The ankle sprain was so severe that the pain covered a distance that could
be measured in both miles and years.
The images of Patrick Mahomes traveled all the way from Kansas City, arriving
on Jack Youngblood’s television down in Florida as a reminder of
a similar scene more than four decades old.
“He was wound up on the sidelines,” Youngblood said. “Did
you see him? He was going, ‘No, no,
hell no!’ He’s like I was and still am — as hard-headed as
Mahomes’ animated response to being pulled from the
Chiefs’ divisional round victory over Jacksonville last month punctuated how determined he was to push
through his injury.
And he did return, missing only one series against the Jaguars and then
playing every offensive snap in Kansas City’s
AFC championship game win over Cincinnati, Mahomes limping badly at times but ultimately marching on.
A high-ankle sprain couldn’t stop him any more than a broken tibia
could thwart Youngblood during the 1979 playoffs, the former Rams defensive
end playing 2½ games — including Super Bowl XIV — on
a fractured leg.
“People to this day ask me about it,” Youngblood said. “I’ll
see someone in the airport and it’s, ‘How the hell did you
keep playing?’ These are people I don’t even know. I laugh
and say, ‘I have no idea. I haven’t figured that one out yet.’ ”
In a league so committed to honoring tradition that its most important
game still carries Roman numerals, the NFL has a notable history of players
ignoring injuries to participate in the Super Bowl.
Among so many others, Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis had a broken arm,
Philadelphia wide receiver Terrell Owens a broken leg and and torn ankle
ligament, and New England quarterback Tom Brady a lacerated hand.
New York Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress caught the winning touchdown
in the final minute of
Super Bowl XLII despite two bad ankles, a separated shoulder, a torn pinky ligament and
a sprained knee.
“That’s the ultimate game,” Dwight Freeney said. “If
I can walk a little bit and my coaches let me play, I’m playing.
That’s just what it is. That’s the kind of mentality guys
have. It’s that big of a moment.”
So Freeney played, too, the former Indianapolis pass rusher even recording
a sack in
Super Bowl XLIV on an ankle sprain he now describes as “absolutely terrible.”
On Sunday, Mahomes won’t be alone in trying to manage his ailing
body through — at least — four more quarters. There will be
plenty of others, including Philadelphia’s Lane Johnson.
The All-Pro right tackle on Christmas Eve suffered a torn adductor (groin)
injury significant enough to require surgery. When Johnson learned of
the severity, Eagles offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland said the 10-year
But Johnson stiff-armed the operation in favor of resting and rehabbing
to the point where he could return for the playoffs.
“I knew we had a talented team and a chance to be a great team,”
he said this week. “As you get older and your career goes down the
line, your opportunities get limited. I knew I had to try to seize this
Understanding pain management first requires understanding pain, something
Dr. Vernon Williams does better than most as the founding director of
the Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Medicine at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe
He explained that areas of injury transmit electrical signals via the nervous
system through the spinal cord to the brain. It is the brain that then
produces pain, typically as a defense response to protect the body.
But the amount of pain experienced can be influenced by much more than
just the player’s injury. There is everything that’s happening
around the player to consider as well.
“It’s a real and interesting phenomenon,” Williams said.
“The thing to remember is there’s not a one-to-one relationship
between tissue damage or tissue injury and the amount of pain a person feels.
“Pain is individual, and it’s informed by a lot of things like
emotional context and the environment. That’s why we can see some
of these extraordinary feats where you go, ‘How is this possible?’"
Playing on his broken leg, Youngblood recalled feeling pain in the huddle
and walking around before the ball was snapped. He said the sensation
suddenly disappeared the moment he reached the line of scrimmage and placed
his hand on the ground.
Calling it “kind of shocking,” Youngblood said he soon realized
there was a mental aspect to something otherwise completely physical as
he and his teammates chased what would have been the Rams’ first
Super Bowl win.
Williams explained that Youngblood was experiencing the impact of his surroundings,
surroundings as significant as any an NFL player can encounter.
“The situation might be such that the motivation is so strong, the
emotional environment so tipped in the direction of ‘I must perform’
that one can manage and overcome those electrical signals,” he said.
“It’s really the emotional context that those signals arrive
at in the brain as to whether there’s incapacitating pain, moderate
pain or there’s pain, yes, but pain where one can overcome and continue
“I can tell you, the scenario is going to be different if it’s
an injury in practice on a team that’s not going to make it to the
playoffs compared to a team that’s heading to the Super Bowl.”
Though Youngblood retired nearly 40 years ago, his remains the most famous
of the NFL’s broken-body Super Bowl tales. He was hurt late in the
first half of the Rams’ divisional round win at Dallas.
Upon retreating to the locker room, Youngblood said X-rays were taken before
he consulted with longtime Rams physician Clarence Shields.
“Dr. Shields sticks the picture in the light board and says, ‘See
right there. You broke the tibia,’ ” Youngblood recalled.
“I said, ‘Yeah, Clarence, I can see that. Now, tape the damn
thing up. We got 30 minutes to win this ballgame.’ ”
Estimating that he was at 90% physically, Youngblood finished the game
against the Cowboys and then helped the Rams shut out Tampa Bay 9-0 for
the NFC championship.
He wore an extra plastic pad to protect his leg during games and barely
practiced. Youngblood said he took “several injections to try to
keep the swelling down” and was administered aspirin.
“OK,” he said, laughing, “maybe it was a little stronger
Against Pittsburgh in
Super Bowl XIV, the Rams took a lead into the fourth quarter before falling 31-19 at
the Rose Bowl.
Youngblood said the motivation of playing for a title certainly drove him
— but not as much as playing for his teammates did.
“I loved my team,” he said. “On top of that, I was a
captain. I was the leader of the defense. Playing was my responsibility.
I had to give every ounce of energy and determination that I could put
on that field for 60 minutes.”
And his determination didn’t stop there. A week after the Super Bowl,
Youngblood and his fractured tibia showed up in Hawaii to participate
in the Pro Bowl, an exhibition that lacked significance but offered opportunity.
When one of the NFC coaches saw Youngblood, he questioned why the injured
seven-time Pro Bowler was even at the event.
“I told him, ‘I just played 19 ballgames. You think I’m
gonna miss this party?’ ” Youngblood said, laughing again.
“He looked at me like I was either sick or crazy.”
So, all these years later, Youngblood is readying to watch another set
of players grit their way through the NFL’s ultimate game, the group
including Kansas City’s star quarterback.
Known for this ability to escape defenders, Mahomes now also is proving
he can be quite adept at eluding pain.
“I’m so proud of that child,” Youngblood said. “His
fortitude. His determination. His leadership. His spirit. I mean, every
time he snaps that ball, he wants to win, no matter how he’s feeling.
I admire that, tremendously.”