The last time Mark Schlereth can remember not being in pain was when he was 17, when he was playing for Robert Service High School in Anchorage, Alaska — and I was covering his games for The Anchorage Times.
We both are 32 years older now, but one of us feels it more than the other — and it is getting worse all the time.
“Well, it depends on what you mean by worse,” the former offensive lineman and current ESPN analyst said when asked whether he feels worse now than 10 or 15 years ago. “Yeah, certainly. But again, like I’ve said, I don’t know anything other than pain.”
Schlereth’s story is nothing new. He has been one of the most visible examples of the physical toll of pro football for a couple of decades now, both because of his openness and articulateness and because of the sheer numbers.
He endured more than two dozen surgeries — 15 on his left knee alone — before retiring in 2001 after 12 NFL seasons and three Super Bowl rings with the Redskins and Broncos.
Now he is 49 and has made a successful transition to TV work. But time has not healed all wounds, if any.
“I’m beat up, but that’s all I know; physically, I’m beat to a pulp,” he said. “But I don’t know anything other than pain since I’m 18 years old. That’s normal. I wouldn’t know what to do if I wasn’t miserable from a physical-feeling standpoint.
“I wouldn’t know what that would be like.”
So why bring all this up now given that Schlereth’s predicament is one as old as the sport itself?
For one, because I just happened to ask how he was feeling these days during a phone interview last week to promote Monday night’s game between the Giants and Dolphins.
For another, because amid all the valuable focus on the dangers of concussions — particularly in advance of the Dec. 25 release of the movie “Concussion” — it is important not to forget those who suffer from maladies that have been well-understood for decades now.
Football hurts, always has hurt and always will hurt, something that those who play and watch it either must come to terms with or simply walk away. Or limp away, as the case may be.
“I wake up each night eight times a night or so because of my knee or my back or my elbow or my shoulder,” Schlereth said. “If I wake up one day and am not crippled-feeling then I’m shocked like, wow, it’s going to be a good day.
“But you know what? It doesn’t stop me. I do my own yardwork. I’m still active. I work out, I do everything. Like I said, it’s weird because that’s what I know. That’s normal to me. Being in pain is normal to me. So you function with it, you deal with it. It’s not debilitating.
“If you put my body inside somebody’s body that’s never dealt with it, they would probably be camped out at their doctor’s office on the doorstep right now waiting for it to open to get painkillers. That’s my reality, you know?”
We do know, or at least more than we know about head injuries. Some former linemen walk like normal people as they approach and surpass 50. Most do not, even if their cases are not as extreme as Schlereth’s.
And most, like Schlereth, would not hesitate to repeat the process, even if they knew what they know now.
“Oh, yeah, I would do it all again, absolutely,” he said. “Listen, I knew while I was doing it that I was doing irreparable damage to myself. You get it, and you sign up for it. No regrets. That’s the way it is.”
It helps that Schlereth has found a post-football career calling that he has a knack for, which is talking for a living.
“It’s been great, man; I’ve enjoyed it,” he said. “It keeps you obviously involved in the game without having to take the beating. But I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve approached it the same exact way I approached my career, which is, I’m going to grind it out and try to outwork people, kind of having this attitude of nothing’s ever going to be given to you.
“Minus a quarter or two I’ve watched every play of every game this whole season, as I do every year, and it’s just the way I approach my craft.”
Schlereth did acknowledge the relative oddity of having an offensive lineman in the talking business, even more so given that during Schlereth’s time with the Broncos their linemen were known for not being quoted in the news media.
“We’re like a secret society,” he said. “Nobody really knows what the hell we do anyhow. Even coaches don’t really understand what we do. So everyone kind of leaves us alone.
“The only reason we became somewhat of an enigma with Denver was because we chose not to be quoted by the media. That’s a misconception I get, that: ‘You’re such a hypocrite. You didn’t talk to the media.’ No, no, no, I talked to the media every day.
“Adam Schefter and I have always been good friends. He was the beat writer at the time. I talked to him every day. I just didn’t let him quote me. You can quote me anonymously, but you can’t use my name.
“The general public doesn’t understand how much we liked each other and how much fun we had with the local media guys and they were in on the game. They got it.
“But I was always able to articulate a point and I’ve always been able to get up in front of a crowd and speak. That part wasn’t tough for me and then it was just a matter of, are you willing to work?
“If you want to be good at this, I mean, there are a lot of guys that have had stellar careers that will have ample opportunity to do this job, but my perspective is that most of them don’t want to put in the effort that they put in as players to be good at this, and it’s a lot of work.
“And in today’s game these guys make so much freakin’ money, the average player to below-average players are making five, six, seven million dollars a year, so a lot of guys just don’t want to do this and don’t want to work at something like that.”
Schlereth remains engaged with viewers through his TV and radio work and also on social media. In September a Twitter follower asked him whether he is able to walk pain free.
His response: “I don’t do anything pain free.”