Over the course of the long and brutal N.F.L. season, players’ feet and hands take a beating on nearly every snap. Fingers are jammed, toes are stepped on, ankles are twisted, and nails are broken.
We spoke with six N.F.L. players throughout the 2022 season about the injuries they play through and how they cared for their hands and feet, essential leverage points needed for every run, block, catch and kick. Their behind-the-scenes routines were meant to help them make it through the season — but didn’t completely ward off injuries.
Tight End, Seattle Seahawks
5 Seasons N.F.L. Experience
Sept. 10 (Week 1)
Playing tight end means catching passes from the quarterback. But it also means blocking far larger defensive linemen and getting caught in the middle of piles of players, which can lead to jammed fingers, twisted ankles and other small but painful injuries.
“It’s normal stuff,” Dissly said about getting stepped on. “It usually hurts pretty good for 30, 60 seconds, depending on the players who stepped on you. It feels like when you stub your toe. It happens zero to three times a game. I never would come out during a game.”
Nov. 21 (Week 11)
In mid-November, Dissly dislocated the middle finger on his right hand. He did not recall precisely when and how it happened, but he did know that he popped the joint back into place while in the hot tub after a game.
“I remember, damn, it hurt,” Dissly said.
Pressed for details, Dissly said that he likely injured the finger while blocking on a running play. He reckons that he was trying to get a defender’s hands off him, and his middle finger went sideways when it hit the other player.
“I’m in a hybrid position,” Dissly said, referring to his role as a blocker and a receiver. “You can’t really avoid it. You can’t play in Bubble Wrap.”
A knuckle on the finger ballooned, and he used ice for a few days to reduce the swelling. Within about two weeks, he recovered the full range of motion, though the knuckle was still large. He taped the finger to stabilize it.
“This is the time of year when your hands start hurting,” Dissly said. “You just know how your body responds.”
Jan. 6 (Week 18)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
Entering the Seahawks’ game with Kansas City on Christmas Eve, Dissly had set personal records for catches (33), yards (330) and first downs (19). The Seahawks were in the N.F.C. playoff hunt, too.
He added to those totals during the game, but he was banged in the knee and later placed on the injured reserve list. The injury did not necessitate surgery, but effectively ended Dissly’s season.
“I wish I could finish the season now because I was feeling really, really good but football happens and you’ve got to respond to what happens,” he said two weeks later.
“Personally, there’s always stuff that I wish I could have back,” Dissly said. “You know, football isn’t perfect.”
Linebacker, Minnesota Vikings
3 Seasons N.F.L. Experience
Oct. 5 (Week 5)
Dye is a throwback to the era of Willie Lanier and Dick Butkus, when linebackers were the tough men of the locker room. No pedicures for him — he cuts his own toenails.
“No one is touching my feet,” Dye said. “They got different nicks and bumps. I broke my metatarsal like when I was 8 years old, and then I tore a ligament in my ankle as a rookie.”
Even as he plies his trade in the N.F.C. North, Dye, a Southern California native, refuses to wear gloves, a choice he briefly reconsidered last season after the Vikings lost a January game to the Packers in 11-degree temperatures in Green Bay, Wis.
“It wasn’t fun,” Dye said. “It wasn’t a good decision.”
Nov. 17 (Week 11)
Just a few days earlier, the Vikings had stunned the Buffalo Bills, 33-30, in an instant classic that ended in overtime to extend Minnesota’s record to 8-1.
“When you are winning, you’re feeling no pain,” said Dye, who took most of his snaps with the special teams unit that day in Orchard Park, N.Y.
He had gone through more than 30 bandages a week to stave off infections from the numerous nicks and cuts on his hands. Dye said he knows the differences between being hurt and injured. He broke a thumb while at the University of Oregon that required four pins, a cast and a club for him to keep playing.
Bailey Hillesheim/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
By this point in the season, Dye was spending more time in the sauna — three or four days every week.
Dec. 14 (Week 15)
The bandages remained on Dye. The gloves will not come on despite approaching games in Chicago and Green Bay.
“I’m going to make it another season,” Dye said.
Dye had a broken index finger, however, for most of the season. Sometimes he taped it. He did not the previous Sunday against the Lions and he felt it throbbing now.
“Sometime, I just forget about it because I’m so focused,” Dye said.
Center, Tennessee Titans
11 Seasons N.F.L. Experience
Oct. 4 (Week 5)
Jones, 33, prides himself on his durability on the offensive line, where he is involved in collisions, scrums and shoving matches throughout every game. In his first 10 seasons in the league, with the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans, he missed just one game to injury because of a concussion sustained in 2019.
“There’s never an off day,” he said after the Titans split the first four games of the season. “At this point in my career, I don’t know what finger hasn’t been dislocated or broken. I wear a glove cast on my left hand because I’ve damaged the ligaments in my thumb three times. On my right hand, it’s been beaten up and it’s been fixed up.”
Jones burnished his reputation as a no-holds-barred battler when he faced the division-rival Colts in Week 7. In the fourth quarter, he helped the Titans secure a 19-10 win by pushing a pile of players that included running back Derrick Henry, who was able to get a key first down.
Jones attributes some of his success to an unusual habit of walking barefoot on the field before games, something he began doing in high school to honor his older brother, Clay, who helped raise him after their father, Steve, died.
Over the years, the walk has morphed into a reconnaissance mission.
“It started as a ritual, but now I can see if the field’s wet out there or slippery, and the guys will ask me when I get back to the locker room,” Jones said. “Some games, the guys need to switch cleats.”
Because Jones plays in the middle, his size 15 feet are often stepped on or his ankles can roll. Before every practice and game, he runs a lacrosse ball along the bottom of his foot to loosen the muscles. Then a trainer “spats” his feet by taping the outside of his shoes to provide stability and the assurance that his laces won’t come untied.
“I wear the biggest cleats with the most protection because if my feet aren’t good, I’m no good,” he said.
Nov. 13 (Week 10)
Jones’s feet were the least of his worries in a victory over the Denver Broncos in Week 10, when he sustained a concussion that forced him to miss the next two games.
“I’m just happy to be back,” Jones told reporters after his return. “Going through this definitely taught me some patience here. You want to be out there with your friends. They’re family to me. It hurt not being out there with them.”
By the time Jones returned in Week 13, the Titans were in the throes of what ended as an agonizing seven-game losing streak. Then he had a second concussion in a Week 15 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, effectively ending his season.
Wide Receiver, Jacksonville Jaguars
6 Seasons N.F.L. Experience
Sprained ankle, stretched tendons
Sept. 28 (Week 4)
Zay Jones was feeling very good about the young season, his first with the Jaguars after stints with the Bills and Raiders. In Week 3, he caught 10 passes for 85 yards and a touchdown in a blowout win over the Chargers.
But in practice a few days later, he was running drills and landed awkwardly, spraining an ankle and stretching the tendons in his right foot. It was bad news for a player whose job is to race downfield and cut on a dime.
Jones’s ankle was so swollen that he couldn’t see the tendons on his foot, but he hadn’t broken any bones.
“I tried to walk on it as normal as possible,” he said. “I didn’t immediately put it in a boot or restrict it in any way, because I’m trying to get my mind to train my body that, ‘Oh, it’s going to be OK.’”
Jones increased the range of motion in his foot to the point where the pain was tolerable. He did balance and weight-bearing exercises like squats and continued his normal routine of loosening the muscles on the soles of his feet with a ball.
“My mind-set was, what can I do to be ready to play?,” he said. “If all I have is 80 percent, I want to make sure I can play at a high level of 80 percent.”
Oct. 30 (Week 8)
Jones returned to the field in Week 5 in a 13-6 loss to the woeful Houston Texans. Steadily, week after week, he became one of quarterback Trevor Lawrence’s favorite targets even as the team continued to lose one-score games in frustrating fashion.
“We did unfortunately lose some games that I know we want back, but we can’t get those back,” Jones said after the Jaguars’ 21-17 loss to the Broncos, when Lawrence threw an interception on the team’s final drive. The Jaguars left that game, held at Wembley Stadium in London, with a 2-6 record.
Dec. 15 (Week 15)
Jones had career highs of 11 catches and 145 yards in an upset of the Baltimore Ravens in late November. His emergence helped the Jaguars nudge their way into the playoff conversation.
AP Photo/Mark Zaleski
“My ankle is feeling much better, so that’s the good news,” Jones said after the Jaguars beat their A.F.C. South rivals, the Tennessee Titans, in mid-December. “The bad news is I kind of got the other one banged up a little bit.”
Jones said he was hurt when he stumbled into a few other players on a screen play. The injury wasn’t severe, and he did not miss any games. The next week Jones caught six passes for 109 yards and three touchdowns as the Jaguars shocked the Dallas Cowboys, 40-34.
In all, Jacksonville won seven of their final nine games to capture the A.F.C. South title for the first time in five seasons.
“It’s been a crazy ride for us, but it’s made such a great story,” Jones said. “To make it this far and be healthy is a blessing.”
3 Seasons N.F.L. Experience
Oct. 11 (Week 6)
Braden Mann punts, shares kickoff duties and is the holder on field goal attempts for the Jets. His hands and feet work in concert, but he is not fussy about their maintenance.
Mann avoids leather cleats, choosing to wear cheap synthetic ones: He wants his foot to be as hard as possible when it strikes the ball. To that end, he wears a size 9 on his kicking foot even though he typically wears a size 10½.
“Game day is the hardest on my feet,” Mann said. “They get abused because I pull the laces super tight. I don’t want any air to get between the ball and my foot. No extra room. It won’t hit my foot hard enough. After the game, you can see the indents on my feet from the laces.”
Mann avoids pedicures.
“I like the calluses that I have — inside the heel of my left foot where I push off,” he said.
Mann kicks about 200 balls a week. He says he is an incessant toe and knuckle popper.
Nov. 17 (Week 11)
Cold, windy weather is not a punter’s friend. While the Jets were off to a 6-3 start, Mann was spending extra time working on his hand-eye-foot coordination.
“When your hands are cold, they are not working as well,” Mann said. “And when it’s windy, you hold the ball a little longer before you drop it. I’ve had a few kicks that I have wanted back, so I’m spending more time on mechanics.”
Dec. 15 (Week 15)
AP Photo/Michael Dwyer
The Jets’ late-season struggles on offense had Mann working hard: He was tied for fourth-busiest punter in the N.F.L., finishing with 83 punts.
On Nov. 20, with five seconds remaining and the Jets tied with New England, 3-3, the Patriots’ Marcus Jones returned Mann’s punt 84 yards, blowing by him for the game-winning touchdown. Afterward, the punter lamented leaving the ball low and short.
“It was on me,” Mann said. “I didn’t give the cover team a chance.”
Tight End, Los Angeles Chargers
2 Seasons N.F.L. Experience
Sept. 30 (Week 4)
McKitty has problem digits. He suffers from turf toe on both of his big ones, and he has broken or dislocated both thumbs and every finger on either hand.
“It comes with the business,” he said. “As a tight end, my hands are extremely important to me but at the same time at risk. I do a lot of blocking, and they get caught in pads and bang into helmets. I broke one thumb that way and the other on a catch.”
In the off-season, McKitty does strength and grip work, but he believes holistic maintenance is the key to enduring the rigors of the season.
During the season, he gets a manicure and pedicure at least once a month and, after each practice and game, warms his hands in paraffin wax for 10 to 15 minutes to ease any pain or stiffness. He also gets a massage every Monday.
“The therapist spends a lot of time on my hands and feet,” he said.
Nov. 17 (Week 11)
In Week 4, in early October, McKitty said he “dinged” his right wrist in a win over the Browns. But it had no impact on what he called his worst game of his career against the 49ers on Nov. 13.
McKitty is primarily a blocker who is rarely targeted by quarterback Justin Herbert. That changed when tight end Gerald Everett injured his groin in the second quarter. Herbert found McKitty with what would have been a 35-yard touchdown pass — if he hadn’t dropped it. He caught just three of his six targets, and the Chargers lost, 22-16.
Ashley Landis/Associated Press
“I felt awful,” he said, “but I have good teammates, and they lifted me up.”
Dec. 14 (Week 15)
The Chargers were 7-6 and just outside the playoff picture after Week 14. McKitty had developed blood blisters on his fingers.
“I forgot to cut my fingernails, and they got bent back,” McKitty said.
To battle late-season fatigue, on his off days McKitty joined Chargers linebacker Kenneth Murray at a nearby swimming pool where they did underwater exercises.
“Just as important are the breathing exercises we do,” McKitty said. “The point is to build stamina for a quick recovery.”
“I want to be ready for a playoff run,” he added.
The Chargers won their next three games, clinching a playoff spot for the first time since 2018.