Back in 1986, another player found out about spinal stenosis the hard way. After a collision with Kansas City Chief's running back Mike Pruitt, Frank Bush - the Rams' new linebacker coach - was diagnosed with this narrowing of the spinal canal condition. His rising star among NFL linebackers came crashing down. He, like Jones, went out to find doctors to clear him to play, but it was a no go. Playing career over, he shifted to the coaching side of the ball.
When I look at the NFL Draft class for 2013, very few names scream top tier talent. Yes, Luke Joeckle seems to have the top pick in the draft in his sights, but Jarvis Jones once had the same thoughts. His draft stock has edged downward based on medical issues, that may very well be cleared up when NFL Combine doctors swarm him at the end of February. If he's cleared to play in the NFL - which is by far a more physical game than he played in college - the league may have a problem. Rodger Goodell is leading the NFL's charge to increase player safety, right? If so, I think we're about to see the medical fine line the league has drawn through it's piles of cash.
I spoke with Dr. Howard Jonas, a distinguished professor, and head of the University of New Mexico Neurosurgery Department. I asked him about spinal stenosis as I tried to wrap my head around the condition itself. What it came down to in our discussion is the word "slippage". The spinal canal travels through the vertebrae, and there's a certain amount of space needed so the fluid around the spinal column has enough room to protect this vital nerve bundle.
Dr. Jonas explained it, in wonderfully clear detail, how if vertebrae "slip" - forward or back - the canal itself can become narrowed, or even compress the spine in severe situations. This can cause paralysis that runs the gambit from numbness, or complete loss of function (depending on the severity of the narrowing of the spinal canal and the pressure being exerted on the spinal nerves) in the extremities if the narrowing occurs in the lumbar vertebrae, to loss of bodily functions if the narrowing is lower in the vertebral column.
There are different types of stenosis (narrowing). It can be caused by trauma, or be congenital. Most stenosis of the spine is seen in patients as they age. When someone merely stands up, the spinal canal opening is reduced by 10%. It's why you may see an elderly person who has back pain slightly hunched over as they stand or walk.
When I asked Dr. Jonas whether spinal stenosis is a degenerative condition, and if it can get worse over time, he said "Yes, it can". I didn't even have to ask the big question hanging in the air. Dr. Jonas freely offered the opinion that "If my child had spinal stenosis, would I think it was wise for him to play football? No, I wouldn't. "
He did say there are a variety of ways doctors can diagnose the condition, as well as a variety of opinions based on an individual patient's conditional severity. Our conversation kept coming back to the word "slippage" as he described how the vertebrae could move. He also commented on how weight lifting puts a huge amount of stress on the human spine, and I couldn't help but notice the change in the pitch of his voice when I mentioned it. In the NFL, weight lifting is a prerequisite in a player's training regimen. The level spinal stenosis can be affected by tossing around thousands of pounds of weight - whether in the training room, or on the field of play - and is another aspect of the condition that can't be ignored.
When I think about Jarvis Jones, I have to divide my thoughts. As a fan of the game of football, I long to see this talented young man playing in the NFL. But as I allow basic humanity to enter into my thinking, I can't help but fear for Jones. He, like many players of the game, have set their sights on a lucrative NFL career. Players injured in college try to recover so they have a chance to live out their dreams. There are injuries that give a player a chance at a semi-normal life after football. Knee injuries are common, and I've had a few myself. They aren't life threatening, and the long term ache and pain from the injury is usually marked by a small limp. Knee joints can even be replaced. The same can't be said of anything to do with the human spine. Worst case scenarios include being paralyzed if the spinal column is damaged. When a catastrophic spinal injury happens on the football field, it's generally seen as a terrible fluke. Healthy and happy one minute, and paralyzed the next, can and does happen. What troubles me, is if a player has a predisposition toward a certain kind of injury, or has an increased chance of causing bodily harm, why isn't this cause to remove at-risk situations?
Jarvis Jones may never experience any lasting effects from his condition while he plays football. But from what I discerned from Dr. Jonas, there very well could be a heavy price to pay in the long term. Spinal stenosis does get worse as the body ages, or at least that's what I took away from a conversation with one of the leading Neurosurgeons in the U.S. Maybe Jarvis Jones has the idea of playing in the NFL just long enough to sock away a few million dollars before he retires. I can understand this, but it doesn't remove the gamble he and the NFL are taking. Peyton Manning came back after a series of neck vertebrae surgeries. Corner back Ron Bartell returned to the field after breaking his neck in early 2011. So with a condition like spinal stenosis, that may get worse over TIME, and not immediately, is it really unreasonable for Jarvis Jones to take a risk he may see as minor?
I get it. Football is a rough game. I've played the game, and have the scars to prove it. I'd encourage every child to play football too. It's the greatest of all team sports, bar none. But at some point, I have a line I just don't see as right that some players cross. I cheered for Danario Alexander in 2012 when he excelled for the San Diego Chargers. Yet, in the back of my mind, the number of knee surgery the young man has had kind of haunted me. When I watched his highlight reels, I cringed every time he took a hit. Will NFL fans do the same for Jarvis Jones? I have no idea if his condition is a ticking time bomb, and I know everyone prays he'll never experience one of those long injury time outs; the stadium crowd silent as as his immobilized body is slowly carted off the field. The TV announcer will invariable say "We hate to see this...", but didn't we all see something like this as possible long before this mythical moment?
I know every football fan hopes Jarvis Jones gets his chance to live out his dream of playing in the NFL, and count me among you. Yet, if the NFL is serious about player safety, they need to balance the rights of a player to try, versus the possibility they may be facilitating a potential tragedy. So one player's career ended because of spinal stenosis, and another's is about to begin while saddled with the same condition. Money will allow most anything to happen, so I guess we'll see if the NFL takes a player's health seriously, or overlooks certain things...