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Monday, April 17, 2006
ESPNsoccernet: April 18, 12:29 PM UK
Athletes are coddled ... not

Jimmy Conrad


When the whistle blew to signal the start of the 2006 Major League Soccer campaign for my Kansas City Wizards, I was coiled up in the fetal position on the floor of a hotel in Munich, Germany. Unable to sleep and unwilling to move, I stared longingly toward my shoes a few feet away.

"My shoes," I thought. "How nice would it be to put them on and walk ... and walk normal?"

The television grunted the local language in the background but I was focused on the pain. Miserable, alone, and definitely being overdramatic, I glanced at the clock and then closed my eyes.

"Time heals all wounds."

Wound No. 1 (Leggo my ego)

Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City

It's the day before we leave for our preseason escapade to Germany and I'm sitting down in front of my locker untying my cleats. A memo gets shoved into my face and I gracefully grab it with one hand while still undoing the laces with the other. It reads:

Each player is responsible for taking a Wizards parka over to Germany. Also, I will only pack two pairs of shoes. If you want to bring more, then that is up to you.


The Equipment Manager

First off, from a player's perspective, if the "Equipment Manager" isn't taking care of the "Equipment" then what exactly is he doing? Second, have you seen the size of our bright blue Smurf parkas? They take up half the bag. Add that to my "extra" shoes and I guess one pair of underwear for a 10-day trip makes sense.

You be the judge, am I acting like a coddled athlete or do I have a legitimate beef with the system?

Terminal A, Kansas City International Airport

As I stand naked before the security check, I spy the boys huddling around a deck of cards in the corner. I slowly saunter in their direction and edge into a nearby seat. I smile knowingly because I'm familiar with the game and perk up my ears to find the right time to jump in to the conversation. A break in the action arises and I state:

"Can you believe we have to sit in coach all the way to Germany? We're professional athletes and we get paid to take care of our body. Sitting in coach for 12 hours with limited bags of peanuts and no leg room can't be healthy."

"Call the union," a teammate replies.

"Coach is for the coaches!" I bellow.

Coddled athlete or legitimate beef?

Hotel Lobby, Furth, Germany

I press my face against the glass and absorb the sight in front of me: snow, lots and lots of snow. In my previous three years with the Wizards, our preseason destinations have been sunny Florida, blistering hot South Africa, the beaches of Portugal, and radiant Costa Rica. But alas here I was, in freezing Furth, Germany, with winter gloves, a beanie, layers of undershirts, and my big blue Smurf parka.

I go outside to see my breath and not feel my toes and coach informs us that we have to walk to practice.

"How far is it?" is the general consensus, and coach responds, "Only a few hundred yards."

A half-mile later ...

Coddled athlete or legitimate beef?

Sports Complex, Furth, Germany

A nice field lay before us and my eyes open wide at the thought of kicking the ball around. We settle into a nice dry spot on the adjoining track and as I start to lace up the boots, an ominous man appears out of nowhere. He banters back and forth in German with our fluent coach and they share a nod. I assume an agreement has been reached and coach, looking a bit dejected, notifies us that we will in fact not be playing on this field because of inclement weather but on one in the back.

My spirit remains high as we snake our way through a number of well-kept fields until I catch sight of a familiar green surface in the back corner. AstroTurf. With the introduction of sports turf in the past few years, AstroTurf has become an obsolete solution to grass in the modern era of athletics and for good reason: injuries. So without giving it a second thought, I put my boots away and played in my running shoes for the duration of practice.

Why take the chance of getting hurt?

(In defense of the German Sports Complex, they did have the decency to sprinkle sand over a majority of the turf, not that I know exactly how that helps, but I suppose it's the thought that counts).

Coddled athlete or legitimate beef?

Wound No. 2 (German fist on my American chin)

I'm 12 years old and doing two-touch passing against the concrete wall in my backyard. After finishing a left foot to right foot sequence, I put my foot on the ball and gaze off into the distance. My daydream begins and I visualize the grandeur of it all: a big crowd in a hostile setting, a U.S. jersey with my name on the back, a chance to match wits with a few of the top players in the world, and, to stay true to the 12-year-old mentality, oranges and Capri Suns for halftime.

Little did I know that I would live the very dream from so long ago (U.S. vs. Germany in Dortmund in front of 65,000 and No. 4 jersey with my name on it) ... though I apparently forgot to envision who won the game, how I would play, and the effect a halftime without oranges and Capri Suns would have on the team.

So parents, a word to the wise: When you encourage your kids to dream big and to dream often, remind them to visualize the whole experience and not just the setting, unless of course, you want them to endure a forgettable 10 minutes and a hammering in the media for character-building purposes.

(For all of those soccer fans living in a cave or to the people who are reading this by accident the final score was: Germany 4, U.S. 1.)

Wound No. 3 (Barney the purple dinosaur)

Minutes have passed since I finished filling out all of the various release forms and I'm alone in the office. I slump back into my chair and take a moment to collect my thoughts: I am exhausted from a 14-hour travel day from Kansas City to Munich, the relentless ache in my abdominal area, and the uneasiness of whether I'm making the right decision.

The door swings open and the doctor says, "Take off your pants and let's take a look."

"But it's in my lower abdomen," I reply.

"A hernia is best detected through the pubic region," the doctor responds.

I shrug, take a look around, unbuckle my pants, and bare my assets. After a series of determined pokes, "Uh-huhs," "Yeahs," and "Hmms," the doctor declares, "I know that you have expressed an issue with your right side for quite some time and I am confident that our surgery can help fix that."

"What about my left side? It's only started to flare up recently," I politely state.

"With regard to your left side, I think the only reason you feel that it is sore is because it's compensating for the lack of strength in your lower right abdomen," the doctor answers. "However, I'm not the doctor who created this unique surgical technique or the one who will be performing the surgery itself. She will check you out in a moment."

"Will 'she' need to see me without my pants on?" I inquire.

"Most definitely," the doctor quickly counters.

"Um, do you think we could turn up the heat?" I quip.

The doctor flashes a grin, gets up, and leads me down a corridor of smiling headshots and action photos of previous patients. A couple of left turns later and we settle in the head doctor's office. The office appears sterile and much to my chagrin, cold. I introduce myself and start describing my symptoms.

Looking concerned, she nods and says, "Why don't you have a seat on that table over there and we'll see what I can make out."

"Not much unfortunately," I jest, like she hasn't heard that before.

She goes through the same ritual the previous doctor did and proclaims, "So tomorrow we will have surgery to correct your left side. Your right side looks fine to me and doesn't seem to be an issue."

I stare blankly at both doctors as I try to assess their conflicting opinions about my injury and the only thing running through my mind is circus music.

"So what now?" I ask.

The two doctors confer in German and then look in my direction. The head doctor calmly states, "We will do both sides tomorrow."

"I love European medicine!" I exclaim.

Four hours post-surgery

Dazed and confused, I lay limp in bed. A procession of nurses come in and out of the recovery room and offer a variety of sympathies, recuperation methods, and anti-inflammatory drugs. I smile feebly. The pain becomes a constant throb as the local anesthetic slowly wears off but I have another post-op concern. And I need some answers ... from a doctor.

I ring the bell to alert the nearest caretaker and ask to see the head doctor. They inform me the head doctor has left for the day and the doctor who patrols the clinic in the afternoon will be happy to answer any questions that I have.

"Whoever," I reply with a mix of sarcasm, distress and agitation.

A boisterous voice opens the door to my room and a man in the appropriate doctor apparel strolls in.

"How can I be of service to you, Mr. Conrad?"

"Well, I'm ... I'm in a lot of pain."

"Is this your first surgery, Mr. Conrad?"

"Perhaps," I stammer as I try to focus on his face.

"So what's your question?"

"I realize, at times, I have a low pain threshold and can be a bit of a baby ... "

The doctor interrupts, "I have many patients Mr. Conrad, you called me into your room because you have a question?"

"What is going on with all of this swelling?" I utter sheepishly.

He pulls aside my backless hospital gown, ogles the handiwork, and says, "The swelling will be there longer than the pain, but I can't give you a definite day for when it will completely disappear."

I sighed and looked down, "Well old friend, it looks like you have a new nickname: Barney the purple dinosaur."

Sensing my anguish, the doctor looks in the general direction of my pain and offers, "Just remember, Barney, as bleak as it might look, time heals all wounds."

Jimmy Conrad is a defender for the U.S. national team and Major League Soccer's Kansas City Wizards. He contributes regularly to

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