Heart Of A Champion

Prosthetics have come a long way, but would athletes gain unfair advantage by using them?


The National Football League’s (NFL) pre-season games begin on August 2. To many of us, players in the NFL represent the toughest of the tough, combining size, speed and strength. But before we invest all of our expendable income on the game-worn jerseys of rifle-armed quarterbacks or the next “megatron” wide receivers, consider the accomplishments of those NFL players who have excelled in this physically demanding sport while missing body parts.

Those of us in the San Francisco Bay Area will remember cornerback and free safety Ronnie Lott, who leveled crushing tackles for the Forty-Niners in the 1980s. In the 1985-86 season, Lott’s physical play led to him mangling his pinkie finger. Rather than opt for rehabilitation and miss multiple games, he instructed doctors to amputate the damaged fingertip. Did it hamper his play? Hardly. Lott had a league-high 10 interceptions the following year, and in 2000, was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He is widely considered to be one of the best players in NFL history.

In an earlier era, place kicker Tom Dempsey was born without fingers on his right hand or toes on his right (kicking) foot. Throughout his 10-year NFL career, he wore a customized football cleat with a flattened front surface. During the 1970-71 season with the New Orleans Saints, Dempsey made an unprecedented 63-yard field goal – a regular-season record that stood for 43 years.

Some people cried foul at Dempsey’s record-long field goal, complaining that his specialized footwear gave him an unfair advantage. But if the idea of a level playing field was violated, which side had the advantage? Was it the best-of-the-best NFL players lined up on defense that day in New Orleans or was it the 23-year-old, second-year kicker with a birth defect?

This year, the Seattle Seahawks selected defensive player Shaquem Griffin from the University of Central Florida (UCF) with the 141st pick in the NFL draft. Griffin was born with a congenital condition called amniotic band syndrome that caused his left hand to be underdeveloped. That appendage was amputated when he was four years old.

Despite receiving All-ACC (Athletic Coast Conference) first-team honors, being named defensive MVP in UCF’s win over #10-ranked Auburn in the Peach Bowl this past New Year’s Day and helping his team go 13-0 to become the only undefeated NCAA Division 1 team last season, he initially was not invited to showcase his abilities at this year’s NFL combine event. But Griffin showed great heart and changed minds with his play at the Senior Bowl game in January. Then at the combine, he grabbed scouts’ attention by bench pressing 225 pounds 20 times using a prosthetic hand to grip the bar.

It’s unclear if Seahawk rookie Griffin will be allowed to use some type of artificial hand in the NFL, although injured defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul wore a specialized glove when he played for the New York Giants the past few years. The bigger question: Despite pre-existing evidence of outstanding physical abilities, would athletes reap unfair advantages from prosthetics?

There is no denying that prosthetics technology has come a long way in recent years. Advances in medical knowledge and kinesiology are being combined with smaller, more efficient microelectronics and longer battery life to produce amazing devices. For example, the application of micro-sensors and motors smaller than a half inch are giving prosthetic fingers the dexterity and control needed to perform everyday tasks.

A leading pioneer in engineering bionic limbs is Dr. Hugh Herr, director of the biomechatronics group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab. A double amputee himself, Dr. Herr has designed high-tech prosthetics that restore users’ abilities in activities such as running and swimming. His computerized BiOM ankle is one of many bionic advances that he has helped bring to market. Dr. Herr’s focus is on improving the human-machine interface of prosthetics to reduce users’ pain and frustration. The ultimate goal is to apply advanced semiconductor technology – including sensors, computers and MEMS – to link artificial limbs with the human nervous system.

Of course, along with the nervous system, the human heart plays a vital role. Shaquem Griffin steadfastly believes that he can compete at the highest level in the NFL. Just as assuredly, it will be a challenging climb. But there are many examples of heart, not physique, making the champion. Consider the words of another young NFL player, Tom Dempsey, who reportedly countered remarks about any competitive advantage by saying “Unfair, eh? How about you try kicking a 63-yard field goal to win it with two seconds left and you’re wearing a square shoe – oh yeah, and no toes either.”


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