LIVERPOOL -- Dr. Aboul Shaheir calls it "chasing blood." It is one of the most stressful parts of his job.
Everton's club doctor supervises the intensive physical examinations that players receive before a transfer is complete. I was about to undergo the same medical to learn about the inner workings of modern football, but also, perhaps selfishly, to learn a little about myself.
Real footballers rarely fail. (When they do, it's often under controversial circumstances, such as George Boyd's "inconclusive vision test" at Nottingham Forest; Ruud van Nistelrooy's unsuccessful attempt to pass Manchester United's fitness demands; or Loic Remy's scratched move to Liverpool.) Shaheir has never failed a player at Everton but he continues to dissect every signing, just in case, with one eye on each incoming report and the other on the clock.
Blood work takes the longest to process. Through the use of dedicated courier services and private labs, Shaheir has reduced his wait for results from 12 hours to four. He still finds himself fending off anxious agents and club officials while transfer windows race to their close. That's why I started my day with a nurse named Maxine siphoning what seemed to be several pints of blood out of my arm.
"I always start with the blood," Shaheir said.
Actually, the day started with a far more painful experience: sizing my Everton kit.
Let's get this out of the way. I'm supposed to say that my greatest source of pride is my children, but they haven't really done anything that special. They're regular kids, and there are billions of those. My greatest source of pride is that I still play competitive football at age 44. There are players in my league as young as 18. I've privately hoped that one day I'll play alongside my youngest son, who is 10. Eight more years. That makes 52.
Luckily, I'm a goalkeeper. Unluckily, I'm short and fat. I'm 5-foot-10 and 214 pounds. I worried that Everton wouldn't have a kit that fit me, and I searched for a comparably sized player. In other words, I looked up Wayne Rooney. He's a similar height but 30 pounds lighter. I warned Everton in advance that they would be outfitting Wayne Rooney if Wayne Rooney were pregnant with twins.
It was a crisp, sunny, late-winter morning when I arrived at Finch Farm, Everton's gorgeous training facility and academy. Now I know what heaven looks like: a bright, modern building dedicated to honing the finest athletes, surrounded by immaculate football pitches and grounds.
It can seem as though Finch Farm is a factory for physical excellence, every spare inch devoted to self-improvement. A sign in the cafeteria implores players to "EAT LIKE A CHAMPION TODAY." A laptop-connected force platform in the gym will betray the slightest muscular imbalance. My nervous bladder soon activated, and a laminated card above each urinal instructs you to compare the colour of your urine to various beverages. If your urine looks like water, you're well hydrated. If your urine looks like Coca-Cola -- I'm not exaggerating here -- call the doctor.
I emerged (Orange Fanta) and was handed my kit, thankfully in slimming black. I retreated to a dressing room. The lockers were filled with the effects of stars, present and future. I forgave myself the fantasy that I really was on the verge of joining Everton, poised to help a storied club regain their rightful place in the Premier League.
I was then escorted by Shaheir across town to Everton's private clinic of choice, where Maxine began my day's second draining in a room filled with syringes and vials. She also pricked my finger, applying a drop of blood to a strip of paper. "HIV test," she said. It works like a pregnancy test. Despite being fairly confident that I don't have HIV, I still caught myself staring at that strip of paper, hoping it told me what I believed to be true.
I passed. Little did I know that over the next several hours, the truth would never again be so kind.
After the blood, Shaheir submits potential Everton players to a medical questionnaire. Not surprisingly, it's thorough. A transfer might cost the club tens of millions of pounds, and insurance liabilities mean that Shaheir is doubly concerned about his findings. He asked me about every facet of my body's track record, from my central nervous system (no worries) to my mental health (highly suspect). One by one, he held each of my circuits and fuses up to the light.
I had resolved to treat the day seriously: I wanted to pass Everton's test. My medical history, however, is what might be called checkered. I've had several concussions. Torn my groin. Broken my left shoulder, right elbow, a rib and both feet. Four decades of goalkeeping also have seen me break both hands, dislocate both thumbs and break six of my fingers. Two seasons ago, I fractured my right index finger in six places while trying to catch a corner kick; today, it looks like a branch from a very old tree.
I hesitated when Shaheir asked me about some of my more invisible scars. Concussions, for instance, struck me as something he wouldn't know about unless I confessed them. I admitted to Shaheir that I was thinking about lying to him. I can't have been the only player who had.
Shaheir shook his head. "Nobody has lied to me," he said. He is Egyptian by birth and still carries an accent. What he meant, I presumed, was that he has never caught anybody in a lie.
He shook his head again. He said I was looking at him the wrong way. He wasn't a gatekeeper standing between me and everything I wanted. He was a medical professional, here to help me achieve my ambitions. Most of us see doctors as the bearers of bad news. Professional athletes see doctors not as judges but as allies. Doctors don't block their path to success; doctors are an essential part of it.
I told Shaheir everything I knew about myself. He nodded and took careful notes. I asked him whether I had failed the medical as a result. He assured me that I had not. I was damaged, he said. We all are. That doesn't mean we're beyond repair.
Of course, I hadn't taken the fitness test yet.
The human heart is an incredible machine. It doesn't just signal every emotion; its rhythm tells so much of our story. Its failure also can be calamitous. The ghosts of dozens of fallen players haunt the game, reminders of the tragic fragility of even our heroes: Marc-Vivien Foe, Miklos Feher, Antonio Puerta, Patrick Ekeng, Davide Astori. The English Football Association mandates that every player, professional and academy, receives an annual cardiogram. Before Everton would allow me to take a step on their pristine pitches, I had to have my heart seen.
Dr. David Ramsdale is a top-flight National Health Service (NHS) cardiologist and consultant for Everton, renowned for his wisdom and care. I felt lucky to visit him. First, he was going to watch a technician administer a 12-lead electrocardiogram to me, so that he could detect any flaws in my heart's currents. Then he was going to look at a monitor while that same technician pressed an ultrasound wand against my chest. Ramsdale was going to watch my heart beat.
"You're definitely the hairiest player we've seen," the technician said before firing up her electric razor. (There were a lot of sideways glances when I walked into the crowded hospital in my full kit. Some vicious rumors about Everton's prospects started that day.) The technician stuck a dozen tabs to me in the clearings she had made in my club-leading body hair. The crackle of my heart soon filled the room. I had a resting heart rate of about 70 beats per minute. Not too bad, I thought.
Then Ramsdale looked at my heart on the monitor, the ultrasound wand sometimes dug into my armpit to better the angle. It's strange to watch your heart beat, its chambers and valves acting in almost alien concert to give you life. It's strange too how little conscious thought we give the very thing that drives us. My heart has been beating without rest since before I was born. Now I held my breath when Ramsdale gave his verdict: normal.
"I think you mean perfect," I said.
"You have a perfect--," Ramsdale said, "--ly normal heart."
Football hearts are different beasts. "They're superhuman," he said. The heart is a muscle, and though it doesn't grow like a bicep, it does change size and structure with serious exercise. Ramsdale said he can predict a player's position based on his heart alone. (Midfielders have the largest; goalkeepers, obviously, the most noble.) He has seen players with chamber walls so thick, he has had to ask them to stop training to determine whether their fortifications are the product of a congenital defect or their own efforts. He has seen resting heart rates in the 30s. He has seen hearts that could be mistaken for engines.
Back at Finch Farm, I was again strapped to a heart monitor, this time by Matt Taberner, Everton's full-time sports scientist. I already had completed the club's cutting-edge strength tests -- essentially a measure of the force generated by your legs -- and was given the rousing result of "OK." (Understand that my legs are my one physical feature that could be described as special. I can do the last weight on a leg press. Strangers have made fun of my calves, but by the standards of the Premier League, my legs are "OK.")
My heart rate showed up on Taberner's watch: 70, still at rest. I also was wearing a GPS vest that would track my movements. "There are no secrets here," Taberner said. My heart rate went up a little. His stupid watch said so.
We stepped outside into the sun, where Taberner had set up a series of cones on one of the outdoor pitches. So close to glory. I had never seen lines painted so straight. I was about to run Everton's basic conditioning test, an infamous bleep test. It wasn't meant to find my peak performance but to take a fairly casual look at my overall fitness, in particular my heart's ability to recover from moderate exertion. I would run 20 meters between cones, back and forth, with 10 seconds of rest between sprints. Each would start and finish with the sound of increasingly frequent beeps. I would have to run steadily faster for six minutes to get a result.
I lasted just over four minutes. At that point, Taberner announced with more than a hint of alarm that my heart rate was 186. I couldn't catch my breath and fell to my knees. Then on my face. After about a minute, my heart rate had dropped to 165. Shaheir came over to check on me. "Are you feeling all right?" he asked.
I was not.
Later, Taberner told me that the average Everton player would complete that same test with a maximum heart rate of 120. Even more remarkably, after a minute of rest, the player's heart rate would drop by about 50 beats. After six minutes of sprints, he wouldn't be anywhere near his maximum capacity, and he would return to a comfortable 70 beats, my state of rest, within a minute.
A modern player might cover 10 kilometers during a 90-minute match, which doesn't seem that arduous. The trick lies in how they're covering that ground: in fits and starts, with the deceleration to cut or turn just as exhausting as the acceleration required to chase or elude. Like sports cars, every ounce of extra weight tells, and in a game, that might hinge on a single lost step; conditioning can be the difference between survival and relegation.
Today's footballers really are champions of the species.
I was only clinging to life.
The last, now pointless chapter of the day was a full-body MRI. It's the part of the medical that players hate the most. The MRI is the most likely part of the process to reveal something wrong with them. It's also really boring. Outfield players get their spines, pelvis, knees and ankles scanned. That takes about two hours of total stillness. Goalkeepers have to add their shoulders, elbows and hands to the mix. That takes about three hours.
Lying in the claustrophobic tube of the machine, I stared at the stark-white ceiling that was only a few inches from my face. While the scanners chattered away -- suboptimal my results would eventually, inevitably read -- I contemplated my many failings. Not just how badly I had bombed my medical, but also how much I had lied to myself over the decades before.
How could I ever think I might still play football at age 52? I can remember the first time I was referred to as "the fat keeper." That was probably 15 years ago. Eight years from now, I wasn't going to be playing on the same ground as my son. I'd be lucky to be above it.
I went home. I looked at the junk food in my cupboards and at the running shoes I hardly ever wear anymore. I also read over the final report from my day with Everton, the hardest of hard numbers. The blood results, as Shaheir had predicted, had been the last to arrive. He sent me a gentle note, saying I should give him a call to discuss them. My liver and thyroid might need a closer look.
I had two choices. I could give up, a body too far gone, or I could see that I have so much room to improve. We're all damaged. We're not all beyond repair. I remembered when Shaheir told me that.
I trusted him. I decided to start with a walk. I dusted off my shoes and stepped outside. It took me about 30 minutes to get to my children's school. The bell rang. The doors opened. And for the second time in as many days, I saw heaven.