First off, there are loads of retired athletes who have far greater residual injury problems than I do and I’m not making any claim to being an extreme case. I’m just coming to the realization that most people who play dynamic, contact sports for a long period of time end up paying some kind of price and often it doesn’t manifest until long after you’ve stopped playing.
Having been a centre back since Alan Errington took a look at me when I was seventeen and decided I would never go anywhere as a central midfielder but may as a central defender because I could jump and head the ball quite well, my game ended up very focused on that aspect of the game.
Alan was entirely right and I’ve thanked him many times for convincing me to change positions. I enjoyed far more success and was able to play and contribute at far higher levels of play as a centre back than had I insisted on staying in the middle of the field.
My body is now starting to pay the price though for being a relative lightweight (playing weight was about 175 lbs and I’m just a shade over six feet tall) compared to some of the opponents I faced. Being not as physically strong as most of the strikers I faced meant I often came off second best jostling for the ball and I often landed unevenly. So, while the issue of concussions related to heading the ball is very current right now, the price I’ve paid for all the aerial encounters over the years ironically has not been with my head (yet) but with my feet.
The problems started in my last year playing for the Vancouver 86ers. We were playing an exhibition game against Chelsea and I was being absolutely schooled by Tony Cascarino. At some point, I started getting sharp, shooting pain in my foot and spent the rest of the game hobbling. A bone scan afterwards indicated it was a Morton’s Neuroma. It went away and never troubled me again for years.
In fact I had no real issues with my feet for years. I regularly rolled my ankles but they seemed fairly elastic compared to others and I never recall missing a game due to any sort of sprain despite the many, many times I went over on them.
Five years ago though, I was awoken in the middle of the night with incredibly searing pain in my right foot. I went to the hospital but really got no diagnosis there or with my doctor. They suspected gout but two blood tests looking at uric acid levels ruled that out. I was just told to take pain killers as they couldn’t see any problem. It was only after the third trip to the hospital a few years later that they looked at the x-rays and asked if I’d sprained my ankles… a lot. The x-rays looked like someone had sprinkled snowflakes on the bone. Lots of calcification that had lead to bone spurs. I still don’t get the connection between the bone spurs and the long gaps between the wicked pain that just manifested again this past week (in what was probably the worst bout yet) but that’s what I’m told.
Running concurrently with the bone spurs was increasing pain with the return of the neuroma in my left foot. Over a year period, I was fitted with orthotics, had three cortisone shots, 6-8 shots in the form of a sclerosing treatment and when all that failed, neurectomy surgery last September. The surgery really did nothing except cause me to lose feeling permanently in my fourth toe due to the part of the nerve that was cut out.
Twice, between all the x-rays and bone scans, I had technicians or doctors point out torn ankle ligaments. News to me as they’d never been diagnosed or treated.
Two things did help though. A surgeon, whose daughter plays on a team I coach, looked at my orthotics and said they weren’t aggressive enough for my neuroma. Fortunately, this guy has serious pull and he got me in to GF Strong Rehab within a week (by the way, if you’re ever feeling sorry for yourself, go hang out at GF Strong and see what some other people are having to cope with) and they adjusted my orthotics, on the spot, so that the onset of pain was delayed and the degree was noticeably less.
More surprisingly, this summer I found that, contrary to all medical advice, the best my feet felt (nerve wise) was when I was wearing adidas flip flops. The ones with the bristles under your feet. I was able to walk for ages in those with little or no pain.
Now, two days ago, kicking a ball on the beach with my son, I roll my ankle again. Hurts like a bugger but I’ve done it so many times I know if I can just keep walking on it the movement will help get it back to normal quite quickly. Not this time. Went to the hospital this morning to find out that it damaged the ligaments and in the process broke off a small part of bone around my ankle. That’s probably how I ended up with the torn ankle ligaments in the other foot I now realize.
I don’t know if these sorts of foot and ankle problems are endemic in ageing soccer players but at this stage I’d rather have the name of a doctor who can fix them than the answer to that question.
So while I have no regrets about how my playing days went and I’d much rather have foot problems than head problems, it’s becoming apparent that despite escaping serious ‘impact’ type injuries like torn knee ligaments or broken legs when I was playing, the daily grind of the game is taking its toll now. Now where’s that Aleve…