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Indestructible Heroes? (Why and How NFL Fans Are In Denial)

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Chicago Bears v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

If you haven’t yet seen and listened to the Cardinals’ Justin Pugh’s interview with the media yesterday, it is chock-full of weighty statements and provocative questions. Here take a look and a careful listen:

https://www.azcardinals.com/video/08-27-pugh-lr

In essence, Pugh starts out by saying how important it is for the Cardinals staters to “cheer on” the players fighting for roster spots over the next few days—-and how “crazy it is” that by the weekend that 50 or more of them will be cut and gone.

Pugh says the he always gives his phone number out to players who are cut and that he is always talking to them about having a Plan B because, as everyone knows, the NFL for most stands for “Not For Long.”

However, the interview takes a swift turn when, in light of the Andrew Luck’s abrupt retirement and Rob Gronkowski’s recent statement that echoed Luck’s—-that the pain and grind of football was taking the joy out of life—-Pugh said to the reporters, “You guys don’t want to talk about the mental health of our guys—-everyone’s talking about the next opponent—-while we’ve got Rob Gronkowski crying on ESPN and we could see what Andrew Luck was going through—-the pain—-it was not just physical, it was emotional—-and Rob Gronkwski was feeling the same way—-guys are saying the joy is being taken out of the game for them.”

Curiously, it occurred to me recently (and mentioned it in a recent article) while watching Pugh perform an off-season podcast interview that he might be posturing for a future NFL analyst gig with ESPN or NFL Network. Pugh is loquacious and gregarious and amusing to listen to. He offers an effective mix of football talk sprinkled with intelligent banter.

Cardinals’ fans are understandably leery of Pugh in light of the 5 year $45M contract he signed last year coming off a back injury with the Giants in 2017 that landed him on the IR—-and then in light of Pugh’s subpar play in 2018 and subsequent return to the IR having only played in 7 games—-and ultimately in light of what a gamble it was for Steve Keim to invest $45M in Pugh when the Cardinals are so desperate to fix their offensive line woes.

However, it was perhaps encouraging to hear Pugh follow up his statements about Luck, Gronk and mental health with: “I have a lot of fun in here—-running around and having a good time. There’ something special about these guys in the locker room—-there’s something special about being around these guys that i always come back. I love playing football. I love playing this game. Love the camaraderie about the game—-that’s probably what i love most about it, that and the competing—-it always brings me back.”

Pugh honestly admitted about the back injury that landed him on the IR in his final year with the Giants—-he said, “there were times when my back wasn’t getting better and there were days when I was wondering not only if I wasn’t going to ever play football again, but whether I would be able to live a normal life.”

Herein lies every pro football player’s quandary—-is all of the fear, the pain and the short and long term physical and mental health risks worth the fame, camaraderie and fortune?

And herein lies every NFL fans biggest worry—-that the players who take up the biggest chunks of the salary cap won't produce the way the team is depending on them to.

Pugh said about players retiring early that “It’s always an anomaly—-you have the Barry Sanders and the Calvin Johnsons that walked away. Remember there was a linebacker with the 49ers who was like an All-Pro as a rookie and just walked away.”

The gist is—-we fans and NFL coaches are in the habit of holding our favorite NFL players to practically non-human standards. We basically want them to be invincible and unstoppable.

Imagine for a minute what it must be like to take the kind of mental and physical pounding they must endure throughout the course of a 20+ game season (including the pre-season games and a potential 3-4 added playoff games). It hurts just thinking about it.

For those of us who played football, we know the mental and physical anguish a player must endure. We still triumph in the games we won and the times we came through in the clutch. Yet, we all have those nagging memories of the times we were right there to make the play and for whatever reason, be it fear or indecision or just plain flat-footedness, we whiffed.

I am still tormented by a 4th and goal on the 1 inch line play in which I could have been the hero. I was playing safety and our biggest rival’s RB was running off-tackle, right in my direction—-but in that split second of a difference, I hesitated and by the time I lowered my shoulder to try to tackle him, it was too late. Ugh.

But, back to the interview, what impressed me the most about Justin Pugh’s overall perspective was his caveat that mental health issues are common to all professions and all aspects of life—-not just for NFL football players. Amen to that.

“This game (football) is not for everyone,” Pugh stated.

Then the interview came full circle when Pugh directed his attention back to the teammates he is about to say goodbye to. He said, “Being able to to help guys and have the conversations—-it’s huge for guys to explore what else is out there, what else they have a passion for, because one day football ends for all of us, even for Tom Brady one day.”

Justin Pugh put a proper perspective on the plights of NFL rookies, the present and futures of NFL bubble players and the harrowing torment of veterans who are struggling with the pain, pressures and daily grind of the game.

So—-I was asking myself—-what would it feel like, for example, if Cardinals’ RB David Johnson, who recently landed a 3 year contract extension worth $13M a year and $30M in guaranteed money, decides to call it quits. Like Tyrann Mathieu after he got $13M a year and $30M in guaranteed money, Johnson has looked tentative and not nearly as explosive and dynamic as he was in 2016.

To be honest, I have felt that the extension Johnson received was a mistake—-not because Johnson lacks the talent, but because he spent 15 12 games on the IR in 2017 and the Cardinals could have used his 2018 performance as a stronger gauge of his true market value. if it weren’t for a salary cap and the fact that the Cardinals have the longest championship drought in professional sports, I wouldn’t care.

Look at what RBs Zeke Elliott and Melvin Gordon are going though with their holdouts right now. With Todd Gurley hampered by injuries after signing his lucrative deal and David Johnson underperforming last year following his breakthrough deal, albeit while playing in a vanilla offense with a rookie at QB, teams are loath to reward RBs with hefty long-term contracts.

However, I brought David Johnson up because he strikes me as the kind of player who would walk away from the game and the money. Not only because he is such a loyal husband, father and family man whose wife has expressed her concern about David’s short and long term health in similar ways to how Brenda Warner did for her husband, Kurt, but for the sense that David Johnson is one of the most upbeat, enthusiastic, seemingly untainted, wide-eyed young men I have ever watched and if the game was taking the smile off his face the way it has been for Andrew Luck and Rob Gronkowski, then, I now have come to the realization that I would respect such a decision.

Rob Gronkowski visited Foxborough High School twice while I was teaching there. The first time, we got a surprise announcement for the whole school to leave class and go to the auditorium and the students and faculty went absolutely nuts when the principal brought Gronk out on the stage.

Suddenly there was hip-hop music pumping through the auditorium speakers and Gronk was calling on students to come join him on stage where he bonded with each of them and then choreographed a stage dance with them. It was silly, but wonderfully hilarious and everyone was eating it up.

Then Gronk took the microphone and answered an array of questions from the students.

In my 40 years of teaching, I have never seen a person unite and engage the entire student body the way Gronk did that day.

Gronk’s history of back and knee injuries is so profound that he is going to have a difficult road ahead—-it is almost as if Gronk is super-human to have been able to play in the NFL for 9 seasons. It was like a cat with 9 lives. Gronk badly injured his back while at Arizona, before he even got to the NFL. He missed the Super Bowl three years ago for having in-season surgery on a herniated disc.

Two years ago, despite suffering a concussion in the AFC Championship game versus the Jaguars, Gronk played in the game two weeks later and had over 100 yards in the painful loss to the Eagles. Gronk, by all rights, should have retired after that season. Had the Patriots won that game, Gonk may have ended it right there. But, if you know Gronk, you know he couldn’t go out on that note.

But, despite hobbling through most of the 2018 season, Gronk was Tom Brady’s go-to guy with Super Bow LIlI on the line and if Gronk is actually retired for good, he has gone out a winner and left the game as a first-ballot NFL Hall of Famer.

Most importantly—-having gotten an up close and in person understanding of Rob Gronkowski, the person—-he is one of the most genuinely happy and charismatic people I have ever met—-and it would be crime to take the smile off of his face.

Being surrounded here in MA by Patriots’ fans, there is not a question in their minds of whether Gronk will return to the field...it’s just a question of when. Just as Justin Pugh called out “Twitter fans” yesterday who were calling Andrew Luck “soft,” NFL fans continue to believe that their top players are invincible and incapable of suffering from mental health issues, well, because NFL think of their heroes as in the same vein as Marvel comic book and video game icons.

Ultimately, Justin Pugh was right on the money when he said that the NFL media and so many NFL fans do not want to discuss the players’ mental health issues. After all, these are our indestructible heroes and if they walk away from the game before their supposed time, they are apt to walk off to a chorus of boos.

Besides, what American capitalist in his right mind would walk away from millions of dollars? How sane could that ever be?