Should Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis play in the Super Bowl with a broken arm?
That’s the question many have asked since Davis vowed he’ll play in the California game Feb. 7, only two weeks after breaking a bone in his right forearm during last week’s NFC Championship Game against the Arizona Cardinals.
Davis had surgery Monday to stabilize the fracture and has shown up for stretching and conditioning this week at Bank of America Stadium. After practice Thursday, he told reporters he still plans to play and isn’t concerned about the risk of re-injury.
“I’m gaining my strength back in my hand and my arm and fully expect to be playing next Sunday,” Davis said.
Nothing really surprises me about what these guys can live with and what they want to do, because they’re so driven.
Dr. Claude T. Moorman III, executive director of the Duke Sports Sciences Institute
For most of us, a broken bone takes six to 10 weeks to heal. But for professional athletes, standards are different.
“Football players probably push the envelope more than other athletes,” said Dr. Claude T. Moorman III, executive director of the Duke Sports Sciences Institute and former team doctor for the Baltimore Ravens.
“Nothing really surprises me about what these guys can live with and what they want to do, because they’re so driven,” said Moorman, who has not been involved with Davis’ or the team’s care. “.…Our job is to help them walk that fine line between achieving their goals and staying safe.”
Moorman recalled a Ravens player who broke his finger during the Super Bowl against the New York Giants in 2000. The player’s knuckle had broken through the skin. Moorman numbed the finger and prepared for a hospital transport.
But the player refused. Moorman recalled his words: “Doc, it’s the Super Bowl. Just cut it off.”
Instead, Moorman put the finger in a cast, and the player went back in the game, scoring two sacks in the second half. Moorman remembers fondly the post-game celebration with the player “holding up the Lombardi Trophy with one hand and the cast on the other.”
The player later went to see Moorman at Duke for an operation on his knee. “Like a lot of those players, he’s got a lot of wear and tear on his body,” Moorman said, “but his hand healed up fine.”
Moorman acknowledged that treatment of that player’s hand “wouldn’t be conventional treatment by any standard.” But he said he understands the desire of players like him – and the Panthers’ Davis – to play through the pain.
“Who knows if he’s ever going to get the chance to play in another Super Bowl?” Moorman said. “The idea is for the player to totally understand the risk and for the medical staff to do the best they can.”
Proving their toughness
Examples abound on sports websites that hail athletes as “gutsy” if they play while injured. Here are a few:
▪ In 1979, Los Angeles Rams defensive end Jack Youngblood broke the fibula in his left leg during a playoff game. He stayed in that game and played in all the remaining playoff games, including Super Bowl XIV.
▪ In 2014, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton missed only one game after fracturing two bones in his back when the truck he was driving flipped several times on Church Street. He returned to the the lineup less than two weeks after his accident.
▪ Just last year, after losing to the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, the Seattle Seahawks revealed that safety Kam Chancellor had played the biggest game of the year with a torn medial collateral ligament in his knee.
I’m going to go out there and play the game like I’ve always played it: fast, hard and aggressive.
In the online National Football Post, Dr. David Chao, a former team doctor with the San Diego Chargers, wrote recently that when NFL players get to the Super Bowl, they have already proven their toughness. “Players and medical staffs pull out every trick in the bag, accept some reasonable medical risk, and do what they need to play.”
After viewing a video of Davis at Sunday’s game, Chao speculated that the injury was a fractured ulna, commonly referred to as a “nightstick fracture,” and that it looked like a “relatively stable isolated break.”
Chao said he operated on two NFL players with similar fractures who returned to play two weeks after surgery in short casts. That wouldn’t be common for most patients, but “it is the standard of care in the NFL community.”
Davis told reporters Thursday that, during surgery, Dr. Patrick Connor, the team doctor from OrthoCarolina, inserted a plate and about 12 screws into his right forearm to provide stability. Davis said he’ll wear a Kevlar cast that is not bulky and will allow him to have full range of motion with his hand. The cast is like one worn by Panthers receiver Steve Smith, who had a similar injury after breaking his forearm playing flag football in 2010.
“Really the biggest thing I’ve been dealing with so far is just getting the swelling out of there,” Davis said. “.…That’s something that you have to deal with when you’re coming back from surgery, but it’s leaving. … (I’m) feeling good. I’m excited about where I am right now.”
Davis has attended practice this week, but only participated in stretching, conditioning and meetings to talk about the game plan. Panthers coach Ron Rivera has deferred to team doctors when asked about the chance of re-injury to Davis’ arm. But the coach added that defensive players use their hands more than their forearms.
“If I had concerns about hitting somebody or getting hit, I wouldn’t even take the field,” Davis told reporters. “It’s not even going to be something I think about one bit. I’m going to go out there and play the game like I’ve always played it: fast, hard and aggressive.”
Dr. Glenn Gaston, a hand and upper extremity specialist at OrthoCarolina, said broken bones are often treated differently depending on the injured person’s occupation and preference.
Many people might choose to wear a cast for two months to allow the break to heal. But professional athletes – and surgeons – might opt to have the bone “fixed” surgically, by inserting a plate and screws.
“If we fix a broken bone, then we can get out of a cast sooner,” said Gaston, who has not been involved in Davis’ care, but has worked as a consultant with the Panthers and the Charlotte Hornets. “I might choose to have mine surgically fixed if it meant I could get out of a cast in a week and a half.
“If you look back at the history of the NFL, there are a lot of players that played with bones that were broken,” Gaston said.
“It’s really a decision between the doctor and the patient based on what they feel is best for them. … The majority of (NFL) players would like to be able to play, the sooner, the better.”
Staff writers Joseph Person, Jonathan Jones and Scott Fowler contributed.
Playing through injuries
Examples of athletes who played through serious injuries:
▪ Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Chris Simms suffered a ruptured spleen after taking hits during a September 2006 game against the Carolina Panthers. He left the game for two plays then returned. The Bucs lost, and Simms was taken to the hospital where he was diagnosed with a ruptured spleen, which was removed during an emergency surgery.
▪ New York Giants quarterback Y.A. Tittle never won a championship, but he’s a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He’s remembered as the guy who played the entire 1964 season – the final of his 17 professional seasons – with a concussion and a cracked sternum.
▪ During a 1979 playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys, Los Angeles Rams defensive end Jack Youngblood broke his left fibula on a nasty chop block, but returned to the game with a brace, recorded a sack on Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, and played all the way through the Rams’ Super Bowl XIV loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. He also played in the Pro Bowl with the injured leg, a week after the Super Bowl.