The reminders of danger are everywhere.
On the warning signs printed on the back of their helmets: "No helmet can prevent serious head or neck injuries a player might receive while participating in football."
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In the news media, with the shocking news last month that former Chargers linebacker Junior Seau had committed suicide. And almost daily reports of former players -- nearly 2,000 in all, many of them suffering post-NFL problems -- suing the league over not doing enough to warn players about the dangers of concussions and intentionally misleading them about the severity of head trauma.
At home, where loved ones often worry openly about the risks they take every time they suit up on game days. And whether the financial windfall from playing will last into retirement or evaporate the way it has for high-profile players such as Warren Sapp, who recently filed for bankruptcy, and Terrell Owens, who has said he's lost the $80 million he earned as an NFL player.
As if the challenge for today's players isn't daunting enough, the increasing awareness of the perils of playing in the world's most dangerous game have added another layer of stress in an already pressure-filled world.
"I remember being a rookie in Denver [in 2007] and I was told, '30 years from now, you'll see if everything was worth it from playing football,' " Giants receiver Domenik Hixon said, referring to a rookie symposium held before the season. "All the surgeries, all the beating you take, throughout a season and your career, it's going to affect you later in life. I really didn't understand at the time what it meant, but as you get older, you realize how difficult it can be. And hearing that so many former players are either financially stressed or bankrupt, that stuff hits you."
The Jets, Giants and the 30 other teams are going through their offseason workouts. But they're finding that their coping mechanisms for dealing with the sport are being tested almost as much psychologically as they are physically.
Some players have taken precautions to try to stave off injury and be more mindful of financial pitfalls in the future. Others opt to live in almost a purposeful state of denial, shutting out any fears they might have simply in order to survive.
"You don't think about things like concussions or that kind of stuff," Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul said. "Right now, we have a job to do. This is my career, and I love it. When you do something you love, you don't think about anything that might go wrong. You don't worry about it. When you worry about things and take precautions, that's when bad things happen."
Eli tries to be prepared
Giants quarterback Eli Manning said it's not so much ignoring the risks as it is preparing for every eventuality. So far, he has managed to stave off injury, playing every game since taking over as a starter midway through the 2004 season.
"Obviously you play a physical sport, but as a quarterback, you try and be smart, you know when guys are blocked or unblocked, so you don't take unnecessary hits and you trust your guys in front of you to do their job and you go play football and hope for the best and don't get all too caught up in it."
Denial? Not quite.
"If you start thinking about injuries and get scared of getting hurt, that's usually when it happens," he said. "Injury is sometimes part of this game . . . You have to be smart in certain things and not put yourself at risk."
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who has placed a high priority on player safety in recent years, repeatedly has expressed his support for initiatives aimed at reducing injury. Goodell sanctioned the Saints with heavy penalties for their alleged bounty program, in large part because the system of rewarding players for big hits compromised safety standards.
"We have been very clear about our priorities for player health and safety and that we are going to do everything we can to provide the safest and healthiest environment for our players," Goodell said last week at the NFL's spring meetings in Atlanta.
Jets tight end Dustin Keller said he is increasingly aware of the physical and financial problems experienced by current and retired players, and has made a point of doing more to avoid those difficulties.
Two years ago, for instance, he purchased a hyperbaric chamber at a cost of about $20,000. He said he uses the machine almost every day in training camp as a way of recovering more quickly from practices, and he also uses it during the season. Keller said he's also being more careful with his money, in part because his wife is pregnant with the couple's first child.
"I think a lot of guys aren't as educated when it comes to money, because you're thrown a bunch of money at one time," he said. "Before this year, I wasn't paying as close attention, but now I have a really good grasp on my finances. Having a baby on the way, I've started tightening up on things, things I should have been doing a long time ago."
Jets defensive tackle Sione Pouha needs reminders of reining in spending. Not long ago, he bought his wife a brand new Cadillac Escalade, fully equipped, as a gift. His wife returned the car, preferring to keep her 2000 model. "My real financial adviser," Pouha said, "is my wife and four kids."
Making the transition to life after football, even with increased self-awareness, won't be easy, Pouha said.
"There's going to come a time when you're going to have to clean out your locker, we all know that," he said. "But we're always thinking about how to make the team, not about what happens when we're not on the team."
Play another sportGiants Hall of Fame linebacker Harry Carson, who has had concussion-related symptoms in retirement but isn't suing the league, doesn't want his grandchildren to think about a post-football career. Carson told Newsday's Tom Rock last month that he will not allow his grandson, now a 2-year-old in South Carolina, to play football.
Jets linebacker Bart Scott defended recent comments in which he said he doesn't want his son to play football because the sport is too dangerous. He said he has received some criticism about his opinion.
"People are idiots," he said Thursday. "They have no idea. If you don't want your kid to play baseball nowadays, you're stupid. You're giving away a quarter-billion dollars. Why can't I want my kid to be president or a CEO or own a football team? You should want the best for your kids."
Giants defensive end Justin Tuck is convinced he won't have it as tough as some of the struggling former players he now reads about, in part because of what he believes is greater awareness and an increased willingness to be more selfish about his own well-being.
Carson said if he knew now how football would affect him, he never would have played.
Tuck had not heard of Carson's comment, and seemed somewhat shaken by the revelation. But he believes he won't fall victim to similar problems.
"The Giants have the best ownership in the league, but they're going to do what's best for the New York Giants, not necessarily what's best for you all the time," Tuck said. "So you need to do what's best for you and not necessarily what's best for the team. That's hard when it goes against everything you've been taught as a player, but that's the way this league is becoming right now. Fifteen years from now, if I have to get surgery for a bad knee or a bad shoulder, [the Giants] aren't going to be getting the operation with you."