Get-Right Day: NFL players detail their painful, gritty post-game recovery routines

Sunday December 4th, 2016

It’s 9:35 on a Monday morning in mid-November, 10 weeks into another NFL season and 20 hours after Jaguars receiver Allen Robinson played 67 snaps against the Texans. Sunday was all booming fighter-jet flyovers and screaming Jacksonville fans and defenders inflicting pain. Monday starts in a dimly lit room where whispers, groans and soft flute notes fill the air.

Robinson lies facedown on a massage table. His eyes are closed as one masseuse leans an elbow into his right hamstring, careful to avoid the four suction cups affixed there, and another works Robinson’s neck with both hands, causing him to grimace. “Does that hurt?” she asks.

“A little,” he says. “Normal pain.”

Ninety minutes earlier Robinson awoke at his 21st-floor waterfront condominium and surveyed the physical wreckage of another Sunday afternoon. Other than some fresh bruises, he felt “fine,” which meant a sore neck and tired legs and a balky hamstring. On a pain scale of one to 10, with 10 being extreme, Robinson started his morning at a five. This late into the season, that’s basically healthy. Every NFL player, he says, is injured. It’s only a matter of degree.

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Even a 23-year-old wideout like Robinson, with a Pro Bowl appearance and a $3.5 million contract, hates Mondays. Think you’ve got a weekend hangover? Robinson sprinted nearly 1,400 yards against Houston while being pushed, wrestled, tackled, muscled and twisted by defenders. He gained 107 receiving yards and scored a touchdown in a loss that dropped Jacksonville to 2–7. The next morning he climbed out of bed and drove eight minutes to EverBank Field, his pain at once normal and extreme. There’s no time to sulk about another lost season. Robinson has two days to heal enough to practice, and six days before the Jags play the Lions.

Robinson’s Monday goal is simple: to feel human again. And he’s not alone. While he lies flat on his massage table, three teammates wait for an opening. Another player shuffles into the room, sees the traffic jam and sighs. Over lunch in the team’s dining area, while Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” sets the midday mood—Hey! Wait! I’ve got a new complaint—the Jaguars’ wideouts compare battle damage. This is their water cooler-, all who-got-hit-by-whom-and-how-hard.

“You applaud the guys who are able to stay healthy,” says Marqise Lee. “Even then you can be healthy today, take the wrong step tomorrow and—boo-yah—your whole season is over.”

Allen Hurns shakes his head. “Any given moment.”

“Fans don’t see this part of it,” Robinson says. “They booed us yesterday. They don’t understand a damn thing.”

“You don’t really get it until you’re in it,” Lee says. “When I was in college, I thought I knew what went into recovery. I didn’t know.

“Everyone’s hurting,” he continues. “You don’t feel normal until after the season.”

“Usually mid-February,” Hurns says.

Lunch finishes. Routines resume. “That’s my first goal, always, to play in every game,” Robinson says as he walks off. “Availability is my most important talent.”

Rick Wilson

If game day is the most important day of an NFL workweek, then the one after is a close second. Mondays are for hot tubs, cold tubs and pool work. They’re for stretching sore limbs, correcting postural alignment and building core strength. They’re for team meetings and position grades, family time and school meetings and ... video games. Get-right days, players call them.

Sports Illustrated followed four players through the NFL season’s first three months of Mondays: Robinson, Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan, Ravens (and later Lions) running back Justin Forsett, and Steelers tackle Ryan Harris. The players checked in weekly, sharing updates on their lives, revealing where and how much they hurt, reliving their recoveries, trying to provide a perspective that outsiders can’t begin to comprehend. “There’s no way to overstate the pain we’re in on Monday,” Harris said before the season began. “If you’re lucky, you get used to operating with pain. If you’re lucky.”

The four players range in NFL experience from three to 10 seasons; they’ve developed their own routines, sought advice from veteran teammates and learned to take better care of themselves. They’ve each suffered broken bones. Forsett, Harris and Jordan have young children; Robinson remains a bachelor. But they all know the importance of Monday.

Harris, at 31 a veteran of 10 NFL seasons, four franchises, three back surgeries and one toe operation, is obsessed with recovery techniques. It wasn’t always that way. Back in 2007, his rookie year, he laughed at Broncos teammates who stayed late, treating their injuries, on Mondays. “My body is built for football,” he told them. Physics eventually disabused him of that notion, as it does for most players who spend seven months a year ramming into one another at high speeds. No human body is built for a sport where torn hamstrings, broken collarbones and concussed brains are accepted as occupational hazards.

That sentiment applies as well to younger players like Robinson and Jordan, who’s 27. Robinson broke his right foot in 2014, his rookie season. He sharpened his routines, focusing on treatments, and hasn’t missed a game since. Jordan, a two-time Pro Bowler with a contrarian streak who’s now in his sixth year, does more training than recovery on Mondays and has never missed a game in his career.

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Forsett, meanwhile, has bounced around the NFL the way he slides off would-be tacklers. A fractured right foot ended his 2013 season in Jacksonville and a broken right arm ended his ’15 season in Baltimore. But between injuries he rushed for 1,907 yards. With stats like that, the 31-year-old will find employment as long as he remains healthy. He continues to chase pain because that means he’s still working.

Of the four, only Harris changed teams before this season, and his collection of bruises moved with him from Denver to Pittsburgh. “There’s definitely a physical dominance to the NFL that you don’t find in most workplaces,” he says.

Mondays, for any NFL player, are the equal and opposite reaction to what takes place on Sunday. For every collision there’s a chiropractor or an acupuncturist. For every sore limb there’s a yoga mat or stretching exercise. For every concussion there’s a dimmed light somewhere, to prevent the headaches. “The first thing I do on Monday morning is take stock,” says Harris. “You add up the bruises—which ones are new, which ones are worse. This one’s from a block that helped score a touchdown. This one’s from the helmet that landed on my hammy.”

This is the story of four NFL players. But it’s also the story of practically every nonkicker in the league. More than 1,300 grown men feel this way every Monday.

Monday Sept. 12

Forsett rises early, at 4:30 a.m. His parents were in town for yesterday’s season-opening win over the Bills and he’s sending them off to the airport. He knows exactly how he hurt his neck, on a first-half blitz pickup of linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, a college teammate of Forsett’s at Cal. Afterward Alexander texted, “[Quarterback Joe] Flacco should be paying for your massage.”

The physical pain isn’t even the worst part. The Ravens released Forsett a week ago and re-signed him two days later; on Sunday he shared the running back workload with Terrance West. The game marked Forsett’s return from the broken arm that last November hung from his side like a wet spaghetti noodle, and he felt that good pain again. But there was no time to celebrate. He had a job to win.

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In Pittsburgh, Harris wakes up in total darkness, a development that is better than it sounds. Earlier this year his coach, Mike Tomlin, brought in a sleep expert, Stanford’s Cheri Mah. Harris, who owns a massage table, a chiropractic table, an air compression system, heat packs, ice packs and Epsom salts, took all of Mah’s suggestions. He started going to bed earlier and sleeping longer. He put blackout blinds in his bedroom and lowered the temperature at night. He took shorter naps and didn’t eat too close to bedtime. And he found himself processing his new playbook more quickly, retaining the information better. For a lineman who has played in 115 games and won a Super Bowl ring with Denver, steps like these matter. Always have. Even when Harris plays only six snaps in the Steelers’ victory over the Redskins on Monday night, he follows his routine exactly: back to the blackout blinds he goes. “If I didn’t do all this,” he says, “I wouldn’t have lasted in the NFL.”

Monday Sept. 19

“A minor scare,” Jordan says of the right leg injury he sustained yesterday in the Saints’ second straight loss, to the Giants. When he planted on a pass rush in the second half, his foot stuck in the turf and his knee twisted at an awkward angle. Jordan never came out of the game, but by Sunday evening the knee had swelled to twice its normal size.

“Shouldn’t be a problem,” he says as he rises on Monday and drives to the training facility for a 6 a.m. MRI. The test reveals a grade 1 MCL sprain, a minor injury by football standards (where “minor” injuries are common, but not all that “minor” to those who suffer them). Jordan rates his pain as a three, as if trying to convince himself he’ll be fine by Sunday. “I’ll be starting,” he says. Others are less sure of their status, including one teammate who has entered concussion protocol. “You’ve got guys going full speed, hitting each other,” Jordan says, his sigh audible over the phone. “All you can do is pray to God and hope for the best.”

Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Jordan’s notion seems particularly evident in taking stock of the weekend’s wreckage: Broncos pass rusher DeMarcus Ware, Colts receiver Donte Moncrief and running backs Adrian Peterson (Vikings), Thomas Rawls (Seahawks), Danny Woodhead (Chargers), Ameer Abdullah (Lions), Doug Martin (Bucs) and Jonathan Stewart (Panthers) have all suffered significant or season-ending injuries. Forsett texts with Woodhead, who’s a friend. “Praying for you,” he taps out.

Even Harris, who has hardly played this season, can’t shake the bruises on one of his shins. “Companions,” he calls them. (Harris, like most NFL players, is hesitant to talk about any injury in great detail; there’s a serious concern among the wounded that an opponent might target a weakness.) “People thought Sunday was crazy because all these fantasy guys got hurt,” he goes on, “but that’s every Sunday.”

Monday Sept. 26

From fantasy to reality: Three games into the season, all four of SI’s players are in significant pain. Forsett can’t climb out of bed on Monday. Instead he watches Ratatouille with his two small boys, who remain blissfully unaware of how badly their father’s neck aches. His body, he says, “feels like a train wreck”—and that despite his diminished playing time. He carried a mere seven times on Sunday. He can’t concentrate on the cartoon; he’s considering adding dry-needle acupuncture to his treatment. Anything to feel better.

Robinson hurts too. “That’s by far the most hits I’ve taken this season,” he says after the Jaguars’ third straight loss, to Forsett’s Ravens. “My neck is really sore from when two defenders hit me at the same time. I’m going to need an extra massage.”

They all do. Even with a massage, a session with his chiropractor and some hot yoga, and despite spending Sunday mostly on the sideline, Harris’s pain is worsening. “I don’t want to give too many details, but the season is definitely catching up to me,” he says before the Steelers have even reached Week 4. “My old injury is hurting bad.”

Harris’s worst shin bruise is now the size of a clementine. “When grown men wear full pads and hit each other, this is what’s going to happen,” he says. Jordan’s knee still hurts too, but neither player is taking anything stronger than Advil. Yet.

“It’s all worth it,” Harris adds, as if he needs to explain.

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Monday Oct. 3

The text message from the wounded lineman arrives early in the morning: “Guess where I’m at now? Hospital, bro.” Harris doesn’t reveal many details, except that the main bruise on his shin turned into a hematoma, had to be drained and then became infected, and when he arrived at Heinz Field for his game against the Chiefs yesterday, the Steelers’ doctors told him he should to go to the hospital immediately ... after the game. The team needed him to play first.

Harris expected to be used sparingly, same as in Pittsburgh’s first three outings. But when right tackle Marcus Gilbert left with an injured left ankle in the second quarter, Harris played the rest of the game. “Quite the night,” Harris says on Monday from his hospital bed. “My shoulders, neck and hands hurt. But we beat the heck out of a team I used to play for [43–14]. And I feel at peace that there’s some resolution with the shin. Every step felt like someone was pulling my muscle off.”

En route to the hospital, Harris’s wife had asked a reasonable question: Why had he played at all? Harris laughed it off as they stopped for one final cheesesteak before all the hospital grub to come.

Harris is taking painkillers (he declines to provide specifics) and expects to spend somewhere between 10 days and three weeks in the hospital. He’s likely to land on injured reserve. “All worth it,” he says again. “My kids have college funds.”

Aaron M. Sprecher via AP

In Baltimore, Harris’s former teammate, Forsett, faces a cold NFL reality of his own. A week after he couldn’t get out of bed, the Ravens have released him. This time it appears to be for good.

Jordan, meanwhile, has “reagitated” his knee injury in a win over the Chargers, but he promises to have forgotten about it by next week. “I’m strictly relying on my youth and my ability,” he says. “If something else happens, I’m sure that will change. But I try to stay away from Toradol or any of that stuff until I need it.”

“That’s the NFL, man,” Robinson says. “It isn’t just about playing other teams. It’s about trying to keep your body right.”

Monday Oct. 10

Harris calls from the hospital for a second straight week. On Sunday, while his teammates crushed the Jets at home, he had surgery on his shin, along with a skin graft, and he hopes to head home soon. He’s taking painkillers less frequently and at lower doses, weaning himself off their temporary relief. He’s not thinking about whether this injury could end his season, let alone his career. He’s in the one-day-at-a-time phase of recovery, using the breathing and meditation exercises he learned two years ago from an MMA trainer. Between visits from friends and family and doctors, Harris concentrates on taking deep breaths, calming himself, taking his mind off the months of rehab ahead.

“This is the NFL you don’t see,” he says. “There’s this assumption that guys start and end a season healthy, and that’s really unfounded. It’s not just the best team that wins the Super Bowl. It’s usually the healthiest team.”

Harris’s wife and their two young children visited Ryan earlier today. His wife brought pasta. Their three-year-old son kicked off his shoes, snuggled next to Ryan in his bed and joked, “I’m hurt like Daddy!”

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Monday Oct. 17

After two weeks of inactivity Forsett got back on the field, and he awakens to fresh bruises and built-up lactic acid, pain he finds nothing less than glorious. It’s his discomfort that comforts him.

After the Ravens released him, he composed an epic tweet that doubled as an employment application.

Several teams called his agent but none seemed more interested than the Lions, who signed him Oct. 11, in effect adding several layers to his existing Monday routines. Forsett needs to find a temporary home and a new masseuse, buy a car, learn a new playbook and eventually move his family from Baltimore. He even played yesterday, five days after signing, and carried five times for five yards against the Rams. “The NFL is an unstable blessing,” he says.

In Jacksonville, Robinson’s pain rating reaches a six after a physical win over the Bears. It hurts to walk, hurts to drive, hurts even to play video games, which is how Robinson spends most Monday afternoons. The flights to and from London in early October, for a game against the Colts, didn’t help. Nor is he excited that the Jags play two games in five days later this month, one on a Sunday and one on a Thursday. But mostly the young receiver is upset with himself for skipping his massage last Monday, during his bye week. He can’t control Thursday dates, which players hate, or the London games, which Jacksonville plays every year. But he can control his routine, and his routine dictates how he feels. He slipped.

Jordan’s leg? He continues to tell himself that it’s fine. At home the presence of his two-month-old daughter, Glory, puts his aches into perspective. But “I reagitated it again,” he adds, sighing. “It was on a chip block; I pivoted and my knee got pinned down while my body twisted. That doesn’t matter, though. All you need to say is, I hurt it playing football.”

In Pittsburgh, Harris is out of the hospital and almost off his pain meds. His wife dresses the bandages on his shin daily; every week nurses change the IV that pumps antibiotics into his right arm. His son keeps saying that he hopes Daddy doesn’t go back to the “post office” (read: hospital). The only trip the lineman makes today is to the Steelers’ facility, to gather medical supplies. “A couple of teammates looked at me like they’d seen a ghost,” he reports. “All they knew was, I played a game and then went to the hospital that night.”

Teams move on that quickly—a player’s there one day, gone the next. In this case, Harris alerted a few friends that he’d be away; he texted them pictures of his bruise before surgery. “You could have sent me that after lunch,” came one response.

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Monday Oct. 24

On Sunday, Forsett carried eight times for 33 yards in Detroit’s latest comeback win, over the Redskins. A day later he’s signing the lease on a temporary home—fully furnished, cable and gas included. His family will move from Baltimore shortly. Things are looking up. His legs hurt from Ford Field’s turf, which he explains is hard on the knees, but for a guy who wasn’t employed three weeks ago, this is progress. There’s no such thing as good turf, only preferred turf or less-bad turf. He cites his new home field and the Cardinals’ University of Phoenix Stadium as among the worst.

In Detroit, with his sixth team, his routine continues to evolve. The Ravens had a device called the NormaTec PULSE Leg Recovery System—basically a compression sleeve that wraps like a python around sore legs and squeezes them to improve blood flow and speed healing. Forsett had tried out the contraption then, but on this Monday he makes the switch for good, abandoning the cold tub, which he always hated anyway.

“That’s the NFL,” he says again, like a mantra. Teams, roles, health, recovery methods—they all change from week to week.

Monday Oct. 31

On Halloween, Harris says, “I feel like I’ve turned the corner. I’m so close to being able to continue a normal life.” His skin graft has taken. He has completely weaned himself off the pain meds. He is meditating and thinking about his comeback and nearing a return to physical activity. If all goes well, he will soon make it back to the weight room. 

While Harris is trending upward, Robinson’s Jaguars lost again, embarrassingly so, to the Titans. The receiver is feeling worse. Forsett didn’t play in the Lions’ loss to the Texans. Physically he’s feeling better, but he’s more depressed. While his wife and children trick-or-treat in Baltimore, he dines alone on Chipotle in Detroit. “This is part of the NFL too,” he says.

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In New Orleans, Jordan is on the mend. His recap of the Saints’ crucial victory over the Seahawks focuses not on plays or momentum but on the relative health of both teams. “We knew Russell Wilson had injuries on both legs,” he says. “I appreciated him not being so mobile in the pocket. At the same time, we’re getting injured players back. My shoulder is super sore, but my knee is no longer inflamed.

“I’m psyched about that.”

Monday Nov. 7

The Saints are climbing into the playoff hunt, having beaten the 49ers. Jordan had a sack, his first in four weeks, and got a separate lick on Colin -Kaepernick. “The only thing that hurts,” he says, “is from the swift kick-punch I received to my groin. It was a straight scrotum shot. I was on the ground for about 10 seconds. It was really just a system check.

“That’s also the NFL,” he says. “Sometimes you get hit in the nuts.”

He laughs. His family is sick with the flu and quarantined back at their home near the team’s facility. But his MCL sprain is almost healed. “This,” he says, “is the healthiest I’ve felt all season.”

Monday Nov. 14

New Orleans’s mini-surge has ended in a bizarre 25–23 loss, where the Broncos returned a blocked extra point for a late score, but Jordan played easily his best game of the season: one sack, eight tackles, seven hurries and a QB hit. Naturally, he does not see his upticks in health and performance as a happy coincidence. “They go hand in hand,” he says.

As does the soreness that screams Hello! two days after the game. Unlike most players, Jordan tends to feel sorest 48 hours after contact, and on this Tuesday his hips, glutes and shoulders all ache. He’s never gone this late into a season without getting a massage, and today he’ll end his 2016 streak. He earned it. ... And as a reward the Saints have another game on Thursday. “Call me crazy,” he says, “but I like a shorter week. I don’t have time to be sore. And coaches don’t have time to get too crazy with their game plans.”

In Detroit, Forsett’s seesaw season continues. He hasn’t played since Week 7, but he still does the same things every Monday. His routine sustains him, but he aches to feel pain again.

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Monday Nov. 21

Harris steps back into the gym today for the first time since he landed in the hospital, seven weeks ago, and climbs aboard a stationary bike, the kind with a TV screen displaying a rugged digital course, where riders chase cartoon rabbits. “I feel like myself finally,” he says. The big man is already planning his 2017 comeback. (He’s on the books for $1.9 million next year from the Steelers.)

Each of the four players SI interviewed is eyeing next season in his own way. Of the Jags, Lions, Saints and Steelers, Detroit -appears most primed to make the playoffs—but they would do so without Forsett. They cut him this Saturday. He’ll spend this off-season searching for playing time elsewhere while Robinson hunts for wins and Jordan looks for the consistency that eluded his Saints.

Each of the players is told about the others: the nomadic running back who wants to feel pain; the tackle who’s fanatical about recovery and yet still landed in the hospital, who despite surgery actually misses contact; the D-end whose performance improved in lockstep with his health; and the cub receiver who does not yet know the veterans’ agony and hopes he will never truly find that out.

Just wait, the others would say to him. Play long enough, and you’ll know.

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