They'll go to great pains to play
Injured players will do whatever it takes to get back on the field for the Super Bowl
MIAMI -- Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward sensed trouble as soon as the second quarter started in Super Bowl XLIII. Up to that point, he had relied on adrenaline and painkillers to aid his sprained right knee, but now, neither of those options was helping his cause. His joint throbbed. He grimaced after every play. Ward also knew the upcoming 30-minute halftime session would only make his knee stiffen more.
But Ward never thought about sitting out the remainder of the Steelers' eventual 27-23 win over the Arizona Cardinals. He was going to do anything possible to help Pittsburgh win, and he expects Indianapolis Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney -- who is saddled with a sprained right ankle this week -- to take the same approach against the New Orleans Saints in Super Bowl XLIV on Sunday.
"The toughest thing to deal with in these situations is that you mentally think you can do things that you physically can't," Ward said. "That's why I could see Dwight doing well in the first quarter and then struggling after that. But trust me, he's going to be out there."
If Freeney does make it to the field, he will join a list of noteworthy players who have fought through injuries to appear in the Super Bowl. That group includes current Hall of Famers (former Miami Dolphins receiver Paul Warfield and former Los Angeles Rams defensive end Jack Youngblood), future Hall of Famers (Ward, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and former Philadelphia Eagles receiver Terrell Owens) and players who enhanced their tough-guy credentials by grinding it out on football's biggest stage. All these people can relate to Freeney's plight this week. They also know that no NFL player ever wants to watch this game from the sidelines, even if it means coping with excruciating pain.
For example, former Dolphins offensive lineman Bob Kuechenberg had a 10-inch metal rod inserted into his broken forearm to play in Super Bowl VIII. Youngblood actually played in two postseason games with a stress fracture in his left leg during the 1979 season: the NFC Championship Game and a Super Bowl XIV loss to Pittsburgh.
"I don't know Dwight," said Youngblood during a recent interview with St. Louis radio show host Bernie Miklasz. "But I would think from witnessing him and watching him, the way he plays the game and comes at it every time, he's got to give it a shot."
After Ward injured his knee in an AFC Championship Game win over the Baltimore Ravens last season, he spent the next two weeks engaging in an intensive rehabilitation process. If he went to bed at 11 p.m., he was waking up at 2 a.m. to ice the joint. After that, he'd be back up at 5 a.m. to use electric stimulation to attack the swelling. Ward was no less diligent once the Steelers reached Tampa, Fla., for Super Bowl week, saying, "I never went out when I was down there. I was rehabbing 24 hours a day."
Owens took a similar approach after fracturing his right fibula and spraining a ligament in his right ankle with two weeks left in the 2004 regular season. After surgeons eventually placed two screws and a metal plate in his leg, he credited round-the-clock rehab sessions and his deep spiritual faith for helping him play in Super Bowl XXXIX. Most doctors believed he would need at least six to seven weeks to get back on the field. Owens ultimately dumped his crutches after two weeks and was doing weight-bearing exercises shortly after that.
Owens felt so confident in his joint that he dismissed the option of taping the ankle during the game against New England. He said he didn't like the way he moved with the extra protection on, and he never felt any pain while catching nine passes for 122 yards during a 24-21 loss.
"What fans don't realize is that nobody can really know the extent of an injury to somebody else," said Owens, who spent this season with the Buffalo Bills. "I don't know how bad Freeney's ankle feels, and it's hard for the people around him to know that. So it really depends on a guy's threshold for pain. It's all about how much he can tolerate."
Most people interviewed for this story said players usually know in their hearts whether they can play with an injury. The real issue is how forthcoming the players are about their health when a championship hangs in the balance. When asked how far players will go to compete in the Super Bowl, former Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner said, "You do whatever you have to do, whether you play in pain or take a shot of something." Former New York Giants running back Tiki Barber added, "I think anybody would play in this game. If it's the previous one, you probably sit down. But I think [Freeney] will play just because you have to."
Another retiree, Conrad Dobler, was even more blunt.
"If I could play in a Super Bowl, what do you want me to do -- murder someone?" said Dobler, who has had 32 knee operations and eight knee replacements as a result of his 10-year career. "[The answer is] yeah, if I knew that I could get away with it. You do what you have to do. I gave up a lot of body parts trying to get there. I don't have a lot left to give, but I would have given them all to have that opportunity to play in the Super Bowl. All I had to look back at -- and I'm very fortunate -- is that at one time in my life, I was voted to the Pro Bowl and I was the very best at what I chose to do. When you go to the Super Bowl, most people don't get a chance to say that."
As hard as it is for the players to think about missing this game, it's an even tougher call for the coaches. Former Steelers coach Bill Cowher never had to sit a key player in a Super Bowl, but he does know the feeling of making that decision in a playoff game. In 2003, he waited until the last possible minute of a postseason contest against the Tennessee Titans to deactivate linebacker Kendrell Bell. When asked why he did it, Cowher said he "didn't like the look" in Bell's eyes when they discussed the player's health in warm-ups.
Cowher said the key factor for a coach in those moments is his confidence in the player's ability to produce. Much of that evidence shows up in pregame workouts.
"You have to look at the guy," Cowher said. "If he starts to question [his body], then there is no question. But when the guy is begging to play, that's when you have to make the tough decision."
For those players who do ultimately grind through their injuries, there are no regrets about the choices. When Warfield pulled a hamstring on the first day of practice in the week leading to Super Bowl VIII, he vowed to find a way to contribute in the game. So after not practicing the rest of the week, he spent most of the contest operating as a decoy. And when the time came for him to make a big play, he delivered.
That moment arrived early in the third quarter, when Warfield sped past the Minnesota Vikings' defense and caught a 27-yard pass from Bob Griese. The play set up the final touchdown for Miami in the 24-7 win, and Warfield sat the remainder of the game. Warfield said he could have done more damage to the hamstring if he'd tried to run too hard to snag Griese's pass. So he dove for the catch instead, just to keep his leg as safe as possible.
Warfield's experience in that game makes it easy for him to see the challenges Freeney faces against the Saints.
"Even though I played a different position than him, I know what it's like to not have your legs right," Warfield said. "My game was about being able to explode off the line and push that button to go by people. Freeney is the same way. He's a speed rusher off the edge, and he needs to be able to thrust in order to play at a high level."
There's a strong likelihood that Freeney -- who reportedly will not practice this week -- won't be able to impact Sunday's game in the way a five-time Pro Bowler normally would. But he doesn't need to be at his best to help his team. Sometimes it's enough for star players to simply be on the field. The effort they give can inspire other teammates to raise their level of play.
In Ward's case, he wound up having an unimpressive night by his standards -- two receptions for 43 yards. What he remembers, however, is the thrill of securing his second Super Bowl ring in four years and walking off the field with tears in his eyes.
"I was crying because I knew I'd done everything I could to get back out there and help my team win," Ward said. "And that's a feeling every player wants to have at the end of this game."
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
ESPN.com bloggers Mike Sando and Tim Graham contributed to this report.
SUPER BOWL XLIV