Sunday, October 02, 2005

Injured Red & Black players find ailments hurt day job, too

By Matt Cordova
Times Sportswriter
Sunday, October 02, 2005

When Rodney Harrison blew out his knee last weekend, the New England Patriots' chances to win a record third straight Super Bowl were dealt a major blow.

When Kyle Roshia suffered a broken left hand during the Watertown Red and Black's Empire Football League game against the Albany Metro Mallers on July 30, he didn't just hurt the team. He put his ability to make a living in jeopardy.

While Harrison undoubtedly faces a long road of rehabilitation and hard work to return to NFL play, his paycheck surely is sufficient enough to get his family through his time off the field.

But in the world of semipro football, the game is "professional" only in name. Semipro players don't receive any type of financial compensation. They are rewarded only in that, if they're lucky, they make it to play another game. Or, more importantly, they are able to return to work on Monday in one piece.

Several current members of the Red and Black have suffered serious injuries during their football careers. With every snap, they are risking much more than just the possibility of missing a game or a season.

Calling in hurt

Jon Fisher feels fortunate that his employer is so understanding. Fisher, who has been in the military for 16 years, broke his left fibula and tibia in the Red and Black's game against Broome County in August.

Surgery followed and a metal rod the length of Fisher's lower leg was inserted to stabilize it. For Fisher, going to work wasn't an option right away and he was placed on 30-day leave.

"I'm lucky that I work with some good people," Fisher said. "I can't complain. They are working with me."

Al Countryman was in a similar situation in 2000. When the medial collateral and anterior cruciate ligaments in his knee were torn, he was forced out of work for four months.

Countryman, who works for the New York State Department of Corrections, was able to subsidize the time he needed to heal by trading shifts with his colleagues. His fellow Correctional Officers were willing to help, but that help came with a price.

"Luckily I was able to swap shifts. If I wouldn't have been able to swap, I would have been in a bind," Countryman said. "I ended up with a lot of time off but eventually it had to be paid back."

Time is a valuable commodity. Many employers allow for accumulated sick or vacation time to be used if needed. But who wants to spend their vacation with a cast on?

Roshia, a manager in the lumber department at Lowe's, wasn't able to work for a month. The 160 hours of sick time he had saved up virtually evaporated when his hand was broken. Even when he returned to Lowe's, he wasn't at full capacity.

"I went back on light duty. It's pretty crappy because you really can't do what you want," he said.

It turns out Roshia's honesty prevented his injury from causing him more than just physical pain. "I guess it's good I only called in sick one time in three years," Roshia said.

Give it up already?

Lynn Patrick said relatives have asked him, "Are you stupid?" when he says he's going to play football another year. Patrick, who suffered fractures to his left leg in 1989 and '98, doesn't feel stupid for playing a game he loves. He thinks "stubborn" fits better.

"I didn't want to quit because of injury. I want to go out on my own terms," he said.

Players have different reasons for staying with the Red and Black, but only a true passion for football can drive a man to risk his body and get nothing tangible in return.

Roshia said that he wants to get the most out of his youth, while he still has it, no matter what family and friends tell him.


Injured Red and Black player Jon Fisher stands on the sidelines prior to a game. Injuries often affect Red and Black players in their regular jobs.

Usually, the fact that they get no money is first on the list of criticisms.

"People ask, 'what do you get out of it? You don't get paid,'" Roshia said.

Patrick's answer to such a question: "Hey, I get the satisfaction out of it. There's not a lot of guys who play professional football until they're 42."

Patrick has indicated 2005 will most likely be his last season with the Red and Black.

But when does the risk become too much? When is enough, enough? Eventually, the time comes when the risk far outweighs the reward. After undergoing knee surgery just a couple of years ago, suffering a major shoulder injury last season that had him sidelined for several months, and the busted leg, that time appears to be now for Fisher. His love and concern for his wife and children trumps even the feelings he has for the game of football, which he has played since he was 8 years old.

"My wife and mainly my family would be the biggest factor if I was able to come back," Fisher said. "To be honest, I'd come back in a heartbeat if it looked like I could."

Said Countryman, "family is forever, football is not."

Head coach George Ashcraft lived the experience of being forced off the field by an injury when he suffered a broken leg as a Red and Black player in 1975. The sudden loss, he said, is difficult for a player to handle.

"It sets you back when you know you can't play but want to," Ashcraft said. "It makes you really appreciate being able to play the game when you could."

As head coach for 15 seasons, Ashcraft has known plenty of injured players. If a guy is ready to work to get back on the field, he has the coach's support. Ashcraft understands the bond a player can feel with the game of football and the Watertown organization.

"If a guy wants to play, I let him," Ashcraft said. "If he can't play, I tell him to be around (the game), come support it."

Players know their bodies will someday pay for the pounding they endure every summer and fall. For an injured player, the helplessness of knowing there is nothing he can do to help is unbearable.

"You are still part of the team and want to help any way you can," Countryman said. "It was frustrating for me because I am not a big rah, rah type guy. But that was about all that was left for me to do."

Countryman said his knee is completely healed now and he no longer even wears a brace on it while playing.

The knowledge that each play could be a player's last is definitely understood. But it is seldom acknowledged.

"The thought is always there, and you think 'Is this worth it? Do I want to risk my career?'" he said. "But if you go into a season thinking you will get hurt, maybe you should have hung it up a long time ago."

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