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Texans’ Tom Savage did what any NFL player would have wanted to do: Get back in the game

For players, nothing hurts more than letting down your teammates

The NFL has been producing a string of unsettling images of injured players. The latest came from Sunday’s San Francisco 49ers-Houston Texans game.

Texans quarterback Tom Savage’s body convulsed as he lay with his eyes closed in his own end zone. A referee stood over him, hesitantly touching his shaking arm. Savage quickly regained consciousness and ran to the sideline as if nothing happened. That’ll be the image we remember from that game.

But the most chilling images came from the Texans’ next offensive series. Savage was back on the field. It wasn’t a mistake. He was evaluated and allowed to re-enter the game. He threw incomplete passes on second and third down in that series, the Texans punted and T.J. Yates was the quarterback for the team for the rest of the game.

Obviously, Savage shouldn’t have been allowed back in that game. But why did he want to go back in? Why does it seem that all players want back in, no matter their injury? Part of the answer is pride, a near-superhuman toughness and the drive of a professional athlete. But that’s not all that makes players ignore reason and their better judgment.

On Saturday night, I watched world champion boxer Guillermo Rigondeaux quit after six rounds of fighting. He had moved up two weight classes to fight junior lightweight titleholder Vasyl Lomachenko. Rigondeaux cited a hand injury as the reason for not being able to continue the fight. He is the fourth consecutive opponent of Lomachenko’s to throw in the towel. All of those fighters are as tough and driven and have as much pride as any NFL player.

But boxing is an individual sport. Acknowledging that fortunes will not improve, because of injury or skill, is feasible when competing alone. The competitor needs only to answer to himself. No other person’s commitment, sacrifice or desire is comparable, so no other person’s disappointment in his failure carries the same weight in his mind.

Football is different. In the minds of players, there is no greater infraction than letting down your teammates. Players understand how much their brothers have endured for an opportunity, and they dread the idea of voluntarily giving up.

While teammates understand and forgive guys for not finishing a game or season because of injury, the injured player knows that the “next man up” locker room culture has an unintended impact. “Next man up” is meant to embody a culture of accountability and no-excuse resilience. It also reminds players that the men who are down cannot help the team and are somewhat worthless. Having been one of those worthless injured players, I know that the longer you spend on the sideline the less you feel like you are on the team. And there is nothing that can replace being on the field with your teammates.

I have never experienced anything like Savage did on Sunday, but I have knowingly played in games when I knew I shouldn’t have. During the 2008 season, when I played for the Atlanta Falcons, Denver Broncos receiver Eddie Royal blindsided me as I was pursuing a scrambling Jay Cutler. While coughing up blood, I thanked Eddie, my teammate during the previous season, for hitting me in the chest and not the head. I remember thinking, “Coughing up blood is a weird thing to be thankful for, and maybe I should go back down so the trainers can come check me out.” Then I thought, “I am not going to leave the game, so why bother?” The blood stopped. I finished the game and got X-rays afterward. I was fine. Had Eddie gone for my head, there is a chance I would have been knocked unconscious. Sadly, I don’t think that would have changed my desire to stay on the field. It absolutely should have, given the information we had concerning chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

Two seasons later, with the Baltimore Ravens, I tore my ACL in practice and was out for the season. Going to the games and watching my teammates play without me was much more painful than the injury or rehab. Because of that, I know there is nothing that can be done to keep players from trying to get back on the field. Which means greater responsibility for those around the players, particularly the independent neurological consultant who is expected to administer the concussion protocol without the biases a team-employed trainer would have. The protocol is meant to give players and fans comfort and protection. But it is clearly flawed.

Before the season, all players undergo a cognitive exam meant to set a baseline. Part of the protocol is to re-test the cognitive ability of the player to ensure that his brain function has returned to baseline. I am not a neurologist, but that seems like an imprecise and easily gamed way to evaluate a dangerous injury.

Early in my career, friend and teammate Champ Bailey made an important distinction that should have guided my thinking throughout my professional career. When I was limping through a workout, he said, “There’s a difference between tough and dumb-tough.” I jokingly replied, “You’re Champ Bailey, you can afford to just be tough.” In actuality, he played in more pain than I ever did. He and all current and future players will continue to be dumb-tough for each other at the expense of their long-term well-being.

Domonique Foxworth is a writer at The Undefeated. He is a recovering pro athlete and superficial intellectual.