This was supposed to be – and still will be – a story about how few of us truly understand what it takes for an NFL player to take the field on Sundays. It was intended to focus on the mental and physical wear and tear of an NFL season – which players have to deal with behind the scenes before popping on to our TVs on Sundays – and not on the serious, season-ending injuries that are an unfortunately visible part of the game.
But after Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest on the field at Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati Monday night, we need to start there, and the inherent risk every human absorbs when they get on a football field.
"The majority of (serious injuries) it's ACLs, concussions, and those things are still long-term," center Ryan Kelly said. "I mean, guys get knee replacements at 45 instead of 65. (Hamlin) almost lost his life.
"It's an incredibly physical, violent game and you're just hoping you can play as long as you can to make great money to help your family out, start your next venture of life, and it's ultimately the game that we love. It's part of it. You hate to admit that.
"And I don't think I ever saw that coming — that could've never happened for 20 years, and 20 years from now you'll still be shocked if it happens again. So I think it's just a reminder to everybody about how violent the game is, but it's still the game we signed up for."
Linebacker Zaire Franklin explained the mindset further.
"You're risking your body every play in the name of trying to win a game," Franklin said. "We do it because we love the game and we love the organization. But at the same time, we gotta understand the risk we're actually taking."
These are humans taking these risks – humans with mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, spouses, kids, close family members and friends they consider family.
And they're the ones putting their bodies on the line for the game they love – and for our entertainment.
"Sometimes we're just a spot on their roster for fantasy," defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said. "Sometimes people forget the human aspect of it — we're human beings. The wear and tear over the season, it's tough. Guys do everything they can."
The Colts are 4-11-1 with one game left. They've been eliminated from the playoffs for a few weeks at this point. But the players who'll take the field in Sunday's season finale against the Houston Texans still have to go through the same grueling schedule to prepare their bodies to play a 60-minute game at football's highest level.
There's no other way to do it.
"They have no idea how many hours you're spending in the training room," Kelly said. "What you're dealing with — the pain you have to sleep through, the pain you can't sleep through, the medications you end up taking. It's a hard business, man.
"... It's hard as s––t on the body and I think it's even tougher on the mind. Those days when you're 4-10-1 and you have to get up at 6 o'clock in the morning, get in the hot tub just to get your body right. You're laying in bed and you can barely sleep because your knees hurt so bad and then you got critics telling you, you suck. That's the way it rolls in the NFL.
"No one feels bad for you. It makes it the locker room versus everyone else. They just don't understand."
At this point in the season, no player is at 100 percent. The challenge for players, then, is working to get to the highest percentage possible. If they're at 85 percent, and the guy across from them is at 82 percent, that 3 percent advantage in how they're feeling could be the difference between winning and losing a rep.
"At Week 16, you're never going to feel 100 percent," wide receiver Parris Campbell said. "The battle is, what percentage can I get? To a point where it's it's 90, 80, how much of that can I get back to where I feel close to 100. Because the reality is, you're never going to feel 100 percent ever again. It's doing all that stuff and trying to feel somewhat fresh and recovered."
So what are those things players do to get ready?
Kwity Paye, for one, is probably awake before you are on Fridays.
His alarm goes off in the 5 o'clock hour so he can get to a hot yoga class at 6 a.m. From hot yoga, he drives to the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center to get a quick lift in. After, he'll get cupping therapy and dry needles. He uses whatever downtime he has between meetings to make sure he's stretching as much as possible.
That's all before practice. Once practice ends, he'll get something to eat – making sure to keep a focus on nutrition with everything that goes into his body – and gets an IV to ensure he's as hydrated as he can be. Paye then leaves the facility and goes straight to a hyperbaric chamber, then gets a massage. If the Colts are on the road, he still has to pack for the upcoming trip.
By the time Paye's day is done, it's midnight.
"I'm always running around," Paye said.
It's a routine few see and few understand. It's mentally and physically taxing to get your body ready to play a football game, especially late in a 17-game season.
But it's also necessary – there's no other way to do it.
"There's definitely a lot of anxiety because you have a list of stuff you have to check off to make sure you have ease of mind going into the week," Paye said. "The list you have to check off, the schedule you have to go by — if I don't hit everything on my schedule or everything on my list, I feel like I'm not going to have a good game or like I f––ed up on something in the process. It's a lot of stress for sure."
For the 24-year-old Paye, the methodical process he follows is far more rigorous than what he went through while in college at Michigan. Even just a few years ago, he could essentially roll out of bed and play – the younger you are, the quicker your body recovers.
But as soon as you make the NFL, you have to make a commitment and an investment in your body. That means spending hours upon hours getting treatment, even if you aren't necessarily injured – "pre-hab," as running back Jonathan Taylor calls it.
"The amount of time guys spend in there is astronomical," Kelly said.
The taking-care-of-your-body lesson is one Buckner learned as a rookie from veteran defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey, who played eight seasons in the trenches for the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers. Now, Buckner – in his seventh year in the league – is one of the first players in the building. He and a handful of other players are in the door by 7:30 a.m. and usually don't leave until after 6 p.m. A good chunk of that time is spent getting treatment in the training room or recovering in the hot tub, cold tub or sauna.
And if Buckner needs it, he'll get acupuncture – even though "I don't like needles," he said.
If Buckner leaves the facility earlier, it's to get one of two weekly deep tissue massages and/or to spend time in a hyperbaric chamber.
"All the spare time we have, all the free time we have — that we barely have — you're going to therapy places to get your body recovered," Buckner said. "You're losing time with your family.
"... It's an all-day thing, and on top of that I'm a father. So I got to split time, trying to find the time to spend time with my kids and my wife. It's a lot."
Tuesday is a day off in name only, too. Campbell – who's played at least 75 percent of the Colts' offensive snaps in 15 of 16 games this season – spends the day with trainers getting treatment, as well as getting a massage and a lift in. The goal, Campbell said, is so his body is as fresh as possible for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday's practices, and so he doesn't have to get any last-minute treatment to get ready for the midweek grind leading up to gameday.
"Off day, guys want to be at home with the family or chilling, playing video games, whatever it is — you want that time to yourself," Campbell said. "But, like, you just gotta do that. You gotta invest in that.
"Because if not, there's no way that you'll be able to make it through the entirety of the season."
"Your film is your resume," players will tell you. There's no hiding on tape. And if you're banged up and get beat on a play? What matters most is you got beat. Not that you were dealing with a nagging injury.
"If you were in the 1930's, no one can watch your film, it doesn't matter, no one can ever watch it," Kelly said. "Now everybody can re-watch everything. Everybody's an analyst on something."
So even in the midst of a disappointing season, taking care of your body is paramount. That's where the percentage battle comes into play – if you're at 85 percent and the guy across from you is at 82 percent, you have an edge to put a good rep on tape. And that rep, good or bad, will follow you for the rest of your career.
"It's tough with having the record that we have," Campbell, an impending free agent, said. "But if people can look at you as an individual and see, this guy took care of his business, he didn't quit, he continued to practice hard and do the things that he needed to do, that's when you'll get rewarded from situations like this."
The choices players make on an individual basis, though, also affect the team as a whole. If a guy isn't as committed to taking care of his body as he needs to be, he's not helping the team win, and he's negatively impacting the other 10 guys on the field with him.
"As a professional, you realize early the decisions you make aren't only affecting you, it's affecting everyone in the locker room," Campbell said. "You gotta think about it in a deeper sense — guys have families they have to provide for, and ultimately it's affecting them. Just having that bond and that chemistry, which leads to that team atmosphere, that's what it's all about."
So those long hours spent in the training room, or the time away from your family to get a massage or recover in a hyperbaric chamber, or getting needles stuck in your body when you don't like them – those aren't done just for yourself. They're done for the team, for the guys in the locker room with whom you have a deep bond.
Kelly touched on something important to appreciate here. Players don't put their bodies through all this, and they don't shoulder the inherent risks of playing football, just to not care about the outcome of a game. You don't find many, if any, players who've quit on a season at this level. You make it to the NFL through not just talent, but intense competitiveness and extreme dedication to your craft.
It's hard, if not impossible, to turn that off, even if your team is seven games under .500 and has been out of the playoffs for weeks.
"You don't go through all that s––t to go out there and be like, I don't care," Kelly said. "You're out there, you do care. The guys next to you, it's their livelihoods, it's your livelihood, this is what you do for a living."
Unless you're in it, though, it's impossible to actually understand what players put their bodies through to play in the NFL.
But maybe we all can do a better job appreciating the sacrifices, the dedication, the risk and the consequences the humans who play in the NFL have to take on to play the game they – and we – love.
"Whatever the results are, they are and you can write about that but I hope that people find appreciation in what people are willing to risk to do this," interim head coach Jeff Saturday said in the wake of Hamlin's frightening incident. "I don't fault people for the way that they view the game. It is entertainment and we are fortunate to have opportunities to play.
"Hopefully people will reduce the language that they use about guys when they really understand really what is at risk and maybe that's one of the things we take from an awful situation is this. Hey, how we talk about people, how we write about people – we focus on the field and stay away from the person or what you think about them that way."