The NFL season will start again this Sunday morning. That is when the first pro football show comes on the television set. ESPN's NFL Game Day. Hart Lee Dykes will sit down in his house in Sugar Land, Texas, and watch it. He will watch everything. When Game Day ends, he will watch NFL Today on CBS, and then he will move on to the early game, then to the late game and then, after having something to eat, to the Sunday-night game. When all of the live action is finished, he will continue to watch TV. Highlights. He will watch all the highlight shows available.
How many hours of viewing is that? Twelve? Thirteen? At least. The games will take him away to places he has already been to but cannot visit now. He will watch and watch, trying to put himself in the middle of the action on the screen. A connection. He will watch for whatever connection is possible. "I want the feelings," he says softly. "I want to feel as if I am involved. I want to be in the game, to feel the way I felt."
He is sitting awkwardly on the edge of a chair in his agent's office in Boston. His left leg is extended in a straight line to the floor, held in position by an ugly-looking brace. A cane is parked at the side of the chair. He is young, 27 years old, athletic looking at 6'4", 215 pounds, but the brace and the cane make him resemble a veteran of some foreign war.
"Is that an old brace?" I ask.
"No," he says. "My garage was filled with braces and crutches. I threw 'em all out last year. I thought if you had 'em, maybe you'd have to use 'em again. I didn't want that. Now I have all new stuff. Should have saved the old stuff, I guess."
This is the third consecutive year he will not play one game in the NFL, the third consecutive season he will spend trying to rehabilitate his mind and body. He has been paid in the past to be a wide receiver for the New England Patriots, who made him their first-round pick in 1989, the 16th pick in the entire draft. After two respectable seasons he fell into this netherworld at the side of the game, this purgatory of injury. In 1991 he fractured his right kneecap during an exhibition game. In '92 he fractured the same kneecap again in training camp. In May of this year, while working out, getting ready for training camp, feeling great, he ran a pass pattern he had run thousands of times, cut to the left and then fell to ground. The anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee had popped. Surgery again.
"I went to the doctor for X-rays," he says. "I was hoping for something that only would keep me out for a month. I had an idea it was something more serious, but when he told me it was an ACL, I was just floored. I didn't know what to do, who to call. Finally, I called my mother."
The game, for most of his life, was so easy to play. All games were easy to play. Before he was a teenager, he had won a national Punt, Pass and Kick championship at Texas Stadium and a national Hit, Run and Pitch championship at Yankee Stadium. His photo was in FACES IN THE CROWD in this magazine. He never thought twice about what he was doing. He simply played, driving up to a field or to an outdoor basketball court, stepping out of the car and running and jumping, never considering taking a few moments for some warmup exercises. Injury? He saw other players fall and be carried away, even his best friends, but he never thought about their problems. He laced up his shoes on fall afternoons and played. He never was injured. Injuries did not exist.
"Thurman Thomas was my best friend in college at Oklahoma State," Dykes says. "I remember that he injured his anterior cruciate, had the operation, but I don't remember anything about his rehab. I thought about that last year. Isn't that funny? I'm sure he had a lot of rehab, but I don't remember any of it."
Thomas now is healthy and a Buffalo Bill, the highest-paid running back in the game. Dykes is...where? Back on his sofa. Will he ever play again? Is he done, finished, at 27? I listen to his sad story, his plans for another rehabilitation. He is now a free agent. He will start again with sandbags, hanging them from his left shin, lifting the foot and putting it down, again and again, hoping for a contract somewhere. How many guys like him are out there, lifting and rebuilding, watching their television sets to pass the time, trying to return to some semblance of what they used to be?
No other sport chews up bodies the way professional football does. Every week's action is followed by a list of knee and neck and shoulder injuries, the list so long that the names mostly blur and become anonymous. The essence of the game is danger, and the players are stuntmen, young and fearless, throwing themselves into peril on every down. It is a fact you forget most of the time, wondering instead what the next play will be, third and long, pass or draw, but it also is a fact you remember soon enough when the stunts go wrong with someone you know.
"I'm not a talker," Dykes says. "I never gave a speech to the team until last year. I came back to talk to everyone before our game at Buffalo. Mostly what I said was that they should remember that no matter what their record was or how big an underdog they were, they were doing something that a million people out there would love to do. Including me."
I nod at the truth of his comment. I wish him well in his comeback. What else can I say? There is a certain sense of guilt involved here, is there not? His troubles are the price for our entertainment.