It seems that every year we hear new stories from professional sports of an athlete "toughing it out" and playing with an injury that would debilitate many other players from performing at the professional level. Leading up to Super Bowl XXXIX the main story-line was the Terrell Owens injury and whether he would be able to play just weeks after breaking his leg and tearing a ligament in his ankle. Afterward, despite the Eagles' loss, we continued to hear stories of TO's "gutsy" performance and how it took real courage for him to play as much as he did.For the baseball fan, talk of the 2004 postseason will no doubt bring to mind images of Curt Shilling and the infamous bloody sock. Any fan of the Olympics can recall just a few months ago the endless talk of American downhill skier Lindsey Vonn's painful shin bruise which nearly knocked her out of the competitions. Athletes today are praised for playing through the pain, and rightly so. Who am I to criticize another human being for putting their future health on the line purely out of competition? What I CAN say is that, a couple of decades before my time, there was a generation of athletes who went about their business quietly, without drawing attention to themselves as they played through injuries that would cause the Average Joe difficulty in functioning, let alone competing at a high level.
The man they called "Psycho" may have been among the toughest of that generation. Sherrill Headrick was a 6-foot-2, 223 pound linebacker from Texas Christian University who played under Hank Stram during the days of the Dallas Texans. According to Headrick himself, he almost never made it after a year in the Canadian Football League. A 2007 article from the Dallas News discusses his first shot in the AFL:
"The last preseason game of his rookie season, he stood helplessly on the sideline and watched an opposing offense move down the field. Headrick heard someone tell Stram, the Texans' coach, to put the TCU kid in the game. Stram said no, they were going to cut him the next day. If Headrick got hurt, he'd have to be paid off."
As the drive continued, Coach changed his mind and sent Headrick into the game. Headrick later said that he played in any condition because "if I ever sat down I was afraid I wouldn't get back in." Headrick wore number 69 for the Texans and Chiefs every year of his career except one. He was selected to the AFL All-Star game five times (1960, ‘61, ‘62, ‘65, and ‘66) helped the franchise win two AFL championships and one world championship. Along with E.J. Holub and Smokey Stover, Headrick was part of one of the most feared groups of linebackers in the history of the AFL.
There are many legends that go along with Headrick including stories of how he slammed his head against the lockers before every game, but Headrick dismissed that as nothing but a rumor. What is true, however, is that during one game Headrick broke a finger so badly that the bone stuck through the skin. He told the team trainer to tape it up and to "tape one of those popsicle sticks onto it." Stram was later quoted as saying that Sherrill had a pain threshold as high as any person he had ever seen noting that he played without hip pads.Also not a rumor is the story of how he once broke a vertebra in his neck during warm-ups but continued to play the game, not finding out about the broken bone until several days later. Despite the injury, the 1993 Chiefs Hall of Fame inductee continued to play the next weekend and considered it one the greatest games of his career
The Psycho played his final year in Cincinnati then, his body barely functioning, retired. He went on to live the last years of his life mostly in either a hospital bed or a wheelchair after nearly 20 surgeries. The man who was once so tough on the football field eventually died in 2007 of cancer. Before his death Headrick told a reporter for the Dallas news:
"I've got metal knees, metal hips, metal shoulders," he said. "I've had carpal tunnel in my hands, a broke neck and disks removed in my back. I'm not much of a specimen anymore. Maybe that's why the bug decided to eat me up."
The linebacker known as one of the toughest to have ever played the game turned out to be the beginning of a long tradition of linebackers for which the Kansas City Chiefs are now known. Seen as one of the best in the game for nearly a decade, Headrick helped set the foundation for what the Chiefs Defenses became in future years. Hopefully the players that follow in the footsteps of him and his teammates can compete with a toughness that was a defining characteristic of the original teams of the Chiefs franchise.