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Injury toll a heavy one in the NFL

FILE - In this Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013, file photo, New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is carted off the field after getting injured in the third quarter of an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns in Foxborough, Mass. Gronkowski's season ended abruptly Sunday with a knee injury when he took a low hit from Cleveland Browns safety T.J. Ward. No penalty was called.  (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)

FILE - In this Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013, file photo, New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is carted off the field after getting injured in the third quarter of an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns in Foxborough, Mass. Gronkowski's season ended abruptly Sunday with a knee injury when he took a low hit from Cleveland Browns safety T.J. Ward. No penalty was called. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)

The stars are easy enough to keep track of, especially when they go down on national television with everyone watching.

That’s what happened with tough guy Rob Gronkowski, last seen lying almost immobile on the ground and screaming in pain after taking a big hit that ended his already abbreviated season. The bruising – and often bruised – New England tight end is only 24, but the surgery for his torn ACL is his sixth in a little more than a year and every one of them exacts some sort of toll.

And then there was Wes Welker, streaking fearlessly across the middle only to be leveled with a shot to the shoulders and head for his second concussion in four games. Why the Denver receiver would ever set foot on the field again is a mystery when we’re learning more about the cumulative effects from getting hit in the head, but you can bet he will.

The season also is over in Washington for Robert Griffin III, though he’s still mobile even after being sacked 24 times in his last five games. The Redskins are so worried their franchise quarterback will be hurt again that he was benched with three games remaining in the season rather than take the risk.

“If he did play, and something happened to him, I think it would set our franchise back,” embattled Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan said.

Unfortunately, not as much precautionary care is taken with players who aren’t stars. Far too often they play through injuries because if they don’t play they might soon find themselves out of a job. It’s a fact of life in a league where contracts aren’t guaranteed and there are no guarantees the next play couldn’t be your last.

It’s no secret football is a brutal game. Tough men play it, and sometimes they pay the price. The big hits their bodies endure are part of the very fabric of the game.

But of all the stats in Week 15 of a typically violent NFL season, there are a few that should give anyone who pays the game some pause. Injuries are once again piling up at a disturbing rate, even in a league where injury reports are often long.

A tally of the NFL injury list before yesterday’s games showed a startling 254 players – an average of about eight per team – out for the season with injuries ranging from busted ribs to foggy heads. Another 131 players were either out for this week’s games or listed as doubtful or questionable to play.

That’s 385 players with significant injuries out of about 2,000 who will play in the NFL this season. And that’s just a weekly snapshot in a league where making it through the season without injury is almost as rare as being fitted for a Super Bowl ring.

Worse yet, concussions continue to take a heavy toll among players, highlighting a problem the NFL can’t seem to get under control even as it prepares to pay out hundreds of millions of dollars to former players devastated from the effects of head hits during their playing years.

According to tracking by the PBS program Frontline, there were 125 diagnosed concussion injuries in the NFL this season heading into yesterday’s games. Eleven players were sidelined in last week’s games alone, including four who had a previous total of 19 concussions between them.

A review by the Associated Press, meanwhile, showed that during the first 11 weeks of the season, players were penalized on the average of once a game for either hits to the head, horse collars or head-wrenching face masks.

That the NFL, after years of denials, finally admitted concussions are a serious issue and set up protocols to deal with them is commendable, though terribly late. The culture of covering up the effects of blows to the head is changing, though it will never change enough for those who feel forced to play, no matter how much their head hurts, to keep their jobs.

The NFL has instituted rules to protect quarterbacks and others most at risk for hits to the head, but it can only go so far when the big hits and spectacular collisions are what have made the league so popular. Short of the invention of some miracle helmet to protect the head at all costs, it’s pretty much a given that every week players will suffer concussions that could cause long-term brain damage.

But football remains a great game, and the NFL is nothing if not a great spectacle. It’s hard not to watch the drama unfold on the field every week even if we’re somewhat cognizant of the toll it takes on those who play it.

Still, as the injury numbers continue to add up, we can’t help but be reminded about what a terrible toll it is.

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