By Joe Menzer
For most professional athletes, flying in airplanes to games soon becomes little more than an afterthought.
Others aren't so lucky. The world of sports is littered throughout its long history with athletes, some famous and some not so famous, who have battled anxiety attacks related to their frequent flying. And the violent nature of some of today's sports bring additional challenges when athletes must take to the skies above us, as pressurized cabins at 40,000 feet tend to take what might be some minor swelling related to an injury and turn it into a major deal.
One of the more recent athletes whose career has suffered at least in part because of his fear of flying is Royce White, the former first-round draft pick of the Houston Rockets who was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers and then waived prior to this season. White didn't help his chances of making his new team when he failed to make an overseas trip to Europe with the 76ers at the outset of the preseason, just as his reluctance to fly hurt him in Houston after the Rockets made him the 16th pick of the 2012 draft.
"It's always going to be rough for me to a certain extent," said White, who never played at all for the Rockets and has yet to see action in a regular-season NBA game. "But it is what it is. Everything has to be looked at with a certain perspective - and when it comes to dealing with a phobia, there is a healthy way to do things and an unhealthy way to do things. I'm trying to stay on that healthy side."
White is one of many current and former professional athletes who have struggled with fear of flying - which also is referred to as aerophonia, aviatophobia, aviophobia and/or pteromechanophobia. Long before him, Muhammad Ali struggled with it - as did, surprisingly enough, stunt daredevil Evel Knievel and hockey superstar Wayne Gretzky.
Among current pro athletes who have professed a fear of flying are Dustin Pedroia of the Boston Red Sox, the NBA's Delonte West, James Harrison of the Cincinnati Bengals, Cortland Finnegan of the St.Louis Rams and pro golfer Miguel Angel Jimenez, who once said: "I hate flying. Sometimes I go into such a sweat, it looks like I've poured a bucket of water on my head."
Jordan Gross, a two-time Pro Bowl selection who plays left tackle for the Carolina Panthers, is not afraid of flying. But he admitted that he sometimes fears what can happen to his body when he's in the air.
"Most veteran guys, myself included, wear something to deal with the various joints that tend to blow up on a plane," Gross said. "Like I wear compression stockings up to my knees, because my ankles swell up during the flight. Or guys will wear thigh-high ones because their knees will swell up. That's the last thing you want when you're flying somewhere and you're going to play the next day. So swelling maintenance on a flight pre-game is a pretty big deal.
Gross said he is reluctant now to take his shoes off during a flight after a game because there have been too many times when he has and his feet swell so much that he can't put his shoes back on after landing.
"I'm always amazed at how many guys wear compression (gear) on the plane," Gross said. "And after the game, everybody is iced up. If you have any type of injury, it will swell more during the flight. So they wrap it real tight. But the swelling issues during flights is a real big deal."
Teammate Ryan Kalil agreed, adding: "When you play our sport, there are going to be injuries that cause inflammation. And when you're in a pressurized cabin at 40,000 feet, that tends to just make the inflammation and swelling in those injuries a whole lot worse."
And Kalil said that's not all. He admitted that in the NFL, and even in college, there are football players who are terrified to fly - but even more terrified about letting too many people know about it. They are supposed to be tough guys playing a tough sport, after all, and they don't want to seem inferior in any way to their teammates who surround them in close quarters on flights and in locker rooms.
"We have a teammate here who is extremely scared of flying," said Kalil, the starting center for the Panthers and a three-time Pro Bowl selection. "I'll leave his name out for his own sake -- unless he wants to talk about it. I'm going to guess that he doesn't want to, but he's pretty scared of flying."
Like most people who fly, they all have their reasons for certain levels of trepidation.
Even Gross and Kalil and other athletes who say they even enjoy the down time that comes with most flights have stories about close calls that frightened them at the time. Kalil recalled one time when he was playing in college at Southern California and teammate Keith Rivers, now a linebacker with the New York Giants, did not react quickly enough to turbulence that suddenly started tossing the team airplane about.
"We were flying back from a game Notre Dame and we hit a rough patch," Kalil said. "Guys were hustling to get back to their seats and get their seat belts on. He didn't get back fast enough and we hit a little air pocket, and he went flying. He hit the top of the plane and fell back down. He was OK, but it was kind of scary."
Gross can top that story with one of his own from his collegiate days at Utah.
"We got hit by lightning once," Gross said. "We were coming back from playing Indiana, and we had to land in Lincoln (Nebraska), because when we got hit by lightning it blew all the lightbulbs in the plane. That was pretty scary."
Gerald Henderson, who played college basketball at Duke and now starts at shooting guard for the Charlotte Bobcats, said he has never been afraid to fly. Nor has he ever had a teammate that he knew of who suffered from that malady.
But he admitted that he's endured the occasional scare in the air as well.
"One time in college, we hit an air pocket and the plane dipped down about 50 feet. Laptops were flying in the air throughout the cabin, and drinks and stuff. That was pretty wild and scary," Henderson said.
Dealing with misinformation
White said there often is misinformation portrayed by the media about athletes who fear flying. He said his anxiety disorder touches other areas of his life, and the anxiety he suffers when attempting to fly is only part of the bigger picture of what he fights on a daily basis.
Others in the past who have been painted with the same broad brush have tried to have their situations clarified. John Madden, for instance, used to insist that he took his famous bus, The Madden Cruiser, to NFL games he was to announce not so much because he was afraid of flying but because he battled claustrophobia that tended to flare up more on airplanes as he got older.
White pointed out that he flew to most of his games in college at Iowa State, only driving occasionally.
"I was really nervous then, too," White said. "The thing that's different between the NBA and college, which is why I made such a big stink - well, not a stink, but why I requested a different sort of plan - is because there are a lot more flights. Taking 20 flights a year, like I did in college, that's one thing; but taking a hundred is another."
White eventually downplayed his fear of flying, saying the media made too big a deal of it. He also said recently that he still hopes to play in the NBA and is looking for a team that "has an open mind" about his apprehension about flying, according to the Des Moines Register and USA TODAY.
In an earlier interview, White also pointed out that he flew to most of the 76ers' preseason games without medication to try to prove the point - to himself, the public and the team - that he could do it. He said he tried to pass the time by putting on noise-cancelling headphones and watching a movie, although one time his headphones died 15 minutes before landing in Charlotte, N.C., nearly sending him into a panic.
"We were already on our way down, though, so it wasn't too bad," White said. "A lot of it for me has to do with what's going on in the rest of my life. It's a cumulative thing. It's more than, 'Am I ready to fly or not?' It's more like collectively, as a person, 'Am I ready to do this?
"It's a serious deal. The symptoms are very serious."
Charter vs. commerical
Fearful of taking to the air or not, professional athletes in particular seem to appreciate that they at least fly nearly all of the time on chartered flights instead of commercial ones. As Gross said, "Because we fly charter, you feel like you've got a little better of a feel for what's going on than if you were on a plane with a bunch of strangers."
Then again, that offers no real guarantees.
Pro golfer Payne Stewart was flying on a chartered Learjet 35 when it ran out of fuel and eventually crashed into a field near Aberdeen, S.D. in 1999, killing Stewart and four others on board. In 2004, all 10 people aboard a Beechcraft Super King Air 200 airplane owned privately by Hendrick Motorsports were killed when the plane crashed into Bull Mountain while attempting to get to a NASCAR race in Martinsville, Va.
There have been other close calls in private or chartered aircraft involving NASCAR owners or drivers, including team owner Jack Roush and one of his drivers, Greg Biffle, in separate incidents.
Biffle was landing at Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, Ky., when the right landing gear on his plane collapsed. He walked away thanks to what he later called "the heroic and quick actions" of his pilots.
And Roush, a long-time avid pilot himself, has been involved in two crashes. He nearly died in 2002 when his private plane, an Aircam, went down in a lake in Troy, Ala.; and in 2010, he lost his left eye after crash-landing in his Hawker Beechcraft Premier 390 private jet in Oshkosh, Wis.
It could be argued that many of the worst incidents have occurred when folks involved in various sports have been in smaller planes. But that doesn't mean bigger aircraft are immune to issues, as evidenced by the earlier stories by Gross, Kalil and Henderson - and a recent incident involving the Cleveland Browns as they landed at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport following a road game against the Cincinnati Bengals. Blaming high winds that gusted at the time of the landing, the plane nearly had its right wingtip make contact with the runway upon touchdown, which could have caused a nasty crash.
That is why former Browns quarterback Derek Anderson said he used to find an alternative form of transportation back to Cleveland oftentimes after games in Cincinnati.
"I'd tell the coaches, 'Hey, I've got a ride back in my buddy's RV' - and they'd tell me to go ahead," he said. "There always seem to be high winds or something going into that airport in Cleveland."
Henderson said it all underscores a hidden danger to the supposed glamor of being a professional athlete.
"As much as we have to fly, I consider it a blessing to be able to come out of it safely every time," Henderson said. "I try not to take that for granted."
* * *
Joe Menzer is the author or co-author of six books about sports and an award-winning writer with more than 30 years experience covering colleges, the NBA, the NFL and NASCAR. Follow him on Twitter@OneMenz.