Remember how much we enjoyed the cartoons we watched as kids. Part of the attraction was the physical pain meted out to the characters. Typically, they’d be smashed by a loose plank, barrel headlong over a cliff, get whacked by a revolving door or flattened by a speeding or falling object. First we’d wince and then laugh at this mayhem. What made it possible to watch this brutality was that none of it resulted in injury. Inevitably the characters bounded back up, ignored the pain and headed off to their next misadventure.
Now, as adult sports fans we marvel at the fact that so many athletes seem nearly as resilient and indifferent to pain as those loveable cartoon characters of old. Of course, they do get injured during the course of a game, some quite severely, but remarkably many of them, though involved in violent collisions and punishing falls still manage to get right back on their feet as if it had all been an optical illusion.
Watch as the runner going full tilt rounds third base and heads for home, aware that the baseball has already arrived there. His only hope of scoring requires that he smash into the catcher so as to cause him to drop the ball. Runner and catcher meet in a fierce collision, the impact so severe that both are sent sprawling along the ground. Nevertheless, each picks himself up, dusts off his uniform and play continues.
The puck is shot down the ice, a player from each team in hot pursuit, flying over the slick surface at breakneck speed. They reach the puck at the same time. Neither puts on the brakes as they smash into each other and into the sideboards. Both collapse in a heap, but in an instant are back on their feet, once more in pursuit of the puck and each other.
The speedy guard weaves through the defense and then accelerating, heads toward the basket. Before he can release the ball, an opposing player slams his forearm into his head. Because he’s in midair he is unable to brace himself for the blow. Instead, his forward motion stops abruptly and he is sent crashing down onto the hardwood floor where he lands on his back with a sickening thud. A foul is called. Seconds later, he picks himself up and calmly sinks both free throws.
The quarterback fades back to pass, but the defense is blitzing. A defensive end and a safety have broken through and are sprinting toward the passer. He sees them at the last second, tucks the ball in but is hit violently, one rusher heading for his ankles, the other smashing his helmet into his chest. He is driven to the ground and buried under the two of them. He remains on the turf for a moment or two, then springs up and scans the sideline looking for the next play to be signaled in.
Remember now, all these battered athletes are not the creatures of cartoonists. They are flesh and blood human beings who, though well conditioned and tough, feel pain, bleed, break bones and suffer concussions. They understand the risks and accept them. So, if we look up to them, as many do, it’s in part because of their exceptional skills and also because they can take the blows that would demolish lesser men.