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.
"Wearing the proper support garment," says Atwater, "gives protection by keeping the genitalia in close proximity of the body." (I'm not even 100 percent certain what that means.)
Players say in today's game, trading protection (even in vital areas) for speed is a no-brainer. They say injuries to that area -- the telltale "No. 52 had the wind knocked out him; his return is questionable" -- are just too rare to even worry about.
Yeah, tell that to Virgil Livers.
He's a former defensive back who played for the Chicago Bears from 1975-79. While fielding a punt at Soldier Field, Livers was speared in the groin. By halftime, one of his testicles had swollen so badly it had to be -- ugh, more flop sweat, oh the cramps ... breathe, breathe! -- drained with a needle by the trainers. Somehow, Livers suited up for the second half. That was a bad idea. A really, really, really bad idea. Later that night, he was rushed to the hospital where the mangled orb was surgically removed.
Now, here's the kicker. When I finally reached Livers, who is an assistant principal at a high school in Kentucky, I asked him about his "injury," and the guy started talking about his knee. Can you believe that? His freakin' knee! The one he blew out with the Bears, then rehabbed for two full years in order to play again in the USFL.
"Uh, well, no, sorry, I was talking about the, uh, the ... "
"Oh that," he laughed. "It's no secret. It was in all the papers. The truth is, it wasn't really all that painful. It was all just ... numb. My knee injury and the rehab I had to go through was far worse."
After only a few minutes, Livers had to go. The final school bell had rung and he was off to police the parking lot. It didn't matter. My investigation had flat-lined. I mean, after what he'd been through, if this guy hadn't dedicated the rest of his life to getting fellow football players to don a cup, then why in the world should I care?
Football players, I thought, hanging up the phone ...
If you ask me, they're all nuts.
|FLEM GEMS -- NFL WEEK 3||30-SECOND COLUMN|
A few years ago in a bar in Manhattan Beach, Cali., I argued with Marty McSorley (yeah, that Marty McSorley) about the problems facing the NHL. We didn't talk about salary caps, luxury taxes, lockouts or "cost certainties." Instead, I tried to convince him that the NHL's greatest problem is television.|
What do we love about sports in this country? Speed. Skill. Teamwork. Violence. (And not, Marty can attest, necessarily in that order.) The NHL has more of those elements than any other sport. Somehow, though, live hockey just doesn't translate well on to television. If it did, trust me, football would be on strike right now and Hank Williams Jr. would be doing the intro for hockey games. The last Stanley Cup final was one of the most breathtaking, balanced and brutal competitions I have ever witnessed, yet the ratings hovered somewhere between "Pimp My Ride" and that cable access guy with the 'fro who dabs out landscapes.
If the suits need to shut the sport down for a while to fix the finances of the game, fine, I'm willing to wait. But what they really should be doing during this rare downtime is developing a long list of bold broadcast innovations similar to what's been done with NASCAR (or, as they say down here ... naishcur). Cameras in the boards. Cameras in the ice. Cameras on the ice. Cameras in helmets, the bench, overhead ... everywhere. Because if TV wizards can make four hours stuck in the left-hand turn lane seem exciting, imagine what they could do with a sport that actually deserves your attention.
|FLEM FILE FIVE|
Top Five useless facts about QB Billy Kilmer, who holds the NFL record (for the time being, anyway) with four 100-yard rushing games as a quarterback.|
5) Scored 10 rushing TDs as a rookie after SanFran took him in the first round of the 1961 draft.
4) Kilmer finished his 17-year career (1961-78) with a passer rating of 71.6 and a completion percentage of 53.1. Vick's numbers are almost identical: 53/77.6.
3) He is not, in fact, Doug Flutie.
2) Helped popularize the 'shotgun' offense and averaged 40.4 yards as a rookie punter.
1) It was one of Kilmer's 58 career fumbles that Jim Marshall immortalized with his Wrong Way Run in 1964.
Once a week, Troy Fleming, the rookie fullback for the Titans and the new Flem File mascot, travels to Liberty Elementary in his hometown of Franklin, Tenn., to have lunch with his nine-year-old brother, Scott.|
"He plays little league football; and last week, he showed me his sports card," reported TFlem while shopping for jeans on his day off. "On the back, it listed his two favorite players: (HOF'er) Earl Campbell&and me. I got a real kick out of that."
Although his busted-up hand has kept him from seeing any action at fullback, during last week's loss to the Colts TFlem still made his mark on special teams. In the second half, from the L4 position on kickoff coverage (second from the kicker on the left), he says he made his first special-teams tackle. In the box score, I also happily noted his first NFL reception. "The Flem File is already working it's magic on you," I said. Not exactly. Trailing 24-17 with a little more than 4:00 to play, the Titans tried a fake punt on 4th and 10. When the intended receiver was covered, punter Craig Hentrich hit TFlem after he slipped free on the backside of the busted play. Even with his mangled hand, he still managed to haul in the pass -- but for only four yards. "We needed 10," he said. Details. Details. A catch is a catch. Something tells me the fourth graders at Liberty won't be too worried about it either.
"Dear Sir," this week's first letter begins, "My name is Bucket and I am an avid ESPN.com reader. Recently, I noticed that someone named "Bucket" has been sending you hate mails. This can mean one of two things: It was either (a) me while drunk or (b) this man is clearly an imposter of me. Please send me his information so I can challenge him to a duel to the death for stealing my identity. The REAL Bucket."|
Bob, a supposed alumnus of Ohio University and longtime Flem File hater, kicks off this week's vitriol with, "Well, it's the Fall, so apparently they're letting you write a column again. I know journalism schools around the country are happy, as they'll now have plenty of fodder for their 'How not to write' classes. To call your work drivel, blather, or even inane would be to take away from columns truly deserving of such adjectives. At best, your stuff is drivel covered with copious amounts of crap and a side of wretchedness. At least in your 9/15 offering, you didn't blather on incessantly about Miami of Ohio. Thank god for small miracles."That's because I was waiting for the game last weekend, when my 'LIL REDHAWKS POUNDED BOB'S TEAM 40-20 for Miami's 10th win in its last 11 games against the hapless Boobcats. To make the rivalry competitive again, Miami should start sending its best intramural flag football team to face OU.
It's reactions like these, though, that inspire readers like John to say, simply, "You're a dork."
Kent adds, "I love it when you f---s from Page 2 include your email address at the end of an article. Most of you (cats with a 'p') won't do it." Yes, and I'm beginning to understand why.
Eric warns, "Flem, some of the observations in your column are teetering on the edge of the Larry King in USA Today canon. Remember Larry's column: "For my money, there's no greater vacation spot than the Grand Canyon ..."
Ed says, "U2 completely SUCKS. They always have and always will. Hard core Irish Rock? Please, the Irish are one of history's biggest losers."
In another email titled, 'Must be a Fraud!', Jim writes, "Dude, who are you sleeping with to get a Senior Writer's position? Your Week 1 analysis is weak and feels very grade-schoolish. The reference to Philly fans is way off base. I'm seeing jealousy coming from your words. Anyway, congrats on holding a job like this, some things are just amazing." Kingsley piles on with, "The fact that your picture makes you look like a cross between Gerard Depardieu and a young John Madden is probably not winning over many readers."
Rob then took the early lead for WHYLO of the Week simply because he's the first person ever to send two hate mails within the span of 10 minutes. "Is that the best you and ESPN can do?" he asked in his first message. "Can you get any more creative than yet another stale article about Eagles fans? I don't even know how you continue to have a job with such stale writing. Your boring, stale writing is par for the course for boring , stale ABC/ESPN." A few moments later, he wrote, "Are you always this clueless?"
But then Dan swooped in and stole the award. "Please tell Sean Salsibury he's a piece of (doo-doo) too. Thanks. Also if you could, tell Trev Alberts that he needs to (have sex) ... we here in Ohio can tell he hasn't (had sex) in a while."
Call me a dork. Rip on U2. Compare me to Larry King, Gerard Depardieu and John Madden. Send me hate mail in 10-minute intervals. I don't care. But, ya know what, don't ask me to forward your electronic garbage for you. I have limits, people.
There is only one thing I am willing to forward. On behalf of Sean and Trev, I hereby forward The WHYLO of the Week Award to Dan.
THIS COLUMN WRITTEN WHILE LISTENING TO: U2's Zooropa.
David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Contact him at Dave.Fleming@espn3.com.