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Toe injuries can sideline even the toughest


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It's not just any toe. It's the big toe. It's the first one, the fat one, the one also known as “the great toe.” And that's fitting. It's high time to give it its due.

If not for two big toes, after all, the San Diego Chargers might have one ring.

Oh, the knee may get most of the press when it comes to sports injuries. Who hasn't heard of the ACL, after all?

But it was big-toe injuries that sidelined Chargers tight end Antonio Gates and wideout Eric Parker this past season. Baseball players, particularly speedy outfielders, can get them, too.

Lucky for the Padres, they have no speedy outfielders.

Parker – the Chargers' third leading receiver three years running – missed the whole year because of a broken big toe. And Gates – who dislocated his big toe in the first playoff game Jan. 6 – was basically useless for the rest of the championship run.

Two months after the season, Gates is nowhere near recovered. His big toe is still not near 100 percent. The Pro Bowler had surgery Feb. 27 and could need a whopping six months to recover.

Such injuries to the big toe are on the increase and now, according to one study, trail only ankle and knee injuries when it comes to sidelining university athletes.

How can such a tiny thing neutralize such incredibly strong, conditioned, other-worldly bodies? The big toe appears to be the real Achilles' heel.

“It's definitely the giant killer,” said Jack Bechta, Parker's agent. “You need the toe to push off, for balance, for planting, all these things we take for granted.”

Bechta has learned much about the big toe, having had a couple of players he represents suffer problems with it lately.

“It's such a durable but delicately engineered part of the body,” he said.

At first, it was believed that harder, less-giving artificial turf was to blame for the increase in toe injuries. A phrase was coined to describe it: turf toe.

But new footwear is the more likely culprit, said Dr. Doug Richie, past president of the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine and a Seal Beach-based podiatrist. New-generation shoes provide the kind of traction and support that athletes in the past never had.

The traction is so good that the foot inside may not get the natural give it should, Richie said. That means the player's foot can suffer “an abrupt collision” within the shoe itself.

Today's players also seek lighter, more flexible cleats instead of the more rigid ones of the past, he said. They help increase speed, but offer less protection.

It's amazing the amount of physical torture football players endure. Take Gates and Parker, for instance. They run full speed from the line of scrimmage, catch balls over the middle of the field and take hits from speedy, strong defenders. Their heads snap back. Their helmets get jarred loose. Their knees buckle.

And they normally get right back up.

But not if they hurt that big toe badly. Gates was down for minutes after injuring his. He had to be taken off the field on a cart.

Meanwhile, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers was able to play in the AFC Championship Game with a torn ACL.

A toe injury can be extraordinarily painful, said Andy Paulin, co-head athletic trainer at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut. One problem is giving it proper rest. It's not a finger. A toe bears your weight.

One of the toughest men to ever play football was Pittsburgh Steelers middle linebacker Jack Lambert.

Lambert made nine Pro Bowls.

He won four Super Bowls.

And he was forced to retire at age 33.

Why?

His left big toe. He hurt it.

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