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The Cautionary Tale of Carl Nicks

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The threat of MRSA infections amongst NFL players does not have the same cache as concussions. Nevertheless, they are endings careers just as dramatically.

Arizona Cardinals v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

I remember how bummed I was during the 2012 offseason when the Tampa Bay Bucs were able to lure the Super Bowl Champion and two-time All-Pro New Orleans Saints guard, Carl Nicks, away from the team who drafted him. The former fifth round pick, who supplanted a suspended Jamar Nesbit during his 2008 rookie season, had just signed the richest contract ever (5 years, $47.5 Million) for an offensive lineman.

Few things annoy me more than when the Saints have let home grown talent which they drafted walk out of their building to another franchise. I knew Nicks would continue to dominate and be a thorn in the Saints side after ditching them for their NFC South rival.

What I didn’t know was that Nicks would play nine games for the Buccaneers over the next two seasons before retiring at the age of 29. He had accrued six seasons in the NFL, which is twice the length of an average career. But Carl Nicks wasn’t average. He was arguably the best guard in the NFL, and he should have played longer, if he wanted to.

As it turned out, Nicks did want to keep playing, but his body simply wouldn’t let him. After gutting out almost half of his 2012 season with the Bucs on a torn plantar plate in his left foot, Nicks decided to go on injured reserve and have surgery on his ailing toe.

A torn plantar plate is a dorsal dislocation of the big toe. When the big toe hyper-extends, the tissues on the bottom of the toe tear. Our big toes are responsible for bearing the brunt of our weight and providing good push off power.

Weighing around 345 pounds, Nicks’ toe must have been killing him, and even though he performed admirably on it for the first half of the season, he probably realized he could not continue playing if he didn’t address the problem surgically.

”It’s been unbelievable what he’s been able to play through,” said former Bucs safety Ronde Barber. “It’s about the size of two golf balls.” Ouch. In late October, Nicks had surgery and went on injured reserve to finish the 2012 season.

Then during training camp in August 2013, Nicks developed a blister on the side of his left foot and it became infected. But it wasn’t a blister at all. It was methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus or more commonly referred to as MRSA.

MRSA is a very dangerous bacterial infection that is resistant to most antibiotics. There are even a couple deadly strains that are resistant to all know drug treatments. It begins looking like small red bumps that sometimes accompany fever and rashes. About 75% of MRSA infections are localized to skin and soft tissue and can usually be treated effectively.

MRSA is common in hospitals, prisons, and nursing homes where already immune suppressed people can be infected through open wounds, invasive devices like catheters, and even personal items like towels. It’s also become all too common in NFL training facilities. The NFL teams in St. Louis, Cleveland, and Washington have all shared Tampa Bay’s history with MRSA-rampant locker rooms.

“They’re often working out together, in close physical proximity, they often have skin abrasions and wounds, they often share towels, sometimes to wipe off their sweat, and some have a “lucky” towel or jersey that they don’t wash, which may become contaminated with MRSA,” said Dr. Victoria Fraser, chair of the department of medicine at Washington University in St. Louis, who helped the CDC investigate the Rams’ outbreak.

In late September of 2013, Nicks thought the worst was over. ”I’m MRSA clear,” Nicks declared after participating in a limited fashion in a workout at One Buc Place. “I’m all right. Just trying to get back out there and hopefully I’ll be ready for this game. Anytime you get any kind of injury like that, there’s pain,” he said, “but it was more mental than anything. I wasn’t really scared, just irritated that I couldn’t be out there with my guys.”

He played in the third and fourth games of the season against New England and Arizona before finding out the MRSA had returned. Nicks missed the rest of the 2013 season and never played professional football again. After spending months rehabilitating his injury and experiencing complications from his infection, Nicks finally called it quits in August 2014.

In a statement released by the Bucs, Nicks said, ”I’d like to thank the Buccaneers organization for working with me as I have attempted to get myself back on the football field. However, after careful consideration, I have made the decision to step away from the game. This was by no means an easy decision, but I believe that it is what is best for me and my family, as well as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.”

Nicks didn’t owe the Bucs a gracious goodbye or thank you. In fact, the Bucs owe Nicks a lot more than the $3 Million injury settlement they gave him instead of his $7 Million annual salary. If we look at the case of his equally unfortunate teammate, kicker Lawrence Tynes, the Bucs owed him the full amount of that five year deal.

In 2015 Tynes sued the Bucs for $20 Million, or the estimated amount of earnings he expected to make if he had been able to play another six or seven years like he planned to do. During the same preseason in 2013, the Bucs sent Tynes to their surgical affiliate in Tampa Bay so that Tynes could have a couple millimeters of an ingrown toe nail removed.

Tynes returned to One Buc Place for rehabilitation, but a few days later, not only was the toe not healing, it was getting much worse. Long story short, Tynes’ brilliant career, which included two Super Bowl rings and two game-winning overtime kicks in separate NFC Championship Games, was over. His toe and general health are still negatively affected, and the pain he feels while kicking has never gone away.

Tynes knew he had a case when, after filing a grievance through the NFLPA, the Bucs “offered to make it right in terms of my classification” and “give the credited season without even a hearing.” You see, not only did the Bucs refuse to admit the infection came from their facility, they also deliberately screwed Tynes over by placing him on the non-injury football list instead of injured reserve.

This classification was imperative because players placed on IR were also entitled to their full salary, an accrued season, full benefits and another season toward their pensions. Tynes was miffed, and reasonably so.

Right after Tynes and Nicks were diagnosed with MRSA, the Bucs hired an outside firm to sanitize their facilities. They spent five figures on a massive air purifier. They required players to shower before leaving the locker room and cover their cuts and abrasions with watertight bandages before doing hydrotherapy.

The team even brought in Deverick Anderson, an infectious disease specialist and co-director of the Duke Infection Control Outreach Network. He did a review of the facilities and went on to tell their next opponent, the Eagles, that the Bucs had “the lowest risk of transmitting MRSA to any other team.”

Anderson gave the Bucs player a series of Q&A sessions, which Tynes described as “a dog and pony show.” A few weeks later, Bucs cornerback Johnthan Banks tested positive for MRSA.

In his lawsuit, Tynes alleged that “appropriate precautions and procedures to prevent a MRSA infection, and the spread of MRSA, were neither in place nor being actively followed at the Bucs training facility in 2013” and he was not informed of “ongoing separate incidents of infection amongst individuals who used and visited One Bucs Place” when he chose to rehab his toe injury there.

The suit claimed that former athletic trainer Todd Toriscelli was in fact the Bucs’ MRSA “Patient Zero.” Apparently Toriscelli “had undergone several knee surgeries related to an infection” and even “admitted to close friends that his own MRSA infection was the source of Mr. Tyne’s infection.” A source close to Toriscelli disputed this to the MMBQ saying Toriscelli “never tested positive for MRSA, and cultures were taken at the time that verify that fact.”

Either way, there were some nasty cold tubs and towels up in One Buc Place and no one, especially athletes worth millions of dollars, should have been exposed to such a health compromised working environment.

“The problem was the facility, let’s be real. If we got into this, I bet you there’s 10 more guys - because half the damn team was on antibiotics. If you put me on IR,” he argued, “you’re saying I got [the infection] at the facility. They didn’t want to admit I got it there.”

“I’m gonna be here until I win,” Tynes promised. “Whatever that entails. I don’t care how long it takes.” I wish Nicks didn’t let the Bucs off so easy. “This whole thing is wrong,” Tynes told Fox Sports. “My biggest emphasis is I don’t want this to happen to any current or future player. I’m going to fight this thing as long as I have to, because this team should not be allowed to do this to players.”

I hope every single NFL franchise has taken MRSA seriously and provided safe and sanitary conditions for their players going forward. Even more, I hope Carl Nicks becomes a cautionary tale instead of an everyday NFL statistic.