It's a deal all National Football League players make with themselves, whether consciously or not. They are generously compensated for playing America's most popular sport, and the attendant pain and suffering are part of the bargain, even when it's too much to bear. Injury ended former New Orleans Saints defensive tackle Brian Young's professional career earlier this year.
"I have no regrets," Young says. "My knee may be screwed up but I don't regret it. I accepted the fact that I'm going to hurt a long time ago. I love football. I love every minute I've been involved in it."
That involvement continues. Young retired after a sixth knee surgery, but he has rejoined the Saints as a coach — an unpaid assistant — intent on remaining connected to the game he first played as a second grader in Fort Stewart, Ga.
"After my first practice, we were walking off the field and my dad asked me, 'What do you think? Did you have fun?' I said, 'Daddy, I'm going to play pro football,'" says the brawny 32-year-old Young who, despite a pronounced limp, still looks capable of flattening opposing linemen.
It wasn't easy for Young to quit playing, nor was his move into coaching something he ever envisioned. Young was a standout player at the University of Texas at El Paso and was selected in the fifth round of the 2000 NFL draft by the St. Louis Rams. He spent four seasons with the Rams and was productive enough to earn a four-year, $10 million contract with the Saints.
During his first three seasons in New Orleans, Young's durability was unimpeachable. He was the anchor of the Saints defensive line, starting 47 of 48 games, and playing an integral role in the 2006 team that advanced to the franchise's first NFC championship game. But in 2007 Young began fighting a losing battle with his left knee. He says his problems started when an offensive lineman for the Atlanta Falcons took a cheap shot at his knee during a game. While trying to recover from his first surgery, he contracted a lung infection, sidelining him for the rest of the season.
2008 was similarly frustrating. Chronic problems with his knee meant more surgeries and eight more missed games. For the second straight season, he finished the year on injured reserve. Following the 2008 season, Young began participating in the Saints' off-season training program, but that was short-lived: "It wasn't getting any better. I was draining (my knee) twice a week. It was so sore, it hurt to even walk on it," Young says.
The Saints informed Young that they didn't think his knee would hold up another season and released him.
Young says Saints coach Sean Payton told him the team would consider bringing him back if his knee improved, but if he decided to retire and was interested in coaching, he should let the team know. It was the first time the notion of coaching ever crossed Young's mind. He hadn't lost his desire to play but the evidence suggesting he was no longer able was overwhelming. The meniscus — the cartilage that cushions and stabilizes the knee — had worn completely away in his left knee, and his leg bowed outward.
"It sucked," Young says of his decision to retire. "It was hard at first — tears, you know, I did all that stuff, the crying and I talked to my wife. Mentally I wasn't ready. Other than my knee, I felt good everywhere else.
"I always figured I was never going to leave the game. The game was going to have to kick me out. It happened sooner than I expected."
THE INTERVENING MONTHS proved to be a difficult adjustment. Young missed working out at the Saints' practice facility and he pined for the camaraderie and the sense of belonging his teammates provided. He took up Payton's offer, going from the penthouse of his profession as a player to the service entrance of the coaching pyramid as an unpaid assistant.
During the week, Young analyzes game film, attends meetings and offers on-field pointers during practice sessions. On game days, he charts plays with a keen eye trained on the Saints defensive line.
No one may be more surprised by his new gig than Young himself. Asked if he considered himself a cerebral player, Young doesn't hesitate. "No," he says, grinning and shaking his head vigorously. But that doesn't mean he's not an eager student.
"I didn't think I'd enjoy it as much as I do," Young says. "When I was a player and I was in meetings, I'd be asleep. I just wasn't that involved in it. I have ADD bad anyways. Now that I look at it from a different perspective, it's a lot more fun than I thought it was going to be."
In his new role, he has gained a profound respect for NFL coaches: "I didn't realize how much these guys put into football. It's definitely been eye-opening for me," he says.
Young works alongside Bill Johnson, the Saints' well-regarded defensive line coach, and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, a former NFL head coach, who Young calls "probably the smartest guy I've ever been around."
Young is thankful to be in this unexpected situation, working with pre-eminent coaches and alongside former teammates with whom he shares a bond. But don't think his competitive embers have cooled. The Saints are off to their best start in 18 years, and he would love to be contributing on the field.
"If the Lord came down right now and touched my knee and said, 'You know what? You're healed,' I'd be back out there tomorrow, I promise you," Young says.
In nine seasons, Young played in 123 regular season games. In his mind he knows he's done playing, but it's harder to sever the emotional ties to the game, especially on Sundays.
"That first preseason game in the Dome, I teared up quite a bit, and then that first regular season game," he says. "To me, every time you hear the national anthem, it's 'get ready for game time.' So even to this day, I still get the butterflies. I still get the tingles."
Young says he wishes he could have played for first-year defensive coordinator Gregg Williams who, he says, makes defense uncomplicated and allows players the freedom to excel.
Young already has been a member of at least one dominant team. In 2001 he started for the NFC champion Rams who were upset in Super Bowl XXXVI by the New England Patriots in the Louisiana Superdome. He sees some of the champion Rams in the 2009 Saints: "Even before we got to this point, I saw what (the Rams) had back then, and (the Saints) have that, if not more. When (the Saints) went to the championship game (in the 2006 season), yeah, we had a great offense and yeah, we had a great defense, but it wasn't what we have now. I think we're playing great complementary football right now."
Young is due for a seventh surgery, one that will require doctors to replace his own bone with that of a cadaver, and then break the bone in two places to reset it. He's trying to put it off until the end of the season.
Because of football, Young's left knee will never be the same. But he doesn't begrudge the bargain. Football gave him a career as a player, and now, perhaps, as a coach.
"I don't think I'll ever leave the game, honestly," he says.
Adam Norris is a sports anchor for WGNO-TV, ABC26 in New Orleans.