Green Bay Packers not sticking their necks out


What the heck is up with these two terms in the same sentence: Green Bay Packers and necks?

If you know the answer to that question, you’re way ahead of the rest of the world.

That’s because it seems the Packers and neck injuries are synonymous in their usage these days.

Consider Nick Collins, Johnny Jolly, Jermichael Finley, Johnathan Franklin, Terrence Murphy,  Jeremy Thompson, Sterling Sharpe, and Johnny Holland. And there are others I can’t think of right at this moment whose careers have either been threatened or cut short because of neck injuries.

And while we’re at it, we also have to consider Sean Richardson – he’s the lucky one. As of today, he is the only player in recent memory who has suffered a neck injury playing football for the Green Bay Packers who has made it all the way back onto the field.

Sean Richardson – he’s the lucky one.

Just yesterday, Weston Hodkiewicz of the Green Bay Press Gazette put together an interesting look at the preponderance of neck injuries in Green Bay – pointing out the differences between the various injuries and locations of those injuries to specific players.

The cervical neck injuries are serious matters, don’t get me wrong. No employer would ever want to put an employee at risk of a lifelong debilitating injury, especially when it comes to football players who make millions of dollars over the course of their playing days.

But the question being raised across the state and country is why the injury has been so prevalent in Green Bay and why only Richardson has been cleared to play again.

Green Bay Packers defensive tackle Johnny Jolly may have played his final game with the team. Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports photograph

Though both Jermichael Finley and Johnny Jolly have been cleared by their own doctors, it’s the team physicians for each franchise that has to make the final determination – and it’s the team officials themselves who have to decide to bring in a player who might be at risk.

That, in itself, is risky business.

Clearly, it’s not something teams want to make a habit of doing.

Investing in damaged goods is not how to win Super Bowls.

But let’s get back to Richardson, the only Packer cleared to play.

According the Hodkiewicz’s story, it seems Richardson did what others had not been able to do – clear all measurable tests to allow him to play again.

“It was very hard, frustrating at times, because I felt great but the MRIs and CAT scans, they didn’t look as well as I felt,” Richardson told Hodkiewicz. “I took a lot of time off, just to gather myself and continue to stay positive and work hard in rehab. There were times when I was like, ‘Maybe they won’t clear me.’ But I knew if it was in my hands, God’s hands, everything would be all right.”

However, what it came down to was that the god with the most control over Richardson’s specific situation was Dr. Patrick McKenzie, the team doctor.

It seems the severity of the injury involves location of the herniated disc and the resulting fused discs. For Richardson, his surgery involved the fusing of the C5/c6 discs – the same location as Jolly’s most recent surgery. Finley’s injury involved the c3/c4 level – the same location as that suffered by Nick Collins.

The crucial point here is that the c3/c4 level is closer to the brain with greater implications if another injury were to occur. In other words, the likelihood of partial or complete paralysis is higher with the location of the herniated discs suffered by Collins and Finley. The closer to the brain, the greater the risk of lifelong injury.

While we hear that the surgery that’s completed on these players is a “success,” that doesn’t mean that it’s a success so that they can play football again – it’s a success so that they can move on with their lives without the potential of taking football-level jolts to their nervous system. You see, it really comes down to the damage of the nerves. If they don’t heal to a sufficient level, regardless of the success of a spinal fusion, they can’t play football.

And if the doctor says their nerves haven’t healed, then the player hasn’t healed sufficiently either.

So, in the end, the team officials aren’t going to go against the recommendations of doctors and risk own necks out to get a player back onto the field.

Richardson is the lucky one, but given the Packers’ past history in erring on the side of caution, we shouldn’t be expecting any of these other players to be hitting the field for the team – or any other team – any time soon.