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Original Issue

The NFL's Growing Pains

This couldn't be the right room. It was only a clinic door, but when he swung it open, Wesley Walls passed through a portal to his future. He stood among bingo-hall sharks with their sock-hop memories, their early-bird dinner plans and their new ceramic hips. Just 41 in December 2007—four years removed from a career as a Pro Bowl tight end—Walls found himself stretching with the oldies after hip-replacement surgery at a facility in Charlotte. "I was doing physical therapy with some of my parents' friends," he told me six months after his surgery. "It was like, Hey, you're that Walls kid, right? I thought, Man, I am too young to be in here. This can't be happening, not this soon."

The math is cruel. Studies estimate that an NFL player will lose an average of one to three years of life expectancy for every year he spends in the league. Is 40 the new 65 for pro football veterans? Many recently retired players find themselves rehabbing in the company of geriatrics because of the damage inflicted by a 16-game season. "We think we can play forever," says Rich Gannon, the 2002 MVP who played 17 years at quarterback and suffers from chronic pain in his knees and neck, among other areas. "But the thing that's really dawned on me is that I'm 44 years old and I've already had two knee surgeries, two shoulder surgeries and I broke my neck in 2004. I really felt like when I retired I was out of the woods, but I've had all kinds of issues."

Imagine the wear, tear and, ultimately, despair of a season lasting 18 games. As the 2010 season kicks off next week, and negotiations intensify over a new collective-bargaining agreement for '11, the owners are pushing a proposal to enhance their bottom line: Steal two preseason games (which starters often sit out) and tack them on to the regular-season calendar. Theoretically, the Jets' clunky preseason loss against the Redskins last Friday at the New Meadowlands Stadium—on an August evening fit for a clambake—would have been the season opener. "You take away two junk games and add two real ones, it would take a physical toll," says New York defensive end Jason Taylor, a 13-year veteran. Jets player rep Tony Richardson, a fullback with 15 years experience, adds, "That's putting two years on a career like mine. I might not be standing here right now. As players, we have a lot of research and data to gather first."

Does it matter what the players surmise when commissioner Roger Goodell, in his almighty Oz voice, keeps saying, "The fans have spoken"? Clearly, fans detest preseason games, but the owners have selective hearing—fans also loathe seat licenses, long lines at stadium restrooms and TV blackouts. Fans experience the game, not its repercussions. They cheer, tailgate and slap on their walls life-sized Fathead images of a player in action, frozen in time. It's a peel-and-stick appreciation of virtuosity in a disposable form. Greatness comes and goes. Fans will only notice the side effects of an 18-game season if the quality of play deteriorates. Exactly when does the quality of players' lives enter the equation?

There has been plenty of heated debate about the state of health care for NFL players and alumni, but the discussion often centers on concussions. That's a worthy concern—reports on the damage to the brains of dead players are beyond disturbing—but a lot of alumni leave the game with their wits about them. Their bodies, however, are as ravaged as voodoo dolls'. A sharp pain here. An odd numbness there. It is this everyday physical and spiritual anguish that in some cases leads to depression, as experts have pointed out. Now add two more games. "You're probably talking 120 extra plays, 120 extra collisions over the course of a season," says Gannon. The collisions in today's game are more violent than they were in 1978, when the seasons went from 14 to 16 games. Players are bigger and faster, yet the suits of armor are still plastic and foam rubber.

We talk about bloody Sundays but not bruised Tuesdays. Numb it and forget it. Denial is the silent deal an NFL player makes to survive the pounding of 16-game seasons, even though his retired body may scream back at him one day. Walls thought he had sciatica when X-rays revealed the stunning truth: He needed a hip replacement. He had undergone 11 surgeries—mostly scope jobs—during his days with four NFL teams, but Walls had never been so vulnerable as he was after receiving a new hip. "I couldn't put my socks on," he said. "I couldn't tie my shoes. I couldn't put my pants on. I couldn't get out of bed to eat without my wife's help." Walls paused. "It gave me a glimpse: Is this what it's going to be?"

Is age acceleration preventable? No, but that doesn't mean the pedal has to be floored, either. "We're not automobiles," Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis told reporters last week, explaining his stance against an extended season even if roster size and compensation are increased. "We're not machines." The league constantly tweaks its violence monitoring as a nod to player safety. But adding games to the regular season makes all the hit policing—the league has recently placed warning posters about concussions in every locker room—seem like peel-and-stick window dressing. It's a Fathead approach to health. Extend a season, shorten a lifespan. Nothing catches up to an NFL player faster than age.

Fans will only notice the effects of an 18-game season if the quality of play deteriorates. When does the quality of players' lives enter the equation?

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