But there's another reason I don't shy away from contact. The physical beating I take on the field every weekend is therapy for the mental beating I go through each week just to get myself on the field. I am the fastest quarterback in the NFL. I can hit the whiskers on a cat with a football from a distance of forty yards. I have a photographic memory that enables me to visualize what everyone in the huddle is supposed to do on each of the hundreds of plays in our playbook. Still, on game day, I don't want to get out of bed. It's the riddle of my anxiety:
I long to be the best quarterback in the NFL.
I dread being the best quarterback in the NFL.
It's hard to explain anxiety to those who don't experience it. Deion Sanders thinks I'm too serious, too uptight. He goes by the nickname "Prime Time," wears a red bandana on his head, and dances on the field. He tells me I need to learn to have fun.
Fun? That doesn't enter into it at all. For me, football is a quest. Quests entail overcoming hardship, trials of adversity in the pursuit of true joy. I'm now in my eleventh season in this league. I've had my share of hardships, adversity, and trials. I long for more of the joy part.
It's time for practice to begin. I bend over to tie my shoes. Suddenly, out of nowhere, something hits me with tremendous force. The point of contact is the crown of my head. I'm propelled backwards, landing on my back. Stunned, I look up. Defensive end Richard Dent is standing over me. He's six-five and weighs 270.
"Steve, are you okay? I'm sorry, man. I'm really sorry."
I grimace and reach for my forehead. What just happened?
Dent explains. He had been playing catch. A teammate threw him a long pass. He was running and looking back over his shoulder for the ball when he barreled into me. It was a freak accident.
Inside I laugh. Dent is third all-time in career quarterback sacks. He's one of the fiercest pass rushers in NFL history. Eddie and Carmen signed him specifically to help us beat Dallas. Yet on the eve of the Dallas game he takes out his own quarterback.
He extends a hand and helps me up. "I'm really sorry," he says again.
"I'll be all right."
But I'm not all right. My neck stiffens by the minute. By the end of the walk-through I know I've got a problem. A bump has formed on the side of my neck. Back in the locker room the trainer gives me ibuprofen for the inflammation and ice for the swelling. The muscles around my shoulder blades are tightening too. I don't want my teammates to see me hurt. The training room is empty. There the medical staff tries to break up the neck spasms with electric stimulation. That doesn't work. So they try traction. That doesn't work either. The entire area around my neck is too tight and too sore to manipulate.
The rest of the team leaves for our hotel. I stay behind to get examined by the team's physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist. Dr. Robert Gamburd starts by trying to test my range of motion. But I can't turn my head in either direction. I can't look up either. I can only look down. I feel like my head is in a vice grip.
"I have to play tomorrow," I tell him.
He goes through my options. I can wait and see if the ice and ibuprofen start to work. Or he can give me a steroid injection in my neck. Dexamethasone is a potent, fast-acting anti-inflammatory that will stop the spasms, reduce the swelling, and dull the pain for up to forty-eight hours. But there are risks:
Pain is protective. Masking it may lead to more serious damage. Sometimes the injection causes more soreness than the injury.
The injection can lead to infection. Unlikely. But possible.
Finally, there's no guarantee the drug will produce the desired result. While he talks to me I talk to myself:
What if I can't play tomorrow?
I have to play tomorrow.
Can beating the Cowboys get any harder?