Bryant’s done this with a broken index finger on his left hand. Even though the finger needs surgery to heal, he’s stated his intent to play until the Cowboys’ season is over. He played the Pittsburgh game with a splint that he’ll wear until the operation date. More than one media outlet has praised Bryant for this decision, calling his choice to play through the injury a sign of maturity from a volatile player. They say he’s learning from his teammates, who’ve played through torn spleens and punctured lungs.
That said, their declaration might be mistaken. Bryant could be sacrificing an irretrievable measure of talent just to help an inconsistent and injury-riddled squad, one that seems as likely to lose the remainder of its schedule as it is to win it. To put things another way, the Cowboys aren’t going to win a Super Bowl this year because the “Mayan Apocalypse” will happen first.
Make no mistake about it: football is hell on fingers. They get caught in jerseys and facemasks. They get cleated. They take crown shots from helmets. They get pinched and sometimes the skin “de-gloves,” which is exactly what it sounds like. They get cut and slashed over and over until the scabs finally have time to settle into mottled scars. They get twisted and bent backwards beneath piles. It can be unpleasant. Ask Anthony Munoz, Brian Baldinger, or Torry Holt. Or if you can’t, let them show you:
The most famous situation is the tale of 49ers’ safety Ronnie Lott, who in 1985 shattered the tip of his pinky finger while making a tackle. His options were to get a bone graft to repair the finger (and miss the post-season) or to get a third of the ragged digit amputated (and miss part of his finger.) Lott went with the amputation and added more mystique to his Hall-of-Fame career.
Football is hell on fingers, and more often than not, injured ones just get in the way. Willie Young, a current defensive end for the Detroit Lions, thought seriously about amputating part of his middle finger. Heck, a few years ago an o-lineman for D-II Mesa State College (now Colorado Mesa University) opted to have a dislocated pinky removed rather than wait for it to heal. Football isn’t unique, by the way. It happens in rugby, mixed martial arts, and other sports, too, with non-essential fingers and toes ending up on the chopping block.
Notice that I didn’t mention basketball players. While they probably get more jammed fingers than anyone (including nasty avulsion injuries where tendons tear and take pieces of bone with them), their hands are so important that protecting them is a must. The same is true for wide receivers. A working index finger is essential to excelling as a wide receiver, and by forgoing surgery Bryant may be hurting his career down the road. Doctors have warned him that his finger could stiffen without surgery. That may not sound like much–I imagine plenty of readers would trade their back, hip, knee, or shoulder problems for an uncooperative digit–though when it comes to handling a football, the index fingers are critical.
The index finger is the key finger for securing the football when a player’s running down the field. It hooks over the end and helps pin the ball against the runner’s forearm and upper arm. Hooking prevents defenders from grabbing the tip and ripping it out, while pinning keeps swats and punches from dislodging the ball. If the finger can’t contract against the ball then it’s useless on either account. Probably more important to Bryant, though, is that the index fingers are the first to make contact with the ball on any passes caught while facing the quarterback. That’s about 90% of the passing tree. If that finger doesn’t give or flex like it needs to, it could pretty much act like a pinball flipper and knock passes away.
A semi-functional finger might not be a big deal when he’s open and gets a lob to the chest (like his touchdown catch this weekend), but it could become a very big deal when he’s covered in defenders and has a spiral screaming in on him. And any lingering health issue he develops now is going to loom larger later in his career when he’s slower and can’t beat guys one-on-one like he used to, or pull away from guys who are trying to tomahawk a fumble.
My thought is that he’ll be okay. He hasn’t fully tapped his talents, the season will end more quickly than America’s Team hopes for, and Bryant will have surgery before he ends up with an arthritic club on the end of his hand. He also plays for a team with plenty of weapons on offense, so he won’t find himself put in positions that play against the injury. If anything, Bryant’s career probably rests more on this assumption that he’s grown up in the last few weeks. That, and the blessing of fortune every football player needs in order to avoid career-ending injuries and the pitfalls of fame and wealth.