Schlereth: It was all worth it

Mark Schlereth underwent 29 surgeries during his career and still experiences pain, but doesn't have any regrets.

Updated: January 26, 2004, 6:20 PM ET
By Mark Schlereth |

Editor's note: ESPN NFL analyst Mark Schlereth, who played in three Super Bowls, details the pain of playing hurt and the long-term ramifications of suffering so many injuries. Schlereth underwent 29 surgeries during his 12 professional seasons.

The ability to overcome pain can be a testament to the human spirit, and it's oftentimes what sets NFL players apart from armchair quarterbacks. NFL players are required to be out on the field when the average person would be home, on the couch with an ice bag, an ace bandage, leg elevated, full body cast … what have you.

Mark Schlereth
Anybody can play football if they're healthy -- that's easy. But at the professional level, injuries are part of the game. Aches and pains are bound to happen when you use your body like a battering ram for a living. It's oftentimes a barometer for respect within the league. Anyone with a low pain threshold won't last long -- on-or-off the field.

For me, playing hurt was a battle in itself: a mind-over-matter head game I refused to lose. Often, I was barely able to bend my knees or elbows, flex my feet, make a fist, bend forward or turn my head. Heck, it hurt to blink. But those were the moments I would push myself to perform at an even higher level. I would challenge myself to see just how much my body could endure.

Young: Risks are great
Every day millions of people get into their cars and buzz around roads and freeways despite the risks of getting in an accident. Playing football is very much the same mentality. You don't think about it; you just do it.

I wish every fan could spend one play standing behind the center to get the players perspective on the game -- it's completely different from what you're able to experience from the stands or on television. It's shocking to realize how big and fast the players are, and how little you're able to see from that vantage point.

It's then that you realize how much risk is involved and the sacrifices that are made to play the game. I'm sure that if players took the time to step back and put that risk in perspective, they might look at the game differently. But I don't think you get that chance until after your career is over.

I was one of the lucky ones. My concussions weren't that severe. Usually if I slept for a day, I'd be fine. But as a rule, as you get older, you start to realize that you've got a long life to live after football.

Fortunately, I don't have any major injuries that make it look like I played much football. Heck, I want to go play some more. But there are a lot of guys who face tougher realities for the rest of their lives. That's the real challenge. The challenge is not playing and facing injury or playing hurt; the challenge comes later, when you have to face the fact that you've done something to your body that you can't take back.

-- Steve Young

I'd be lying if I said there weren't moments when I considered calling it quits. I can recall a particularly low point in the hospital after I underwent back surgery. I awoke in the middle of the night, writhing in pain, only to find that the nurse had left my urinal across the room. The pain was so excruciating that I couldn't even push the button to call someone for help.

Now, my reputation was such that I'd simply pee the bed. But considering my circumstances, I wasn't much in the mood for wetting myself. So, there I was, alone and in tears, not only from the pain of surgery and having a full bladder but from the mere frustration and humility of not being able to fend for myself.

Then, the very next morning I was expected to be back on my feet. And I'll be darned, the human body is an amazing thing. Soon enough, I was walking and miraculously, able to go potty all by myself again.

There were countless times when I'd play a game with torn cartilage in my knees. I'd be asked to "hang on a few more weeks" before having surgery. I'll tell you what: in those moments, the negative feelings pile up -- the exhaustion from ignoring the signals your body is sending you, the frustration from not being able to perform simple tasks -- and you've got to dig deep into the recesses of your soul to remember why you continue to do it.

But I'd be back in the training room getting taped up for the next game. Why? Mostly because I loved the game. But also out of a sense of obligation to my teammates who relied on me. I could never let them down. Regardless of how beat up I'd get, I'd go out and play hard for them, because I know they'd do the same for me.

And I wouldn't trade any of it. Not one bit of the pain, swelling or overall discomfort that I still feel today. Every day my back aches, whether I'm sitting, standing or walking. There are times when my toes will just go numb or I'll get shooting pains in my calves, hamstrings or quads. My knee won't bend past 90 degrees and oftentimes my fingers go numb due to lack of circulation, because they've been broken so many times.

It was all worth it -- every last scratch -- because no matter how battered and bruised, I never lost sight of the fact that I was living out my childhood dream. And dreams are not granted or given -- they come with a price. No matter what your goal, you're bound to face adversity, and it's during that adversity, when you find out what your made of. I just happen to be held together by a few more nuts and bolts than most.

Former All-Pro guard Mark Schlereth joined ESPN in 2002 as an analyst for NFL 2Night, now NFL Live. He brings 12 years of NFL playing experience to the role. Schlereth has also filled in on numerous ESPN radio shows.