The agony of intestinal failure
Depending on your reaction to my Tao of Poo story, the rather epic tale of the excretory experience of athletes in the current Body Issue of ESPN The Magazine, the blame or the credit belongs to one person: former Detroit Lions coach Wayne Fontes.
You see, all the way back in the mid 1990s Fontes and I were chatting after practice inside the dark and cavernous Pontiac Silverdome when the pear-shaped coach looked up at me from his golf cart with tiny beads of sweat on his forehead and the kind of bug-eyed look of panic one normally sees on Wile E. Coyote after he has run himself off a cliff. Without a word of explanation, Fontes turned in his seat, pushed the golf cart's gas pedal through the floor and sped off across the field, disappearing into the darkness.
Like an idiot, I stood there for several minutes, dumbfounded, until an underling from the team shuffled up and sheepishly explained what happened.
Chili dogs, the guy said.
Yes, chili dogs.
Turns out the lovable, slightly goofy Fontes had apparently overindulged at lunch that day and, in mid-interview -- no, actually, in mid-syllable -- found himself in what you might call DEFCON 1 mode.
Fontes, I've since discovered, is in pretty good company. President Lyndon Johnson is said to have moved many interviews and meetings directly from the Oval Office to the real oval office when nature called. Then there's this disgusting toiletry tidbit about Martin Luther, the German monk and author of the revolutionary 95 Theses. According to "The Big Necessity" by Rose George, while he was single-handedly reshaping Western civilization and lifting mankind out of the Dark Ages, Martin Luther also occasionally enjoyed a spoonful of his own excreta.
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Anyway, as a former college wrestler all too familiar with the gastrointestinal gambles of drastic weight cutting followed by intense competition that includes regular use of a move called "the gut wrench", the incident with Fontes made me wonder just how often this perfectly normal bodily function -- and major, major social taboo -- effected the outcome of athletic events.
The most difficult part, I found, was pushing past the endless double entendres (like the one in this sentence) along with all the tempting vile and infantile aspects of this topic. Trust me, it's harder than it sounds.
I mean, who among us will ever forget what former Packers running back Najeh Davenport did in 2002 to that poor woman's closet? Or, how about the time Gilbert Arenas thought it would be funny to prank teammate Andray Blatche by taking a dump in his shoe? Or the classic story on Deadspin a while back about a certain college hoops coach who supposedly dropped a deuce in a towel during practice and then handed the crap crepe to an assistant, the way one would return a warm towel to a flight attendant in first class.
When Chan Ho Park recently tried to explain to reporters, with a straight face, about his wicked case of diarrhea the interview devolved into one long giggle-fest. So I learned quickly that for an actual poop story to "work" it had to be less about scatological humor and more about the physiology, the psychology and the sociology behind what is a remarkably frequent act -- or, I should say, accident -- in sports. One recent medical survey, in fact, put the number of elite athletes who have suffered from bowel disturbances at 72 percent.
An ignominious list of Tao of Poo "outtakes" includes:
• Ty Detmer, who ran off the field in the middle of a BYU-Utah game to use the toilet.
• Roberto Luongo, who missed the beginning of an overtime game in the 2007 NHL playoffs because he was on the can. The Canucks said their goaltender was having "equipment" issues. I'll say. When the truth finally surfaced, a newspaper headline read "Lou was in the Loo."
• A former Buffalo Bills player who crapped his pants and refused to change during practice. And a former Dallas assistant coach who, in mid-scream, saturated his Sansabelt shorts.
• Runner Kim Jones, who had to drop out of the Olympic trials due to intestinal problems. When Jones passed a sign that said "Go, Kim, Go!" she responded "I already did."
• Too many boxers, runners and wrestlers to mention.
• A world-class triathlete who once pulled his shorts to the side and took care of business in mid-stride, without even slowing down. After the race a competitor ran up and told the guy, breathlessly, "Hey, I saw what you did back there and I just want to say you are a god."
• A guy one Olympic rower referred to only as "Poopy Jeff." (You know who you are.)
• A member of the Oklahoma City Thunder. "During this year's playoffs against the Lakers," says Jeff Green, "one of my teammates got [sick] from something he ate at a restaurant in L.A. I can't say who it was because it's embarrassing, but he had the craps for the entire game. He managed to play through it. When he told me he had a stomach virus, I left it alone because I know how bad it can be. And this one was pretty gross."
• Driver Paul Tracy, who nearly filled his firesuit while winning the 2003 race at Monterey after discovering someone in his crew put local aqua in his water bottle. Tracy -- well, I'll just let him take it from here: "I really had to focus not to lose my concentration, and not make any mistakes during that time. When you cramp up like that, your whole body tenses up. It hurts. It's really all you're thinking about. I was going as fast as I could go to get that race over with, so I could get to the bathroom. It was close. If you get the s----, you get this huge cramp and you're like, dying. I didn't go in my drawers, thank God. But as soon as I got out of the car I ran to the Porta-Potty at the end of pit lane behind our pit and just died. I was in there for a half an hour. It was like somebody turned on Niagara Falls."
• For our latest victim we turn to Utah, where "gastric distress" (aka, well, everything you've read so far) caused Deron Williams to miss Wednesday morning's practice.
• And, Bears QB Jay Cutler, who, in high school, once ran off the field and across a cornfield and a parking lot to take care of business during a game.
In 2000 Cutler led Heritage Hills High School to a 15-0 record and the 2000 Indiana state football title. That year, during a regular-season game at North Posey, Cutler was struck by a stomach virus that was going around school. (Trust me, Jeff Green is right; most of these stories start with some mysterious "virus.") And so, after a set of downs on defense (he played both ways, and, for those folks in Chicago who want to question his toughness after the game in New York, he actually set a state record with 19 tackles in the state finals,) Cutler dashed out the back of the end zone, across a corn field, through the parking lot and up to the school, where he pounded on the doors until a sympathetic janitor let him in to use the toilet.
Upon his return to the field, a much relieved and far lighter Cutler then scored on a punt return, a long run and a 55-yard pass in a 69-3 win. Who knows, maybe that's where that perma-scowl on Cutler's face comes from? "Never in my career did I have a player leave the game to go to the bathroom," Heritage coach Bob Clayton told The Denver Post in 2006. "The one guy who does it is Jay Cutler. I hate to say it but when I think of Jay's playing career, one of the more common visions I have of him is seeing him running through cars in the parking lot."
Despite all this anecdotal evidence, it turns out most folks aren't all that eager to talk about pooping their pants. Go figure. There are numerous reasons for this, of course; you can thank Freud or the Victorian influence on Western society or the French aristocracy, which invented fecal denial about 400 years ago. "Physiologically, there's no difference between shin splints and pooping; they are both normal bodily functions," said Dave Praeger, the author of "Poop Culture" and the editor in chief of Poopreport.com who, I gather, must have had some really bad shin splints. "It's all the metaphysical energy and meaning we've put behind pooping that makes it so different and difficult to talk about."
I get it. I really do. Yet it still seemed strange to me that athletes would talk so openly about dying, about brain damage, about paralysis, drugs, race -- anything, really -- yet when I went to an NFL locker room recently to talk to a player about a bout of bowel incontinence, the guy -- a grown man brave and strong enough to excel in one of the world's most physically demanding sports -- hid from me for 45 minutes.
This guy -- actually, all of us -- could learn a thing or two about toughness from Julie Moss.
Now a member of the Ironman Hall of Fame, Moss became a pioneer and enduring icon in the field of endurance sports after her courageous performance at the 1982 Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii. It was a journey that actually began as a lark. A senior at Cal Poly, Moss, then 23, had signed up for the Ironman race (a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile marathon) because she figured her parents would pay for a trip to Hawaii so she could surf and gather data for her senior project in exercise science. But mostly to surf.
Moss built a comfortable lead during the first 130 miles of the race. She flirted with TV cameramen, and when her bra broke during the run transition, Moss used her bubbly spirit and iron will to quickly talk a race volunteer into handing over her underwear. She had minimal training, though, and even less understanding of the extreme physiological challenges she faced. "She was innocent," says two-time Hawaii champ Scott Tinley. "Therein lies the heroic deed."
By the time she reached the final mile Moss was exhausted, delirious and rapidly losing control of her body -- as well as her bowels. When her legs gave out millions of TV viewers watched in collective horror and awe as she crawled to the finish line only to be passed within 10 feet of the tape. ABC's "Wide World of Sports" called it one of the defining moments in sports television history and, for a while, even considered replacing the epic ski-jump fail in the "agony of defeat" portion of its iconic opening video montage with Moss' finish on the pavement in Hawaii. Instead, Moss had to settle for her story being made into a TV movie called "Challenge of a Lifetime," starring Penny Marshall.
Now the mom of a teenage son, Moss, 52, lives in Santa Cruz, Calif., about half a block from some amazing surf. Her stylish house overflows with warm sunlight and art collected while competing around the world. And almost everywhere she goes Moss is still approached by strangers who thank her for inspiring them to get off the couch.
I, too, owe her a similar debt of gratitude.
Because the vivacious Moss -- who still has her trademark shock of red hair and looks like she could still go 140 miles with little problem -- really made the magazine story possible by speaking so candidly and philosophically about the sometimes catastrophic consequences athletes face when they push their bodies beyond their limits.
"I was embarrassed about what happened for many years. The humiliation hung over me like a cloud," she confessed. "I acted like it didn't bother me but it did. I didn't own it. It's not easy, you know, to have something like that happen to you on national television. But when people tell me that I helped motivate them I learned that it was almost like they didn't even see the messy parts of what happened. I tapped into some primal meaning to sports that had people asking themselves, 'Gee, I've never been pushed like that, if I were to ever get pushed like that would I stop or would I keep going?' I kept going and it ended up being this amazing, emotional, spiritually deep moment that helped guide me for the rest of my life."
After our interview Moss and I walked down to the beach to check out the surfers. On our way back I glanced down at my watch and realized most of the afternoon had passed by in what felt like minutes. Praeger warned me this might happen.
"Most people just flat-out won't talk about this subject," he said. "It's that strong of a taboo. So you'll get your fair share of disgusted people who are angry and appalled that you're writing about athletes and poop.
"But be careful," he continued, "because once you get people talking about poop you can't shut 'em up."
Yeah, something tells me I'm about to learn that lesson the hard way.
So thanks, Wayne.
Thanks a lot.
David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for ESPN.com. While covering the NFL for the past 16 years at Sports Illustrated and ESPN, he has written more than 30 cover stories and two books ("Noah's Rainbow" and "Breaker Boys"), and his work has been anthologized in "The Best American Sports Writing."