Time and Punishment No position is more physically taxing than running back, where the best are often finished not long after they get started

November 04, 2002

In the second quarter of the Buffalo Bills' opening game this
season, quarterback Drew Bledsoe stuffed the ball into running
back Travis Henry's midsection just as New York Jets defensive
tackle Josh Evans drove his helmet into Henry's thigh. The
contact knocked the 220-pound Henry to his left, but he kept his
legs churning and plunged into the line, where he caught a
forearm just below his face mask from linebacker Sam Cowart.
Henry seemed not to even notice that blow as he slipped past
linebacker Marvin Jones with a shoulder fake, but not before
Jones had clipped him on the hip. That gave safety Sam Garnes
time to plant his helmet in Henry's rib cage, driving him into
the turf, where the 244-pound Jones fell on top of him for good
measure.

The final tally on Henry's few seconds of work: one carry, three
yards and six jolting blows to the body. It was a typically
brutal slice of life for an NFL running back--the kind of assault
that makes it the most physically punishing position on the
field. As Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith closed in on
Walter Payton's career rushing record, his fellow backs marveled
not just at the yards he has accumulated but also at the 13 years
and nearly 4,000 carries' worth of blows he has survived. "Take
however many carries he's had, and then double it or triple it,
at least," says Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis.
"That's about how many shots he's taken. That's the amazing
number."

Whether they are contact-seeking battering rams like Bettis or
slippery change-of-direction artists like Marshall Faulk of the
St. Louis Rams, all running backs absorb the kind of abuse
usually reserved for guys who have missed one too many payments
to their loan shark. "You get pounded," says San Francisco 49ers
running backs coach Tom Rathman, who spent eight of his nine
years in the NFL as a Niners fullback. "You get pounded on every
play. You're either carrying the ball and routinely taking three
or four hits, or you're being asked to block some lineman or
linebacker who's probably got at least 20 pounds on you.
Everybody in this league takes his share of hits, but I don't
think anybody takes them more consistently than backs."

Quarterbacks and kickers have more rules protecting them than the
bald eagle. Receivers running pass routes and the defensive backs
who cover them get away contact-free on some plays. Linemen
batter one another but usually from such close range that they
don't have a full head of steam when they collide. Running backs
get little relief from the rule book, and at the moment of impact
with an opponent, one or both parties is often moving at high
speed.

Not coincidentally, an NFL Players Association study that tracked
rosters from 1987 through '96 found that the average career of a
running back is 2.57 years, shorter than that of a player at any
other position and nearly a full year shorter than the average
for all NFL players. According to the report running backs have
only a 6% likelihood of reaching their 10th year in the league.
Among the 10 active running backs who have reached the 10-year
mark, five are fullbacks and only two--Bettis and Smith--are their
team's primary ballcarriers. Another feature back, the 49ers'
Garrison Hearst, has also been in the league for a decade, but he
missed two seasons because of a severe ankle injury and large
chunks of two others with a torn left MCL.

It's far more common for running backs to go into early decline
or retirement due to injury or the accumulation of blows. Gale
Sayers played only 68 games before succumbing to knee injuries.
Earl Campbell ran over defenders for six years and gained more
than 1,300 yards in five of them before, at 29, his body seemed
to suddenly lose its remarkable power. Two forgettable seasons
later he retired. In 1998, at the age of 26, Jamal Anderson led
the NFC in rushing while playing for the Atlanta Falcons, but
four years and two torn ACLs later, he is out of football. The
latest casualty is Terrell Davis of the Denver Broncos. After
beginning his career with four phenomenal years, including a
2,008-yard rushing season in 1998, Davis played only 17 games
over his next three years because of a series of knee, ankle and
leg injuries, and in August he announced his retirement.

Running backs tend to age so quickly that even relatively young
ones become suspect at the first sign of slippage. The Tennessee
Titans' Eddie George gained 6,874 yards over his first five
seasons, but when he averaged only 3.0 yards a carry last year
while struggling with toe, ankle and knee injuries, speculation
began that he was already past his prime. George, 29, pronounced
himself fit when he arrived at training camp this summer, and
although he has had back-to-back 100-yard games, he is averaging
only 3.3 yards a carry as the Titans have staggered to a 3-4
start. For a running back there is no compensating for even a
slight loss of speed or explosiveness the way there is at other
skill positions. Quarterbacks can make up for a loss of mobility
with shorter drops or a quicker release. Receivers can run more
precise routes. But if a back can't hit a hole before it's
plugged, all the wisdom and experience in the world won't help
him.

"What's hard on backs is that losing just that little bit of
speed or quickness makes all the difference," says Hearst, a
two-time NFL Comeback Player of the Year, who rushed for 1,206
yards last season. "Sometimes guys might carry the ball a lot for
two or three straight years, and that next year, even though they
feel fine, the pounding has slowed them down just enough that
they don't beat a guy one-on-one the way they used to, or they
can't outrun the linebacker anymore. Suddenly they're not the
same back."

The ability of some running backs to withstand punishment over a
long career while others flame out early is still a mystery, but
there is evidence that the compact back tends to have more
staying power than the big bruiser. Smith (5'9", 216 pounds), who
has missed only five games because of injuries in his 13-year
career, and the Jets' Curtis Martin (5'11", 205), who has been
sidelined for only five games in eight seasons, are both
relatively small, strong backs. So were Payton (5'10", 202) and
Barry Sanders (5'8", 203), who had played 10 years and was still
at the top of his game when he abruptly retired before the 1999
season.

But regardless of size, the wise running back learns that there
are two ways to increase his NFL life span--taking care of his
body off the field and avoiding the full force of collisions on
it. Even Bettis, who missed Pittsburgh's last five games in 2001
with a groin injury, swivels his 256-pound frame enough to
diminish the impact of defender's blows. "I don't shy away from a
lot of hits, but I shy away from hits I can't win," he says.
"That's what people don't necessarily see. They see me run over
one guy, but when there are two guys, they don't see me getting
between them. I just try to be a little more elusive. I shield, I
deflect blows. I go sideways. Longevity for big guys like me
depends a lot on being able to slip away from that big, crunching
blow."

When those collisions are inevitable, it's better to be the
hammer than the nail, as Rathman puts it. "Whenever possible you
want to deliver a blow rather than absorb one," he says. "Backs
who are always taking punishment and never giving it won't last
long in this league."

Bettis is among the best at dishing out punishment, but like most
running backs he has days when he is so sore that getting out of
bed is almost as hard as getting into the end zone on fourth down
from the one. Many backs say it's not the morning after a game
that they dread but the one after that. Thanks to former teammate
and fellow running back Roger Craig, Rathman learned early in his
career about the healing powers of deep-tissue massage and
chiropractic therapy, both of which are now common treatments
around the league.

But there is no therapy that can completely erase the aches and
pains, some of which last forever. Campbell, 47, walks gingerly,
with a right knee so torn up that doctors have recommended
replacement surgery and fingers so arthritic he avoids
handshakes. No wonder that players like Rathman, by comparison,
consider themselves to be in great shape. "I've just got little
problems," he says. "I feel it in my spine and neck from pinched
nerves, and I've got a little arthritis, but nothing too severe.
I'm one of the lucky ones."

COLOR PHOTO: BRIAN BAHR/GETTY IMAGES BUSTED BRONCO Leg injuries did in Davis (30) after four brilliant seasons. COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON HEAVY HITTER Campbell took on too many tacklers and was past his prime at 29. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER BATTERED Bettis (36) doesn't always seek contact, but some hits can't be avoided. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER CLASSIC COMPACT At 5'10" and 202 pounds, Payton was built to endure the pounding.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)