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TELANDER: Reporting on the lousiest joints — our knees

Former Kansas City Chiefs star E.J. Holub broke new ground for amount surgery required his battered knees. | AP

Former Kansas City Chiefs star E.J. Holub broke new ground for the amount of surgery required on his battered knees. | AP

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Updated: January 10, 2013 6:25AM



Thirty-two years ago, I wrote a piece for Esquire titled ‘‘The Knee.’’ You can guess what it was about.

For the lengthy article, I interviewed a lot of sports people, including former Kansas City Chiefs center E.J. Holub (with a then-NFL-record 13 knee operations), Miami Dolphins team physician Herbert Virgin, Los Angeles orthopedic surgeon Robert Kerlan, NFL Players Association executive director Ed Garvey, Bears GM Jim Finks, St. Louis football Cardinals head trainer John Omohundro and Hall of Famers Lenny Dawson, Dick Butkus and O.J. Simpson.

The word ‘‘thorough’’ comes to mind. Also, the phrase ‘‘what goes around, comes around.’’

‘‘The knee is the most poorly constructed joint in the body,’’ Dr. James Nicholas, founder of the Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma at New York’s Lennox Hill Hospital, told me. I was then a nimble, 31-year-old freelance writer and full-time men’s-league baller.

The then-42-year-old Holub, who had received his last knee injury eight years earlier, when teammates Ed Budde and Buck Buchanan — nearly 600 pounds of flesh — fell on him, said it didn’t change his love of football one speck:

‘‘The doctors say I’ll have to have an artificial knee in 10 years or so. Well, OK. When the time comes and they got something handy, we’ll do it.’’

He shrugged his Texas-wide shoulders. ‘‘It ain’t no big deal.’’

Yeah? Really?

Here I am in the Alden Estates of Skokie, two new knee joints hammered and reamed and glued into place under the grisly 8-inch scars down the middle of each of my legs. Why am I here? I’m rehabbing so I can walk again. Come on, Barbie/Let’s go party!

No, it doesn’t feel too good, knee-wise, after my ‘‘bilateral procedure’’ at Northwestern Memorial Hospital 10 days ago. But it doesn’t feel all that bad — not with the boatloads of anti-inflammatories and narcotics helping me through the fog.

But I keep drifting back to that old magazine article.

Sports knee injuries caught up with me. And I’m guessing they’re gonna catch up with about every Baby Boomer and Gen-X’er and Millennial out there at some point. I’m thinking a futuristic Replacement World: gleaming surgical rooms on every corner; cheerful orthopedic doctors everywhere; hobbling, old weekend jocks staggering up to the cash windows, paying big bucks to get sawed, screwed and glued, then rehabilitating at places like this, where every patient limps and every attendant is young and enthusiastic and excellently gaited.

And every patient has a story of lost athletic glory. My buddy down the hall, Jim Walters, a 51-year-old suburban fire chief, is finally reaping the rewards of a pileup in his senior season as a high school O-lineman in Arlington Heights.

‘‘Thirty-two years ago,’’ he says. ‘‘I will dunk again.’’

His visiting wife and son roll their eyes.

†As I alternately lie around and am tortured in the ‘‘Shades of Grey’’-outfitted basement with other captives, I think about so many things. Not the least of which is: Gee, it’s great to have Maryland and Rutgers in the Big Ten!

I won’t even ask how 14 teams equals a dime. Nor will I giggle when conference presidents and chancellors say this is about integrity or anything but TV cash. Nor will I say that as an academic and intellectual organization, the Big Ten just cheapened itself by about 20 percent by allowing this pair of no-name, far-off, un-prestigious, charmless, athletically bland and cash-strapped universities into the mix.

Rutgers’ athletic department lost almost $27 million in 2011; Maryland cut seven sports last year and will have to pay its former conference, the ACC, $50  million as a penalty for scampering away. But the cash will rain, and such minor problems will be swept away.

So all I will say is this: How ferocious is that Rutgers-Nebraska women’s tennis rivalry already?

And this: How much fun will that 1,207-mile women’s tennis van ride be, along about mile marker 800?

† I was in my ALDEN hospital bed, and Tim Henning, the very kind Heisman Trophy guy, called me with 48 minutes left in the voting Monday to see why I hadn’t logged in yet. I said it was because I was half-conscious, with new knees that felt like highway flares, and he said he understood, and he then took my vote orally, sort of like Plato transcribing Socrates at the philosopher’s deathbed.

My statement went: Manti Te’o first, then Johnny Football, then Kansas State’s Collin Klein. It was a good vote.

†Lastly, in my Coleridge-esque hallucinatory phase, I read in the New York Times this headline: ‘‘S.E.C. CHARGES 5 FIRMS OVER AUDITS IN CHINA.’’

I knew Alabama was good, and Tennessee just hired an excitable dude who said Vol football was the ‘‘greatest program in America,’’ but I didn’t know the Southeastern Conference dealt in corruption so far from the mainland.

Then I realized it wasn’t that SEC. Then I swooned.

Watch ‘‘NFL Films Presents,’’ featuring a segment on Rick Telander’s book Like a Rose. It premieres at 11:30 p.m. Tuesday on ESPN2.



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