not even close. Football players come in many shapes and sizes, with varying levels of skill and talent, but all of them do two things: (a) destroy their bodies for their sport and everyone else’s amusement; (b) get cut before they have the chance to continue doing so.
Football is a pastime of brain trauma and prescription drug addiction, of heart issues and weight problems, of replacement joints and degenerative arthritis and chronic, lifelong pain. It is a game of violent, intentional collision, not occasional, incidental contact. It is not particularly healthy, and to pretend otherwise -- to express sudden, heartfelt concern for Griffin’s physical well-being and disgust at the risk he was taking, without feeling the same thing for every other player on the field at pretty much every moment -- is to be either delusional or blind.
Thing is, players understand this. They harbor few illusions. They know that the oft-cited difference between playing injured and playing hurt -- essentially, between playing through the pain of a current injury that can’t get worse, and playing through the pain of a current injury that has a good chance of getting worse while making you a lousy player to boot -- sounds nice in theory but is murky in practice. They also understand that football’s central ethos is self-sacrifice, not self-protection, that the game means buckling your seat belt and jamming a Toradol-filled needle into your knee and driving the car straight into a brick wall, because that’s the job at hand.
Remember: Griffin wasn’t told to stay in the game. He told coaches he was staying in. Afterward, he stood at a podium. He was calm and collected. His tie was smooth, shiny, perfectly-knotted.
He did not call for Shanahan’s head.
“I think I did put myself more at risk by being out there,” Griffin said. “But every time you step on the football field in between those lines you’re putting your life, your career [and] every single ligament in your body in jeopardy. That’s just the approach I had to take towards it. My teammates needed me out there, so I was out there for them.”
In the Redskins locker room, I watched Griffin get dressed. His movements were slow, deliberate. A semi-circle of reporters gathered around him. He wore pinstriped suit pants; if there was a knee brace underneath, you couldn’t see it. Three lockers to the right, Redskins tight end Logan Paulsen sat in a corner, trying to explain why Griffin had played, why he kept playing until he literally couldn’t walk.
It’s hard, Paulsen said. Hard to take yourself out. Hard to keep any long-term perspective in those short-term moments of pain, when your knees buckle and your body revolts. Coaches expect you to play. Teammates expect you to play. You expect the same. There’s a sense of personal responsibility.
When Paulsen was a senior in college, he felt shooting pain in his right foot during spring practice. He played through it. The first game of the season, he suffered a stress fracture in the same foot. He needed surgery, had a screw implanted in his fifth metatarsal. His season was over. Looking back, he says, it was a stupid thing to do. But he doesn’t regret it. Paulsen calls football players “cogs,” but also cogs in a family. And family is a powerful thing.
“For this week, this game, this is my family,” he said. “You don’t want to let anybody down. You look at Robert, and even if he would be on fire, you’d think, ‘Oh, he would do everything he can to help us win this game.’ We have a lot of guys who play like that.”
Should Shanahan have benched Griffin? Should doctors have made the call? Should Griffin have pulled himself? Probably. That would have been the reasonable thing to do. But football isn’t reasonable. If it were, I’m not sure anyone would play. And I’m not sure anyone would watch.