A lot of things separate NFL players from us mere pedestrians. Size, strength, freakish athletic talent. They have it, and the majority of us don't. But here's another thing: fearlessness.
And this is a different kind of fearlessness. Sure, they're brave. They cross the center of the field and extend for high throws with linebackers lurking and they sacrifice limbs, bones, muscles and sometimes even organs for the cause.
But those playing professional football in this era also find a way to avoid thinking about the future. If they're ignorant to the possibility that they could very well end up suffering later in life for the punishment their bodies are enduring now, then I feel sorry for them. But having spoken to and gotten to know many of them while covering this league, I get the feeling the majority of these players are aware of what might be awaiting them.
What's amazing is that they still do it anyway. Considering what we now know about the long-term health risks associated with playing pro football -- that a huge number of retired NFL players generally lead painful lives, don't function like healthy, happy human beings and die before the rest of us -- taking the field anyway is the definition of fearless. Stupid, maybe. But also fearless.
That's one undervalued trait they possess that many of us don't. I don't want to speak for the rest of us normal people, but one of my greatest fears is losing my ability to remember. Isn't that what life is all about -- memories? We work so hard creating them, so the idea of losing them is petrifying. Not to mention the idea of living out the rest of our years while being plagued by migraines, blurred vision, extreme muscle and joint pain and whatever else the Football Gods bring.
These guys know it could be coming, and yet they keep playing, many of them despite having suffered from multiple concussions.
Take Austin Collie, who's had at least three of them since November of 2010. Despite that, Collie won't divorce the game yet.
"He's going to keep playing -- so long as the Colts will have him," Austin's dad Scott told CBSSports.com's Greg Doyel. "I don't know what 26-year-old is going to listen to his dad. I can advise. I can't tell him to stop."
But why don't guys like Collie stop? Often, it's the money and the rest of the perks and privileges that come with being a famous or semi-famous athlete. It's addictive. I understand. But is it worth it? Is it worth the risk?
And in a lot of cases, I believe it's an addiction to the game. I love football, along with about 100 million Americans, but I don't need to cover it or watch it. Without it, I'd suffer. But for these guys, it's different. Many of those who have dedicated their lives to the game on the field simply can't walk away. It's what they know, what they've always done. It's not all they know or all they can do, but they either don't realize what else is out there or won't accept anything else.
There's a weight-room practice that goes like this: You continue doing a certain exercise "until fail." What that means is you go until your body physically can't go any further. Your final full rep is followed by a failed attempt, which brings that set to an end. The regular tactic would of course be to stop when your body begins to warn you that failure is looming, or to simply perform a pre-determined number of reps at a specific pace, but this is just another, more hardcore approach to working out.
That "until fail" mentality seems to be a microcosm of what's happening in the NFL. A lot of these guys are already clued into the fact that they should stop, but so long as they can effectively keep taking reps, they'll continue to push. Is it incredibly dangerous? Yes. Is it strangely admirable and a tad romantic? To diehard sports fans, I believe it is.
That's why I'm so torn when I hear about guys like Collie. I want to tell him to walk away, but I admire his fearless commitment to what I'm only assuming is the No. 1 passion in his life.
Writes Doyel: "Scott Collie is trapped, you see. Trapped between loving his son enough to support his pursuit of the NFL dream ... and loving his son so much that he wonders if the pursuit will be catastrophic."
These are grown men consenting to participate in a game that severely endangers their health and well-being, and I respect and appreciate them for doing it. But I also wonder if that makes me somewhat of an accomplice.