The cardboard box sits on a shelf deep inside the Philadelphia Eagles equipment room. It was ordered years ago, yet the contents still sit there -- alone, unopened and collecting dust. Inside is what I consider to be one of the greatest mysteries of today's NFL: 12 brand new plastic protective cups.
Football, as we all know, is a sport of controlled violence where the consequences of high-speed collisions can be grotesquely catastrophic. Just ask Joe Theismann, Willis McGahee or Virgil Livers (whom you'll meet in a moment). This is why players cover themselves from head to toe in thick armor to protect such vital areas as the knees, the shoulders and the ribs.
Yes indeed, the NFL will move heaven and earth and spare no expense to create a space-age, super-strong platinum polymer that is guaranteed to protect ... the elbow. The elbow!
Yet somehow no one in this league bothers to wear A FREAKIN' CUP?
(An even more perplexing problem, I would think, now that the NFL's Player of the Week Award is sponsored by Levitra.)
Philly's equipment guy, John Hatfield, 59, has been outfitting football players for 25 years. Like me, he's at a loss. Fifteen years ago, he says, everyone wore them. Back then, they were made out of shards of scrap metal -- or something like that. Ten years ago, it was just the interior linemen. The last player on the Eagles to use a cup was center Steve Everitt in ... 1999.
And what about today, in the very season that, by some accounts, is The Cup's 100-year anniversary?
"If I asked the players today if they wanted to wear a cup, the guys would look at me like I was crazy," says Hatfield. (Hey, I know the feeling.) "Let me tell you something. If I'm Brian Westbrook or some other player who might get leg-whipped in the groin -- I'm wearing one. In this sport, you can really do some damage down there. I mean, cleats, helmets, knees flying around everywhere ... you're talking about some real discomfort to the groin area."
Leg-whipped in the groin.
Let's just pause for a moment to ponder that expression.
Or this one: High-velocity impact to the groin.
"The cup is designed to protect against high-velocity impact to the groin," says Duke Athletic Products president Mark Atwater. "That's usually more consistent with sports like baseball and hockey. Although I think a 270-pound lineman hitting you in the testicles with his shoulder pads might qualify."
Hmmm. You think?
See, I know what you're thinking right now.
Several times during the creation of this column, I myself also had to take a break to deal with the random flop sweat, stomach cramps and wicked nausea associated with any actual reference to this kind of trauma. "Deep breaths," I told myself. "Deep breaths. Breathe. Stay with me, Flem. Stay with me, big guy. No one said tackling the tough issues of your time would be easy."
At other times, I nearly gave myself a double hernia from the effort required to refrain from writing the obvious, sophomoric puns, double-entendres and hefty FCC fines to which this subject so naturally lends itself.
After allowing me a moment to collect myself (see, there's one right there!), Hatfield continues. It's a comfort thing and a macho thing, he says. The cups are too bulky and obtrusive for today's player. (As opposed to gonads swollen to the size of grapefruit, which must be a real treat to deal with.) According to Hatfield, no one wants to get teased by Hugh Douglas for, I guess, the outrageous concept of protecting their nards. The ironic jocularity behind that statement is almost unfathomable.
"If you want to get made fun of by your teammates," says one current NFL player, "wearing a cup would be the fastest way to do it. In all the games I've played -- on every level of the game -- I've only caught a knee down there once or twice. It's not the best feeling in the world. And no one wants to have millions of people watching you cupping your (cashews) in agony. But if someone came out wearing a cup, the rest of the team would be like, 'What's going on with this guy?'"
Most of the people I talked to for this column -- or at least the ones who didn't think I was part of some new "Punk'd" show -- were probably wondering the same thing about me.
Please, allow me to explain.
Last season during the semifinals of my rec roller hockey league tournament, I was planted in front of the net doing my usual task -- screening the goaltender and quoting lines from "Slapshot" -- when a screamer from the point hit me directly in the, uh, Stanley Cup. The puck bounced harmlessly off my standard protective gear and dropped to my feet. While everyone else around me reflexively doubled over with their own phantom groin pain, I spun around and pushed in the winning goal.
Since then, I have been wondering (OK, some might say obsessing): What would have happened had I not been wearing my cup? I've heard all the arguments. A recent article in a popular men's magazine listed getting hit below the belt as that region's fourth -- that's right, fourth -- biggest problem behind heat, diet and bicycle seats. Support, apparently, is more important than protection.