In an interview with ESPN, Randall Cunningham, the gifted quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles, discussed an injury earlier this year that put him out of action for the rest of the season:

"I heard my ankle snap, so I said to myself, `Wow, I broke my ankle.' So they put it back together and they clamped it. They put clamps on it. And they drilled a screw straight through, so it was locked. Then they put a plate on the outside with screws going all the way through - normal screws, like you put in wood. And I can feel it. It's kind of crazy."Actually, Cunningham broke his left fibula, 11/2 inches above the ankle. It was his second serious injury as a pro. On opening day of 1991 he blew out his left knee, missing the rest of that season.

Now, with his fibula repaired, he expects to strap on the pads and trot back onto the field next year. If he's extremely lucky - that is, if he can keep the rest of his bones and joints reasonably intact - he may be able to squeeze out a few more years of glory in the astonishingly brutal national spectacle called pro football.

Then he can quit - or be cut - and wait for the early onset of arthritis, or the many other post-career physical problems that hamper almost every pro player.

In Cunningham's words, it's kind of crazy.

I am a major football fan, a New York Jets fanatic. I have always wished I could play pro football. Luckily, I was blessed with neither the size nor the talent to compete. Those who live out the fantasy pay a fearful price.

Marvin Jones, a linebacker, was the top defensive player in college last year and the Jets' top draft pick this year. Last month he suffered a chip fracture in the socket of his left hip joint. He is recuperating, but that injury can also lead to avascular necrosis, a degenerative disease that ended Bo Jackson's football career. Jackson eventually got an artificial hip.

Lawrence Taylor, the best linebacker of all time, tore his Achilles tendon last year. Dan Marino, the Miami Dolphins' standout quarterback, tore his Achilles tendon this year. Joe Namath, the most celebrated Jet, has two artificial knees.

Steve Entman, a defensive tackle for the Indianapolis Colts who was the top pick in last year's draft, tore up his knee in October.

Joe Montana, perhaps the greatest quarterback ever, had two screws inserted into his throwing hand to repair a break and has lost considerable playing time because of a torn tendon in his right elbow.

A study of pro football injuries conducted by researchers at Ball State University in Indiana in 1989 found that major injuries in the National Football League were increasing. Three out of every five players from the 1970s and '80s had suffered knee injuries. Forty-six percent of all retired players said injuries had forced them out of the game. More than 200 players reported having at least one arthroscopic surgery for an injury, and 500 said they had undergone invasive surgery.

One retired player told the researchers, "I was unable to gain employment as a coach since I am unable to run or stand for long periods of time."

Dr. James A. St. Ville of Phoenix has set up a program to help retired football players suffering from chronic physical problems. "Many of them are crippled or unable to work, oftentimes unable even to get out of their house," he said.

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St. Ville added, "I think many of the physicians involved were actually shocked at the amount of residue from the cortisone or steroid shots that were given inside these guys' knees. Some of them had had 50-some injections."

Four players have completed their treatment with Dr. St. Ville. Two were given artificial knees, one received an artificial hip and the fourth had a spur the size of a little finger removed from a knee.

Football players are well-paid for the few brief years in which they hurl their bodies about like cars in a demolition derby. That time passes in an instant. What's left is usually a big man facing premature middle age and a lifetime of chronic pain.

Those who enjoy the sport, and especially those who prosper from it, should do what we can to make it safer. The players provide millions of spectators with a tremendous amount of excitement and enjoyment. They deserve better.

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