The Texans’ season is a lost cause, but there’s one reason to stick with them: a running back who’s playing through the agony of four broken ribs—and enduring acupuncture to cope—to prove he’s worth a free-agent investment
HOUSTON — It’s 4 p.m. on a Tuesday in early December, and a young Vietnamese man known to his clients as Dr. Ho presses his fingers against the muscled back of Ben Tate. The 220-pound 25-year-old bites into a white towel to muffle his screams as Dr. Ho, with a slight smirk on his face, methodically and rapidly twists one of the inch-and-a-half long acupuncture needles digging into Tate’s skin in a rectangular pattern just under his left shoulder blade. The spot is not far from where Dontari Poe, the Chiefs’ 346-pound defensive tackle, landed with the crown of his helmet on Oct. 20, breaking four of Tate’s ribs.
We’re here because Tate chose not to rest after that blow, the opposite of what most normal people would do if faced with the prospect of playing running back in the NFL with broken ribs. Instead, the Texans’ new top rusher, who was promoted after a season-ending injury to his friend and rival Arian Foster, chose to play through the pain. He mitigates it, to some extent, with a special recipe of Eastern and Western acupuncture, a secret technique that has been practiced by Dr. Casey Ho’s family for eight generations and is sought out by players throughout the league.
Why does Tate continue to soldier on this season through the pain? The answer is complicated. Head coach Gary Kubiak has been fired, and the 2-11 Texans have no shot at the playoffs, and yet Tate continues to put himself through hell on and off the field. The real legacy of his 2013 season will come in the form of a new contract for the most intriguing free agent of the upcoming offseason.
The popular yet ultimately flawed narrative is that Tate is only playing for a payday. And, yes, he has put himself in line for a huge raise. But we often boil such choices down to a single emotion: pride, recklessness, loyalty, selfishness, money or love. It’s easier to pick one and explain it that way than to offer the real reason: all of the above. It’s even easier to label a person than it is to grasp what survival and success mean in the unforgiving world of professional football.
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Ben Tate Sr. doesn’t care for football. He does, however, claim the distinction of being the only player Joe Paterno personally recruited out of high school in 1978 but couldn’t sign to a scholarship. Years after Ben Sr. turned down Paterno, choosing instead to play at his brother’s alma mater, tiny North Carolina Central, he showed up at Penn State with his son, Ben Jr., for a high school camp.
“We got to meet him and he actually remembered me. He tried to kick me,” Ben Sr. says of Paterno. “I really didn’t like football. I played football to stay in shape for wrestling, then the football scholarships started coming. But I loved to compete.”
Despite recurring neck pain from a high school injury, Ben Sr. went on to lead NCCU in rushing in 1981 and ’82, before breaking his leg midway through his senior season. In an era before consistent, hyper-accurate medical reports and in-depth character evaluation for NFL prospects, Ben Sr. was chosen in the 11th round of the ’83 draft by the Lions, who quickly discovered his indifference to the sport and released him in training camp. He bounced around the league and the USFL for several years before the Jets discovered that his neck pain resulted from an injury that could lead to paralysis if aggravated. His football career was over in a flash. Today he lives in Maryland and drives a gasoline truck, delivering fuel to service stations.
“When my son picked football, I told him, ‘Use this for an education,’ ” Tate Sr. says. “Once he got his degree, I said, ‘Son, you don’t have to play football anymore,’ and he said, ‘Dad, it’s in my heart.’ I was lollygagging in the league. I didn’t care. And when I did finally care, it was too late. But my son, he loves it.”
The younger Tate has never been a lollygagger in the NFL, but there was a time when he didn’t take the job as seriously as he does now. A second-round pick out of Auburn in 2010, he broke his ankle in August of that year and went on IR for the season. The following year he was expected to become a regular contributor behind Foster, but he tweaked his hamstring in the preseason, and his coach said something that upset the second-year back.
“Tate just hasn’t come along,” Kubiak told reporters. “Everybody thought he could—our trainers, our doctors—but he hasn’t, so we’ll listen to him.”
Privately, Tate fumed. He had been working harder than ever, changing his diet and embracing all manners of rehabilitation. What was being reported as a hamstring injury was actually a hamstring tear, he says. He had been given a four to six week timetable for returning but missed only three weeks.
I want the team to win. I want to help them out. But I have to be selfish to the fact that this is my opportunity,” Tate says. “The pain gets put to the side.
“For him to say that to the media,” Tate says, “that made me feel like, Why would I want to come back and play for someone that’s putting me down, when you know what I’m going through? For him to make it seem like I’m a lazy guy or not a tough guy, that was really unfair to me.
“I don’t know if we ever did get past that. We probably smoothed it out during this offseason. We sat down and talked. I told him pretty much those exact words. I think he realized, maybe it was just the heat and pressure of the season that got to him.”
That conversation took more than a year to happen, yet expressing himself has never been a problem for Tate. Last offseason he got so tired of telling people he’s from Maryland (not Alabama or Texas) that he had the state flag tattooed in red ink across his scarred right forearm, to go along with his initials on his triceps. When people ask where he’s from, he just raises the heraldry of Lord Calvert, founder of Baltimore.
When people ask him to come out of the game, that’s when he raises his voice. He’s refused on more than one occasion to exit for his new backup, Dennis Johnson, a midseason acquisition.
“He will speak his piece, and I like him for that,” says his position coach, former NFL running back Chick Harris. “He’s up front, and whatever’s on his mind he says. He just wants to show his worth."
At the beginning, Tate says he got into shouting matches with Foster, who went undrafted out of Tennessee in 2009 and was on a minimum contract.
“When I first got here he wouldn’t help me with none of the plays,” Tate says. “I was a second-rounder and he was undrafted, so he wasn’t really trying to help me. Despite all that, all the arguments, all the times I wanted to beat him up, we have become friends.”
Tate’s relationship with Johnson is different. He sees potential in the younger, smaller back from Arkansas. Tate says he tutors him on the playbook, but when it’s game time he’s not coming out, no matter what.
“At that moment,” he says, “I kind of have to be selfish. I want the team to win. I want to help them out. But I have to be selfish to the fact that this is my opportunity. The pain gets put to the side. What if I sat out all these weeks and somebody else like D.J. had the opportunity and played well? They could be like, what do we need you for?”
Ben’s father saw it differently after watching the Jacksonville game in Week 12. After his son rushed for one yard on seven carries, Tate Sr. called and told him, If you’re hurt, you need to sit down.
“I said, ‘Son, it doesn’t look good at all,’ ” the father recalls. “I broke three ribs one time and every time you take a deep breath it hurts. If you can’t play the right way you don’t even need to be on the field. Who plays with broken ribs anyway?”
Tate’s response: “Dad, I’m tougher than you.”
Maybe son knows best: After that conversation, he broke out for a season-high 102 yards and three touchdowns against the Patriots, though it turned out to be Houston’s 10th loss in a row. Excluding the Jacksonville game, Tate has rushed for 380 yards on 92 carries in five games with the four broken ribs. Asked what it means to see Tate gutting it out, first-year quarterback Case Keenum said the locker room is taking cues from his toughness. It may be the only thing worth watching as Houston closes out its lost season.
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Tate is prone again. Dr. Ho has worked over his upper body for the last 40 minutes, pressing and rotating needles as far down as his upper buttocks and using a graston tool to loosen the muscles and aid healing. A chiropractor who served as a team doctor for the United States’s Taekwondo squad at the London Olympics, Dr. Ho has at least two clients on every NFL team and frequently flies around the country to treat them during the season. Lucky for Tate, he’s based in Houston. Wrapped in blue rubber gloves, Dr. Ho’s hands then massage Tate’s surgically-repaired right ankle, which needed several screws and a metal plate after the break in 2010. It hasn’t felt right since. Tate had the screws and plate removed last offseason against doctors’ recommendations because he was tired of the ache.
When Dr. Ho hits a trouble spot, Tate hollers in pain and pulls his leg from Ho’s grasp.
“S---!!! Get off me!”
Ho grabs his ankle and warns Tate with a smile, “We’re almost done. Don’t kick me, now.”
In a moment of calm Tate recalls how he hurt his ribs, and explains the bulk of his rationale for playing in the Texans’ next game, two weeks later after the bye.
Despite all the arguments, all the times I wanted to beat him up,” Tate says of Foster, “we have become friends.
The play is called 18 bounce, an outside zone-blocking run to the right side of the field. Early in the third quarter, Kansas City led 14-10 over the 2-4 Texans, who had expected to be anywhere but 2-4 in this bizarrely horrible season for the defending AFC South champs. On 1st-and-10 from the Houston 30, Tate quickly saw red jerseys closing in.
“I remember trying to get outside, and there wasn’t anything outside,” Tate says, “so I stopped to try to get back upfield, so I wouldn’t lose any yardage and maybe get one or two yards. Right as I was lunging forward it felt like a truck hit me from the side.”
That truck was Dontari Poe, who speared Tate with the top of his head. Poe was fine, but Tate wasn’t. He lied on his back, breathing heavily as trainers surrounded him. He couldn’t answer their questions because he couldn’t breathe. Tate figured he’d just had the wind knocked out of him, but once he got up and spent two plays on the sideline, he still couldn’t collect his breath.
A few plays later, he finally got it back. He then rushed out to replace Greg Jones, the only running back left after Foster aggravated a hamstring injury.
“I go back out there and I went to take a fake and I realized that something’s not right. I’m like, You’re being a punk. Shake it off and you’ll be alright. They call the next play and it's play-action. So I did a fake and one of the linebackers hit me, and I just remember being like, Holy s---, what is wrong?”
His display of toughness isn’t enough. Tate also has a message for teammates: ‘If I’m laying it out on the line, y’all should be too.’
On a scale of 1-10, he told trainers his pain was an 8. They fitted him with a rib protector and he finished the game, carrying several more times for one first down. The Texans lost, and Tate estimates he slept for about two hours that night. He was diagnosed with broken ribs going into the bye week but was told he could play even though he risked puncturing his lungs if he were to be hit the wrong way.
On the Wednesday before Houston’s next game, Tate took a trial run at practice with a numbing shot of alydocane mixture to see if he could bear the pain of playing against the Colts. He came away thinking, No way, but told coaches, “I’m fine.” That week he also found out that his stepfather, his mother’s husband, had died in his sleep of a suspected heart attack at 62. On Friday, Tate was excused to fly home for the Saturday morning funeral in Delaware. It felt like Poe had hit him all over again.
“Everything was telling me you don’t need to play,” he says. “You need to go home, deal with your ribs, go be with your mom and make sure everything’s OK.”
But he returned Saturday night and played against the Colts in what amounted to a borderline meaningless regular-season game for the Texans. He says he did it because he thought his mother might enjoy it, because football helps him escape stress. And, yes, he did it for the money. After making close to $500,000 in salary in 2013, Tate’s in for a seven-figure windfall this offseason.
“I would be lying if I said the contract year wasn’t on my mind,” he says. “It was an opportunity I felt like I couldn’t let fall by the wayside. It definitely played a part in me dealing with the pain and playing through it. But also, I love the game of football. When you get to this level, you feel like it doesn’t last long, so you need to soak the moments up, and I felt like this was my moment to show what I could do.”
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The Texans’ offense has sputtered in 2013, due in no small part to the play of its line. Such failures were never more evident than in the Week 11 loss to the Raiders. Facing 3rd-and-1 at the Oakland 2, down five with less than two minutes to play, Tate took a handoff and was creamed by an unblocked rusher in the backfield. Houston failed again on fourth down and lost, 28-23. For Tate, it was one of the most frustrating moments of the season.
“I was laying everything on the line,” he says. “At any point I could have made something worse. If I’m laying it out on the line, y’all should be too. I feel like when you get to a play like that and we’re on the 2-yard line its about willpower. Don’t let that man beat you, no matter what. That was a big play, and to get crushed as soon as I get the ball, it’s real frustrating and upsetting for me.”
Moments like that have led Tate’s advisors, including his agent, Joby Branion, and his father to tell him he ought to take a rest. Teams will be lining up for his services, they say. No need to waste your health on a wasted season.
“I’ve heard that,” Tate says as Dr. Ho wraps his ankle in rubber for a jumping exercise. “But it’s what I love to do. Play football. It’s letting teams know how tough I am, too. I can play through this.”
Tate’s cynicism fuels his independence. The distrust was born early in his college career. At Auburn he says player agents began recruiting him after his sophomore year, even though it is a violation of NFL rules. As a junior he returned as the starter and was having a strong individual season for a struggling program. Then coach Tommy Tuberville fired offensive coordinator Tony Franklin in the middle of the season, and suddenly Tate’s playing time was cut in half.
“I was mad at the world,” he says. “I was ready to leave, and I just remember one of the coaches coming to me, trying to discourage me from going to the NFL and letting me know that he wasn’t going to help me [get to the NFL]. The coaches they had at the time didn’t care about our goals. They were worried about themselves. They didn’t care if you had a family to feed.”
Tuberville resigned after the season; Tate stayed for one more and rushed for 1,362 yards, finishing his career with 3,321. The agent he hired before the draft would be his first of three.
“They’re all full of s---, just to be honest,” he says. “When you’re that young you have your parents helping you, but they’ve never been in that position either. They’re all telling you some BS. It’s just about figuring out who’s telling you the least amount.”
Rehab session over, Tate picks his words carefully from the driver’s seat of his new Range Rover, white with a black leather interior. We’ve left Dr. Ho’s office and are cruising Houston’s entanglement of elevated highways. Tate speaks over XM Radio channel Praise 64; a plastic imitation stained-glass cross dangles from his rearview mirror.
He says he feels healthy now. The sharp pain running across his ribs has dulled, and he felt little pain playing the previous week against New England. When the season is over he’ll open himself to the market. His on-field rivalry with Foster likely ends here, with Foster’s having signed a $43.5 million deal last March. Unless the Texans break the mold and sign two big-contract running backs, or dump Foster after his recent back surgery, Tate is likely headed to a new team.
I ask him one final question: Do you want to be a Texan?
He pauses and stares at the road. He weighs everything before answering; his rivalry with Foster, the uncertain coaching situation, the pain in his ribs, the pain in his ankle, the aches throughout his body, his girlfriend and their expected child, due in February, his widowed mother, the way his dad looks at him, with eyes shifting in color from exposure to gasoline fumes. It’s impossible to pick just one emotion. He wants money for himself, for his family, for his son. He wants to be respected, and to feel wanted. Above all, he just wants to play.
“I want to be somewhere where I’m appreciated,” he says. “I want to be somewhere, with all the off-seasons I’ve worked as hard as I’ve worked, where I have a chance to show everyone what I can do on a regular basis.”
Do you want to be a Texan?
“That’s a tough question to answer. I can’t say, ‘No, I don’t want to be here.’ But I can’t say I do want to be here, because they invested in Arian,” Tate says. “I feel as though I’m just as talented, I can do the same things he does, so where do I fit in?
“My time in this game is limited. I’m 25. I’m in my prime for the next three years. So I want to be somewhere where I can utilize that. I’ve said it before, I don’t work this hard to be anyone’s backup. That’s just not why I play this game.”