Wednesday, August 27, 2014


I can't remember why I decided to include a chapter on pain in my first novel, but I know when. What is now Chapter 24 of "The Leather Man" was one of the first chapters I typed during the winter of 1973-74, my first as The AP's new sports editor in Helena, Mont. I've dealt in other posts with the long delay in completing the book, so I'll move past that now.

I assume that the decision referred to above grew out of an understanding that it's difficult to examine the sport of football without encountering the subject of pain. Readers might recall from Chapter 16 that Canyon State trainer Wayne Shipwright draws a sharp distinction between pain and discomfort and scorns athletes who equate the two as one and the same. In Shipwright's view (imposed by the author, I have to confess), discomfort is something that can be worked through; pain is a signal to stop the activity which caused it. In other words, there's no gain from real pain, which creates nothing but more pain if the workout continues.

The latter point of view evolved during my distance-running career, which coincides roughly with the origin of the saying, "no pain, no gain" in the early 1980s. From the first the expression sounded catchy, but fishy. After some thought, I explained its incongruity per the reasoning above. I received visual confirmation of my theory during the 1983 Skylon Marathon, which separates itself from other events by having the self-proclaimed "World's Most Beautiful Finish Line" (Niagara Falls). I was never a world-class runner, and I stopped running for a drink about 17 miles into the event. Out of curiosity, I took a look inside an assistance tent before I left. There I saw a strapping young man, who obviously had been many minutes ahead of me but would never be able to equal my time on that particular day. I heard a medical professional say the words "dislocated ankle," closed the flap and continued on my way, seeing the vignette over and over in the final nine miles. I was struggling with discomfort; he with pain.

Years of covering the Buffalo Bills and Arizona Cardinals of the NFL; the Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes of the NHL; the Phoenix Suns of the NBA; baseball's Arizona Diamondbacks, and a host of major college teams helped immerse me in sports medicine and opened my eyes to injuries I'd never imagined.

My personal acquaintance with pain in a sports setting began my senior year in high school, when I separated my right shoulder in wrestling practice. A few months later I spaced out in the middle of a double forward flip on the school's new trampoline, landed on my head and suffered the indignity of breaking my nose with my own descending knee. I wrestled in college without further injuries, but ended my football and rugby careers by pulling hamstrings. I also rolled an ankle playing basketball and broke the other skiing a few semesters later.

My thirties and forties were kinder, and that's when I managed to compete in a variety of distance events, including four marathons and two triathlons, with no interruptions for rehabilitation. But my luck caught up with me again in the so-called golden years. The toll: a torn shoulder tendon from injudicious weight lifting at the Phoenix YMCA, and a left shoulder separation and damaged sciatic nerve in my right hip. I managed both at one time when I was running to catch up with an golfer shooting nothing but birdies on the front nine of her round at an LPGA event in Tucson, Ariz., and stepped in a hole left by removal of a tree. (I know, I wasn't competing in a sport, but it was in a sports setting.) Finally (I hope), I cracked vertebrae in my lower spine doing another weightlifting no-no at my home in Idaho Falls.

Everything in the last 40 years flavored my understanding of pain and contributed to the ways I rewrote the chapter about David Talty's training-camp injury.

The reader learns that Talty, a linebacker, gets his right hand smashed between two hard objects, a ball carrier's shoulder pads and another player's helmet.
He was instantly occupied with the message, receiving thousands of stimuli from three fingers, which, at the moment of impact, had become four-inch blood blisters.
Talty remains on the ground, his body curled protectively around his hand, until Shipwright arrives. The trainer considers using an ointment containing Arnica montana to soothe the bruised fingers until he realizes it can't be applied to an open wound. He helps Talty to his feet and takes him to the training room, where he washes and disinfects the fingers, tests them and decides there are no broken bones. Shipwright then ices the bruised fingers, bandages them, helps Talty remove part of his uniform and tells him to shower.
While he doffed the rest of his gear left-handed, Talty noticed the pain had sharpened his senses: He was keenly aware of textures _ wet towels flung like rectangles of color in a Piet Mondrian painting, the purple lockers dented like moonscapes, the stainless steel whirlpool bath reflecting the metallic pall of asylum decor.
Shipwright notices that Talty, coming out of not only the initial pain but the tension caused by worrying about his place in the season to come, is getting upbeat, and the trainer feels the reward of being in a position to help:
It doesn't matter how big the kids get, they always feel better when they're hurt and somebody pays attention.
The chapter ends with the realization that the Wranglers have dodged a bullet and contributes to a rosy feeling about the season ahead.


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