To Play or Not to Play – Should top college players play in Bowl Games? By: Chris Spooner – FOLLOW HIM ON TWITTER @SpoonfulOfSports
Injuries are an unfortunate byproduct of the violent nature of football. There isn’t a player around at either the collegiate or professional level that hasn’t had to deal with them at one point in their career. Unfortunately, some of those injuries can change the course of your career forever, as appears to be the case for former Notre Dame LB Jaylon Smith.
One of the top LB prospects in the upcoming NFL Draft, Jaylon Smith suffered a significant knee injury during the Irish’s bowl game against Ohio State. Smith tore both his ACL and MCL, and was sidelined for the rest of the game. This not only ended his college career in a fashion that no one wants to see, but also put his draft stock in question.
Perhaps the most unfortunate detail of his injury is how slowly his recovery is coming. At this month’s NFL Combine, Smith was evaluated by several doctors and reports have surfaced that, in addition to the ligament damage that was suffered, Smith has also suffered significant damage to the nerves in his knee.
With this worrisome prognosis, Smith has reportedly been dropped from several team’s draft boards altogether and may suffer a draft-day plummet along the lines of the one suffered by former Oregon Ducks CB Ifo Ekpre-Olumo.
For those who may have forgotten, as most of us tend to have a short memory when it comes to these things, Ekpre-Olumo would have been a first round pick had he come out after his junior season in 2013. He made the choice to come back for his senior season and was the prohibitive favorite to be the first cornerback selected.
That is, until he suffered a torn ACL and dislocated knee. He was forced to undergo two major knee reconstructions with the ACL surgery being much more extensive than the usual reconstruction. This injury, and the grim prognosis afterwards, caused Ekpre-Olumo to fall completely off many team’s draft boards, and nearly out of the draft entirely.
He wasn’t selected until the Browns took a flier on him in the seventh round. He has yet to play a game in the NFL, and there’s a fairly decent chance that he never will.
Jaylon’s injury, “similar” in nature to the one Ekpre-Olumo suffered, and the grim outlook the Combine gave us for Smith’s recovery, has led to a lot of discussion about whether or not star prospects should risk falling victim to the same circumstance that Smith now finds himself in.
It is here that I should stress that I am, in no way, a trained medical professional. When I say that the injuries are “similar,” I mean that only to say that both players suffered torn ligaments, and both injuries were more severe than the average ligament injury.
The question has been asked several times, should these kids risk their bodies to play in a bowl game, or should they save themselves for their career at the next level?
It’s the same question that was asked a few years back with Jadeveon Clowney, who would clearly have been the first overall pick a year earlier than he was had he been eligible to come out. He chose to come back to South Carolina and play for the Gamecocks, just as Smith decided to go out and play for the Irish in their bowl game. In both instances I believe they made the right choice, albeit for slightly different reasons.
In the case of Jadeveon Clowney, though he was the prohibitive favorite to be the first overall selection (which he ultimately would be), he wasn’t without his question marks. People had questioned both his motor and his desire to play the game. Clowney needed to come back to the Gamecocks and prove to scouts everywhere that he could play the game with intensity on every snap, and he needed to prove that he was going to be there, day in and day out.
Had Clowney decided not to risk injury and sit out until he was eligible for the draft, he would have only played into the idea that he was lacking in motivation and desire. He would have been proving the skeptics right that he doesn’t want to play every down, even when he’s not directly involved in the play.
Sure, there were other options for Clowney than to come back to South Carolina for one more season, but would Clowney have gotten the same exposure had he gone to play a season in Canada? I sincerely doubt it.
For Smith, the decision seems a lot more clear-cut to me than the Clowney situation. For Clowney, I can see how someone would make the argument that he should have sat out to save his health for his impending NFL career. When it comes to Smith, however, the issue isn’t about him sitting out for a year to save himself. Instead, we’re talking about whether or not Smith should have sat out for one bowl game.
A bowl game. The culmination of an entire season’s worth of hard work. The payoff for all of the trials and tribulations of the season. The chance to take the field one last time with all of his teammates and put one more notch on his resume. The chance to go out and shine in the national spotlight as THE star of a defense, for perhaps the last time in his career. To ask a 20-something year old kid to give that chance up because he *might* get hurt…well that’s just absurd to me.
These are two very specific examples of players who made the decision to come back, but it begs the general question of “Should all elite prospects with eligibility remaining come back to play?” I don’t think that’s a question that can be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no.’
Every player has different circumstances, and I have said many times in the past that if a draft-eligible player has the chance to be a first round pick, he should always declare for the NFL draft. College will always be there, but the chance to be drafted that high may never come again and after spending a lifetime of training, practicing, and playing, shouldn’t a young athlete look out for his best interests, especially when one massive injury can take it all away? For some players, they are nowhere near a first round prospect, but extenuating circumstances have forced their hand (see: Peyton Barber declaring for the draft in an effort to get his mom out of homelessness).
Baring circumstances such as the ones above, however, coming back and stepping on the field with your teammates is always the way to go. This is what you love to do, right? The risk of injury is always going to be there, whether you decide to go to the CFL for a year, decide to play one more year of college, or even decide to get out of bed.
So why not take that risk with the people you’ve grown to love for the last four years of your life, the people you’ve developed an intense bond with? These are the people you’ve bled with every Saturday. If you have to ask the question “Should I play or not?” the answer is “yes.”