Over the weekend, my beloved San Jose Sharks were knocked out of the playoffs in the 1st round. It was bittersweet to see them lose after last year’s epic march to the Stanley Cup, but not completely unexpected. As usual, after a team loses in the playoffs, they announce a litany of injuries to numerous players that more than likely played a significant role in their playing performance. Hockey, more so than any other sport, hides injuries to its players, so most fans do not know the full extent of the pain these players experienced all season until it is over. Joe Thornton, the face of the franchise and its much heralded leader, played with a torn MCL and ACL to his knee that he had sustained at the end of the season. Let me rephrase that: Jumbo Joe played with a shredded knee. He had surgery on it yesterday, several days after he was done playing, which will require months of recuperation. Logan Couture, another key veteran on the team, had taken a puck to the face and literally had almost every tooth in his mouth rearranged. That is not hyperbole. All his teeth shifted from their positions in his mouth, and he also had two facial fractures to his face. (If you can stomach it, click on the link and go through his photos Logan Couture’s Face). Despite the inability to eat much or sleep, he played through the intense pain. Another player had a broken thumb for a month, which is a vital appendage to play hockey with as you must grip the stick as hard as you can the entire time you play. A fourth player had a broken foot sustained on the next to last game of the regular season, and was one of the best players on the ice for the Sharks in the playoffs. A fifth player had the same shoulder separated twice during the season. Nobody even knew. As more teams drop out over the next month, we will learn more injuries that were sustained that will make your head explode when the realization sets in that “Holy Crap, that dude played through that?”. A few years ago, a player notoriously played in the Stanley Cup with a broken femur. Hockey players exude toughness. We constantly shake our heads in amazement when we witness feats of this magnitude. Most athletes in contact sports are commended for their bravery, their toughness, and their desire to lay it all on the line in the name of leadership, being a good teammate, and most of all, winning.
Then, yesterday something unexpected happened. Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced he was retiring from NASCAR racing at the end of the year. He is the most popular driver in the sport, and can still regularly compete for championships, and most likely still near the prime of his career in his early 40’s. Yet after suffering from another concussion that knocked him out for the season last year, Jr. came to the conclusion that being tough and putting his body through the ultimate wear and tear, was no longer worth it in order to have a successful, happy life. And maybe, just maybe, this is the next phase of what it means to be tough. Knowing when enough is enough and when there are more important things in life than killing your body all in the name of victory. I was not prepared for Jr. to make this announcement but it got me thinking. My daughter has no awareness of any of these people, doesn’t know and doesn’t care what happens to them. But she will know because of the way it impacts the way I raise her and what my expectations will be.
Those who know me know I love sports. Sports has always been a big part of my life. When I played, I played all-out, just like coaches tell you to. You play to the whistle. You do everything in your power to make the play. And that’s just what I did. I threw my body around with very little regard. I endured concussions (never clinically diagnosed, because we didn’t do that back in the 90’s). How do I know they were concussions? I assume if I “lost time”, as in I blacked out and had to be woken back up, that I sustained a concussion. I got knocked out in back to back days playing basketball. Playing one day after a concussion was probably not the smartest thing in the world, but I wanted to play and I was not going to sit out a game. So I played, and got kicked in the back of the head. Damage? Maybe, but minimal I am sure. I know most other kids were the same way, we played balls to the walls and had fun obliterating ourselves doing it. It was a badge of honor to get hurt. We still brag about it today with our memes on social media about how we did dangerous things and we turned out just fine. Well, we turned out, but maybe not fine. Who knows the untold damage we did to ourselves. But we didn’t die, so there’s that. So we call it toughness. We should really be calling it stupidity. Because what did all that toughness accomplish? I don’t even know. I mean seriously, what did it accomplish?
Olivia is almost 21 months. She runs a lot. She falls a lot. She skins her knees like six times a day. Then she skins them again. She smashes her face on the floor daily and runs into open car doors. Basically, she’s a kid. She is like any other kid. She hurts herself all the time. But the thing is, she goes balls to the walls, just like I use to. I can see the determination in her eyes. When she wants to do something, she will make it happen. Pain is just another obstacle. People say this is just a phase, that all kids are like this and it will move on. Except, I know her parents. I know what is inside her and what drives her. Both myself and her mother are A Type personalities. She will always be the type to go all out on everything and give it her all, and then give it some more. Will she play soccer, or basketball, or dance like her mother? Will she get on the ice and play hockey like I hope she will one day? Who knows. She will do something though, because she can’t stay still and she has to always be in motion. And when she does do that something, she will do it all the way or not at all. It’s how I operate and it’s how she already operates. The injuries will come. She will want to play through them. But the question becomes, will I let her? At what point do we stop applauding the intestinal fortitude and desire to push on, and instead applaud the decision to know when you have reached your limit and stop before you do serious harm to yourself? Thornton played with his knee shredded and we all fell into the blind idolatry and commended him for his commitment to the team and the game. But Thornton was also extremely stupid. His knee did not work. He could have done worse damage to it. He easily could have made himself a liability on the ice that his teammates had to make up for. The fact that that didn’t happen should not overshadow the fact that Thornton really had no business being on the ice and he set a dangerous precedent. If he gets injured again in the future, it will be easy for fans to look at this example and say “Hey you played through that, so play through this, too.” A heightened expectation of his teammates will be there as well, not to mention they will look at this as an example of why they should also put their body through intense, physical pain when the time comes. And that is all well and good, but will it be when they are 60 and their teammates are long gone and they don’t have that fat paycheck from the league coming every month? Do I want my daughter to feel like she has to commit to play through the pain at the expense of not letting her teammates down? And if she chooses not to, will she then feel disappointed in herself for feeling like she failed herself and those seemingly depending on her?
That is really where this all leads us. The definitions of toughness and teammate. Being a good teammate does not mean you sacrifice the future health of your body for the short-lived victories of today. Good teammates should understand that if a player cannot go, then it is up to them to each step up and carry the load. You, as an individual, should feel confident in your decision to sit out and take a break because you know that your teammates are going to get the job done in your absence. That is why there are multiple players on a team. Good teammates should want you to look after yourself in the extreme situations. Not everyone can go at 130% every time. I want my daughter to know that, even at the most pivotal of moments, that her health is more important than anything else. If teammates cannot accept that, then maybe she should not be on that team.
When I was going through my training to become an SF soldier, the common refrain was “Pain is weakness leaving the body”. But pain is also your body’s way of telling you something is wrong. What many of us experienced was not pain, but merely an uncomfortable feeling from our body reaching plains never thought achievable. There is a difference between pushing through soreness and exhaustion, and pushing through actual, physical pain. When I was a young SF lad, I was attempting to go through Ranger School. I went to a pre-Ranger School program first, and on the first day while we were getting smoked, I experienced an unnerving feeling in my chest. I had actually been feeling it for quite some time and had gone to the hospital weeks before because of it. At the time, docs chalked it up to anxiety and lack of food. So I thought of this as I became extremely short of breath and having trouble staying alert while I was running. Normally, I would be at the head of the pack when running, but I was far behind this time as I attempted to push through the pain in my chest. Finally I reached my limit, turned to the instructor next to me and told him “I’m out” and hit the sand. I ended up in the hospital and docs there discovered a hole in my lung that was allowing air to push between my lung and chest. Had I continued on like I was originally attempting to do, they said it most definitely could have killed me. So pain is not always weakness leaving the body. Sometimes pain is trying to keep you from killing yourself.
So I take these things extremely serious. I know what it is like to be young and naive and think you are invincible, and completely ignore the warning signs. It takes nearly killing yourself to realize that you can stop, that you can let yourself heal, and that no matter what other people think, it’s what is best for you. I got kicked off my team after this happened because my Team Sergeant thought I was being a pussy. I don’t even care. The dude was an asshole. I was not the best SF guy when I first got there, but that taught me a lesson for sure, one that I utilized to turn myself into a better soldier and better individual. Did I let my teammates down? No. Because injuries happen, they are not something to be ashamed of, and making yourself as healthy as possible is the best thing for all parties. If I hadn’t experienced that, I may have kept up with my mindset that I can drive on through anything. And then I could have gone out on a mission when I wasn’t 100%, become a liability, and then gotten someone killed. Screw that nonsense.
Olivia will have no doubt that going all out is the way to do things in life. However, she will also know that while it is fun to cheer for guys like Joe Thornton and Logan Couture and admire their dedication, it is also okay to call them out on their BS and recognize that that is not necessarily the smartest way to go about your business. Physical toughness is great and appreciable. But mental toughness is equally, if not more, commendable. I admire Thornton for what he did. I would have respected him even more if he had decided to say “No, I am not going to do this because it is reckless, dangerous, and I want to be able to walk down stairs when I am 80 without using one of those chair lifts.”
Take a few moments to check out this video from Sportscenter. It’s almost the ideal rebuttal to this piece but perfectly sums up the counterpoint.