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By Lindsay Toler
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Now that the Rams' illusory playoff hopes are dead and buried and now that the frenzy over quarterback Kurt Warner's latest hand injury and his insistence on playing through the pain is dropping down to less manic levels, it is time to take a measured look at more weighty matters.
Betrayal. Anger. Spurned affections. Love gone bad.
The stuff honky-tonk music is made of. The stuff marriages break up over.
No, this isn't about a split between Kurt and Brenda. Nor is it about her Tammy Wynette call to KFNS (590 AM), in which she insisted that she's the one -- not Rams top dog Mike Martz -- who finally convinced Kurt to get an X-ray of his wounded right paw after his painful-to-watch showing against the Philadelphia Eagles three weeks ago. Brenda's a nurse who stands by her man.
Instead, these strong emotions come from a significant chunk of Rams fans who gladly took a ride on St. Kurt's bandwagon during those two Super Bowl runs but now want to file for divorce and haven't been shy about calling him a sorry no-good dog on the local talk shows. The turnabout fury of the fans has also been reflected in the 180-degree switch made by Bernie Miklasz, the Post-Dispatch's top sports columnist, regarding Warner.
Back on Turkey Day, Miklasz chided readers for wanting to throw St. Kurt on the scrap heap like a soiled diaper, a disposable razor or use-and-lose contact lenses. Although he noted his criticism of Warner's play earlier in the season and declined to pick up a cheerleader's pompoms, Miklasz reminded readers of the quarterback's glory years 1999-2001 and took a staunch position against the personal nastiness of fans who want to cast Warner aside.
"This is Kurt Warner," he wrote. This is St. Kurt, he was saying, Christian and rags-to-riches athletic hero.
Then came the Eagles game, during which it was obvious Warner was having trouble even holding the ball, and the revelation that the quarterback's oft-injured throwing hand was again hurt more severely than he admitted.
Miklasz quickly reversed course and stomped on the gas pedal, flaming Warner and Martz in his column and on his nightly call-in show on KMOX (1120 AM). And in an instant he started sounding like a jilted fan, voicing mistrust and anger that a pro athlete would dare be so single-minded about playing and competing that he'd hide an injury to stay on the field.
"I'm really tired of Mike Martz and Kurt Warner misleading fans, media, players and that entire organization about Kurt Warner's health," he said in a December 2 broadcast. "How many other times have we been misled about this guy's health?
"I cannot believe ever again what either of these guys say about his health. I just won't be able to take it at face value anymore.... I think he's been selfish.... Kurt Warner wants to play so much, he wants to compete so much, that it has clouded his judgment and he's been in denial about his health."
These are strong words, delivering a bit of armchair psychoanalysis that contrasts sharply with his earlier defense of Warner. They also have the mark of somebody playing catch-up ball with fans and callers by taking a distinctly different stance from the Mr. Nice Guy approach Bernie usually takes in his columns. Nothing wrong with that. But something about the hurt tone is a bit grating.
The idea of a pro athlete downplaying an injury to stay on the field is as old as the game itself. They're scared warriors, playing on fear and pride -- proud to be one of the elite few playing a brutal game, afraid of losing a step to the players waiting right behind them on the bench. The idea that Warner, a devout Christian, is just as willing to play with debilitating pain and hide an injury as the guys who surround him in the huddle should be no more shocking than someone's being able to place a bet at Humphrey Bogart's club in Casablanca.
Take a listen to what Rams wideout Isaac Bruce had to say on KMOX about the same subject one night after Bernie's blast: "When Sunday rolls around, I'm gonna go. Everything my teammates get, I want to be a part of. Everything that we don't get, I want to be in on.... On Sunday, every Sunday, we become warriors; we become guys who want to be on that field [even] if we have to take pain pills or get a shot."
Miklasz doesn't think he was all that tough on Warner, who was placed on the injured-reserve list last week.
"I don't know I took a hard turn against him," says Miklasz. "I was a little fired up that night. I thought he let his teammates down and his coach down.... I thought he disappointed his teammates and the fans who support the team.... Betrayal? That's a strong word. I wouldn't go that far. I think he's in a desperate frame of mind right now.
"He is damaged goods.... He's a scared guy. He's a hurt guy."
C'mon, Bernie -- you could light charcoal with that flame. And your broadcast comments would be perfect for a little country weeper backdropped by some pedal steel and twin fiddles -- faded love and St. Kurt done us wrong.
Bernie did get it right when he pointed a finger at Martz and his tendency to trust his star players too much -- saying Warner was still the Man despite the hot hand shown by Marc Bulger during the team's 5-0 run when Warner was out with an earlier pinkie fracture, believing Warner when he said he was fine despite strong evidence to the contrary. The same might be said of team doctors who didn't step in after the Washington game despite significant swelling in Warner's throwing hand.
There are some who say there's an implicit conspiracy among the player who wants to be on the field, the coach who wants him there and the doctor who has to patch up the walking wounded as best he can to get the players back in the game.
Sometimes a player's desire overcomes dire physical obstacles, such as when Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb played on a broken ankle a few weeks ago, leading his team to victory. Sometimes it's just the fear of losing one's job or the coach's confidence that causes a player to downplay an injury.
It boils down to this unspoken conversation between a coach and a star player: "If you don't tell me, I don't want to know." This sentiment ought to be given voice by the team doctor, right?
But New York Jets team physician Elliot Pellman, past president of the NFL Physicians Society, says sports medicine is as much art as it is science. Pellman says a team physician relies on three things: what the player says about an injury, what the doc observes on the playing field and the results of any test or physical exam.
"Your exams can fool you, and players are sometimes less than honest," says Pellman. "Sometimes it's the lack of the player telling you what's going on that causes you to miss something.... Honesty has a big thing to do with it. It's my job to realize that what they say isn't going to be absolutely forthright."
In other words, a good bullshit detector is just as important as a splint or a stethoscope. Important, but not foolproof.
"I'm not sure I'm that smart," says Pellman. "If someone who has pneumonia just says they have a cough and a runny nose, I may just say, 'Get some rest and plenty of Kleenex.' So where does the fault lie? Some of it's the nature of the game itself. These guys are football players. This is what they do."
Since all this thunder and lightning broke over Warner and his hurt hand, Martz has said there will be a quarterback competition next year, indicating that St. Kurt will have to prove himself and won't automatically be the anointed starter. Bulger strengthened his claim on Sunday night, leading the Rams to a comeback victory over the Arizona Cardinals and running his record to 6-0 as a starter.
For a moment, that eased the pain of the team and its fans. It also took the spotlight off St. Kurt, who walked the sidelines in street clothes, no longer the Man, watching the heroics of his teammates, among them Bulger, the guy who may replace him.
They're the players.
Everyone else is on the sidelines, singing cheatin' songs about the Rams' dismal season and the failure of St. Kurt to be anything more than what he truly is -- a football player who wants to be on the field, injured or not.