Mac Engel

Cowboys QB doesn’t need to prove his toughness

This “decision” does not begin when a guy is 34. It starts when he is closer to 5.

Once the trainers and doctors absolve themselves from any potential litigation, the decision to play is on the player.

And the player is nearly always going to play, because that’s the way he has been instructed and pressured to do since he was a pee wee. Quality of health in the future is never as important as the next play, or the next game.

That mindset is not the fault of the NFL. That is a mindset born in youth leagues all across America. That is the fault of football, and there is no defendant in that potential lawsuit.

The latest to face this dilemma is our own Tony Romo.

Romo’s bad back, which we were led to believe was OK, is hurting after he was steamrolled Monday night by Washington’s Keenan Robinson. Hurting so bad, he is TBD for Sunday’s game against the Cardinals.

According to the doctors, Romo can play Sunday. It’s his decision. It’s about pain tolerance.

This is a man who has “tolerated” playing with a punctured lung, cracked ribs, ankle injuries, a herniated disk and now some sort of bruise on his back.

He may need to prove himself as a playoff QB, but in terms of toughness, he does not have to do this. We get it. He’s tough.

This man has earned the right to say he needs to sit this one out, but he won’t.

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By now, we should expect him to play. He told the media horde Wednesday it’s about whether he can function. Can he be Tony Romo, or half-Tony Romo.

Here is what needs to happen in these situations but never does because it’s counter to football’s machismo culture — somebody should stand in their way. Quality of life is more important than the game.

Romo is candid that his decision to play is always about the game. He’ll worry about the rest later.

From the time they are 5, that’s what they all do. That’s what so many of us do in the moment.

As the stories of aging, broken-down football players mount as much as lawsuits do against the NFL, we know their inability to foresee the future has a potentially crippling price.

Like all of us, we say we are aware of the consequences and will accept them when it’s time. But saying that and then experiencing the actual repercussions are much different. The first is easy; the second can be excruciating.

Tony Romo should not be surprised when he is 54 and can’t play a round of golf. Or that he requires several more back surgeries. Or has a hard time playing with his grandkids.

But this is not a case of the Dallas Cowboys or Jason Garrett or Jerry Jones leaning on Romo to play and potentially risk further injury.

This is a case of Tony Romo, and hundreds of thousands of other males young and old, feeling the need that they have to play.

What Romo is battling now is no different than the eighth-grader who doesn’t want to lose his starting spot, so he lies to his coach about how he feels. Or he lies to himself about how he really feels, and tells himself that he can play through it.

Sports mandates playing through discomfort on every level. And then there is genuine risk.

When Romo came back into the game Monday night after he had received a painkiller, he did not look like the same guy. He said he was, but he wasn’t.

Some of that had to do with the pressure the Redskins were bringing and the Cowboys’ inability to account for every man, but some of it had to do with Romo. He plays like a man who knows his back could go at any moment, and it could. It’s his back, and a lot of big men chase and frequently fall on top of him.

Do not buy the idea that this latest back injury is unrelated to his previous back procedures. Three back injuries in less than one year are somehow unrelated? It’s a back. Once a back goes bad, it’s hard to ever make it right.

A player’s well-being and health is laughably compromised in these situations. They all say player safety comes first, which is only one of the America’s most-beloved paradoxes — to be safe while hitting and tackling each other at high speeds.

History says Romo is going to play Sunday, and might take the needle to do so.

It’s his decision, and he has been making the same one since he was a kid.

Follow Mac Engel on The Big Mac Blog at star-telegram.com/sports/.

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