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.
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.
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.