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To play, or not to play (through injury): Zo answers the question



Back in October, Lorenzo Alexander took a virtual walk with the @ThighDoctor to discuss playing with pain in the NFL.  Speaking at length, Zo was able to deliver a unique perspective of the surreptitious challenges that the professional football player has to endure on and off the field.  His 15-year NFL career, starting in 2005, involved stops with six different franchises.  Also, factor in that Lorenzo tinkered with a wealth of positions in his playing career: OL, DL, LB, FB, TE, and every special teams’ unit, the ‘One Man Gang’ was able to deliver bigtime facts.  We also were able to speak on how the Buffalo Bills handle these situations in particular, and we also had a revelation about a comeback scenario.

Q:  What’s it take to get the body right on a week-to-week basis in the NFL?

A:  Depends on the position. Are you playing a full-time position, just special teams, maybe both?  Zo eluded that the more pounding the body takes, the more additional recovery is needed.  And with age, the older you get, the longer it takes to recover.  However, science and information are improving.  Players are working smarter; there is load management and more balance.  Also, not to be understated, less need for ‘chemicals’ to play with these advances.

This wasn’t always the case though.  The pre-2011 CBA was old school: unlimited padded practices, and depending on your coach’s style, they could really put the players through the grind.  “A season was a battle of attrition.”  Then things changed with the 2011 CBA agreement, regulations on practices increased, and now we see athletes playing at high levels with more longevity.  Frank Gore playing running back at 37?  Brady at 43?  Times have changed, and in regards to the turning point in one’s career, 33 is the new 30.

Q: Where do contracts and money play a role in a decision to play?

A:  “Individual decision.”  Some players won’t play through mild ailments, but others will play through anything.  There is a big spectrum, but most guys are playing nicked up every week.  Zo refers to the question, Are you hurt or injured?  If you’re hurt, you’re playing, but if you’re injured, you’re out.  Ultimately, in the NFL, it is up to the individual.  It is usually a group effort between player, family, agent, and team.

Q:  What about pressure from the front office to play?

A: There definitely is a ‘stigma to return to play early’.  However, all teams handle it differently.  Some are coy about the pressures, but others can be more palpable.  It is important for veteran players to educate and empower the young guys to make the right decisions.

Zo was a teammate of RG3 when he arguably returned to play early from an LCL knee injury, which subsequently led to his infamous ACL, LCL, and meniscus tears on a botched snap in the 2013 Wild Card Playoff game.  “Trust in the medical staff was lost.” He also referenced the Washington Football Team’s handling of Trent Williams’ missed cancerous head tumor.  Again, this is more evidence of how all teams handle situations differently because, with a smile, Zo stated that things are “much different in Buffalo”.  Coach McDermott and the medical team do it the right way.

Q:  Does the Buffalo Bills’ new training facility help with payer recovery?

A:  It has definitely helped.  It’s not just the facility though, it’s the personnel they have driving the wheel.  Zo mentioned two assistant strength coaches in particular that have brought progressive ideas: Will Greenberg and Jason Oszvart.  The Bills’ staff take great pride in addressing chronic issues, which in return, increase the prevention of future injuries.  Each player gets specific exercises that are designed for their individual limitations.  There is always a ‘plan in place’.

Zo went on to mention how the rehabilitation field in the NFL moves slowly.  Another way to say it, is old habits die hard.  Rehab and sports science around the league have started to accelerate over the last 5-6 years, but it generally is a slow-moving process.  Some teams around the league are still using archaic methods, and the differential is important.  Progressive teams can use their methods to their advantage as a lure for recruiting free agents.  Pleasant to hear, the ‘Bills’ are doing a great job on being progressive’.

Q: Would you play during COVID?

A: I would but for a few reasons.  Zo took into account that if his last season was during COVID, he wouldn’t want that taken away from him, and also, nobody in his immediate family suffers from pre-existing conditions.  The same can’t be said for many players around the league, and this pandemic is not to be taken lightly.  However, knowing that if one was playing, the daily testing actually would at least help you ‘feel at ease’.

Q: Would you consider coming out of retirement?

A: A couple of teams have reached out.  However, nothing formal.  Zo did allude that, if the situation was right, it is not out of the realm of possibility.  A situation like the playoffs, where it is a small and virtually defined amount of time, could be appealing.

A special thanks to Lorenzo Alexander for taking time to share his thoughts with the Thighdoctor and the Buffalo Fanatics community.  I had publically asked Zo if he’d be up for a Q and A on Twitter, and to my surprise, he was asking me to slide into those DMs with the details.  With an abundance of honor, it is my pleasure to encourage everyone to take a minute to visit and support the ACES Foundation.