Sunday, June 22, 2008

Into the Woods

I would like to offer a little perspective on Tiger Woods latest accomplishment.

It's impressive - it really is.

But it really isn't everything the pundits are making it out to be. Maybe they're offering a bit of hyperbole, but they're talking about Tiger's latest win as though it's the most incredible accomplishment in professional sports - winning the US Open on a bad knee and a leg with stress fractures. While impressive, when you do some research, it doesn't even crack the top ten in overcoming injury.

For golf it's likely number one, but in the pantheon of sports accomplishments while's a little bit down the line.

Before I get into some of the accomplishments that are more impressive, let's remember one thing - people don't play hockey, football, or basketball, or ride a bicycle to relax, they do it to stay in shape. A lot of people golf to relax. Hell, you have professional golfers playing competitively long past the age that the vast majority of athletes retire in other sports. Can anyone out there picture John Daly excelling in any other sport? Even David Wells would beat him in a footrace. Or even Casey Martin, who would not be able to compete in any other sport.

Don't get me wrong - I respect what golfers are able to do...within the context of their sport, but let's stop anointing Tiger as one of the greatest athletes of his generation.

To put a little perspective on the whole situation -

Yes, Woods walked 91 holes with stress fractures and damaged ligaments. And yes, it was for a Major. However, he went into it knowing, he told an ESPN reporter, that he would be in no worse condition at the end of the tournament than he was at the beginning. He went into it not worrying about doing additional damage to a "walking" injury.

Here are eleven more impressive feats -

11. Pedro Martinez (1999 Divisional Series) - In game one against the Indians, Martinez strained his back - to the point that Dan Duquette, the Red Sox brain trust, and pretty much all of Red Sox Nation figured he was done. In the fifth and final game of the series Martinez entered the game in the third inning with the teams tied in an 8-8 slug-fest. Unable to throw his fastball and having difficulty throwing his change-up, Martinez threw six innings of no-hit ball in a Boston win, allowing the Sox to move onto the next round. It was, arguably, Martinez's finest moment.

10. Keri Strug (1996 Olympics) - Strug suffered a severe laterial ankle sprain with tendon damage. Due to the difficulties of teammate Dominique Moceanu, the injured Strug was the American Women's last hope at achieving the team gold. Strug sprinted down the vault approach on the damaged ankle, sticking the landing on one foot and posing for the judges before collapsing in pain. Strug was famously carried to the medal podium by coach Bela Karolyi.

9. Jack Youngblood - (1979, Los Angeles Rams) - Playing with a stress fracture in his left leg for two and a half post-season games, Youngblood remained a difference maker, propelling the Rams into the Super Bowl.

8. Kerry Jenkins (2002, Tampa Bay Buccaneers) - Left guard Kerry Jenkins cracked his fibula in September of 2002. When his back-up, Kenyatta Walker went down with an ankle sprain, Jenkins returned to the starting line-up. For the season, Jenkins ended up starting 15 (regular season) games for the eventual Super Bowl winners.

7. Reggie White (1995, Green Bay Packers) - With four games left in the regular season White tore his hamstring badly enough that the Packers announced that White was done and would be having surgery to repair the damaged muscle. White missed one game, and played in five subsequent games (including three playoff games), starting four of them, in which the Packers went 4-1 (losing only in the NFC Championship Game).

6. Dick Butkus (Chicago Bears) - Butkus played his final three seasons on a bad knee. With loose tendons, the Bears' feared middle linebacker had surgery to repair the loose tendons in his leg during a time-period when knee surgery tended to be a career ender. The surgery was considered botched, and the man continued to play at a high level, including a season in which he made 117 tackles and 68 assists, recovered three fumbles and intercepted four passes.

5. Sean Avery (2008, New York Rangers) - Avery suffered a lacerated spleen in the first period of a playoff game. He continued to play through the injury, notching a second period assist before being rushed to the hospital at the conclusion of the game and admitted to the ICU.

4. Drew Bledsoe (1998, New England Patriots) - Often questioned for his toughness (god knows why), Bledsoe played through a separated shoulder in 1995, and returned to the field during the infamous game against the Jets while hemorrhaging blood in his chest cavity. In neither of those cases did Bledsoe play at a high level, however, in 1998 Bledsoe shatter the tip of the index finger on his throwing hand on the helmet of a Miami defender while engineering a comeback. The index finger, integral to accurate passing, was held together by a screw that protruded from the end of his finger. Including the injury game, Bledsoe went 3-1. He still passed for almost 1200 yards in those four games and had only one game where his completion percentage was below 66.

3. Tyler Hamilton (2003, Tour de France) - Hamilton crashed during the first stage of the 2003 Tour de France, suffering two breaks to his clavicle. Hamilton completed the three-week race, supporting his weight on the broken collar-bone for 2081.58 miles, often along France's cobble-stone lined city streets. What's more, Hamilton didn't just complete the race, he won a stage.

2. Lawrence Taylor (1988, New York Giants) - With the Giants standing at 7-5, Taylor played in a game against the New Orleans Saints with a torn pectoral muscle (and in the subsequent games that season). In that game, Taylor recorded seven tackles, three sacks, and two forced fumbles, in spite of an injury that keeps most from even lifting items, let alone trying to move 275 pound linemen.

1. Curt Schilling (2004, Boston Red Sox) - With the Red Sox post-season hopes on the line, Schilling had radical experimental surgery to repair a ligament in his ankle. The surgery, which involved the use of the same ligament from a cadaver, allowed Schilling to turn in, arguably, the greatest post-season clutch performance in the history of Major League Baseball. With his surgically repaired ankle, Schill pitched 13 innings, giving up only one run in a dominant two-win performance.

A couple of honorable mentions - Ken Anderson and Dan Fouts playing through frostbite in the 1981 AFC Title game in Cincinnati, and of course the following who overcame obstacles both physical and of illness to get places they were never expected to, or were told they would not get to -

Jim Abbott - one armed pitcher who had a solid, if unspectacular ten-year major league career.

Rocky Bleier - told he would be lucky to walk, let alone run or play football after losing half his foot to a grenade in Vietnam.

Wilma Rudolph - when diagnosed with polio as a child, the Olympic multiple-gold medalist was told she would never run, and spent pretty much her entire childhood in bulky metal leg braces.

Lance Armstrong - After being, literally, at death's doorstep with cancer that had spread aggressively throughout his body, including his brain, Armstrong recovered to win the Tour de France an unprecedented seven times, and complete the Boston Marathon in two hours and fifty minutes.

Like I said, what Tiger did was impressive, and it might even make the top 25 in regards to performing with a bad injury - but there's no way he was putting the physical stress on his injury that any of the above did, nor was it overcoming what that last handful did. And most of this was identified with almost no research.

And before anyone blasts me for not having Willis Reed on the list - yes, his playing through the knee injury was impressive and inspirational to his team, but if you look at his stats, it wasn't actually a great performance overall, scoring only four points for the game. Sure, it's probably top 25 just for what he did for his teammates, but he himself didn't excel, as these others did.


Suldog said...

Very well-written. Good choices. I'll add one, though.

Steve DeBerg, perennial back-up to stars (Montana, Elway, Young, Testaverde, Marino, among others) broke his finger and had to have a pin put in it to hold it together. This was while with Kansas City, I believe, one of his instances of winning a starting job for a while. Anyway, the tip of the pin had to extend out of the top of his finger on his throwing hand. He played a number of games with it, enduring major pain whenever that finger was hit (or if he brought it down on an opponent's helmet during his follow-through, which he did a few times.)

Kevin Smith said...

I forgot that he had gone through what Bledsoe did. I can't even conceive of what it must be like to try and throw a football with a screw holding together the tip of the finger on the throwing hand - and I've suffered some nasty injuries.