From time to time, those whose bodies have betrayed them ask about the status of John Lynch's.
In the NFL, history often walks with a limp, and former players cannot share memories without first comparing scars. And so it is that in the briefest of conversations, with the best of intentions, older players struggling with their health sometimes look at Lynch and remember the ferocity with which he played.
The question comes: Has the pain begun yet?
No, Lynch will assure them. He still feels good when he wakes up. His head does not ache, his vision is not blurred and, no, he does not hear phones ringing in the distance. He is 39 and, thank you very much, he feels terrific.
Just wait, the older players tell him.
Another player, another tragedy, another statistic.
Lynch was on vacation in Hawaii last week when he heard of the suicide of Dave Duerson, and the tragedy hit him hard. The men did not know each other, but they shared a profession and a position and a passion.
They were safeties, men who earned their reputations by racing toward the nearest collision in time to stick their heads into the middle of it.
And now, Duerson, the former Bear, was gone.
And Lynch, the former Buc, knew that a set of familiar questions would soon follow.
The world worries about him, you know? Lynch, like the late Andre Waters, like Duerson, was one of those safeties who hit like linebackers, reckless men in a profession of wrecks. Even the sound of their tackles — like a large tree limb snapping in a storm — was distinctive.
For most of his 15-year NFL career, people talked about the punishment Lynch dealt out. Now, the question was how much he had absorbed.
"I can't say it's not a little scary," Lynch said. "But you can't spend your time waiting for something to happen. I had the scare with my neck (in 2003), but I haven't had any head issues. I'd like to think I was one of the guys who made it through relatively unscathed, but who knows?"
Lynch picks his words carefully. Yes, he says, the death of Duerson was a tremendous tragedy. Yes, he said, the NFL should run every test imaginable to protect its players from head injuries.
On the other hand, he cautions against rushing to link Duerson's death to head trauma.
Some will, of course. Duerson's death is certain to reopen the discussions of the residual damage of a savage game. Duerson complained enough about headaches and forgetfulness and loss of vision. His final two texts to his ex-wife Alicia, according to the Chicago Tribune, asked her to be sure his brain was donated to the NFL brain bank for study. Family members believed Duerson suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.
On the other hand, Duerson had other problems, too. He had declared bankruptcy, and he had family problems. "I think a lot of things caved in on him," Alicia told the Tribune.
Waters, the former Eagles safety, committed suicide in Tampa in 2006 at the age of 44. A doctor later compared his brain tissue to that of an 85 year old.
"I have tremendous empathy for Dave, and for Andre, and for any players who have struggled after football," Lynch said. "But there are a lot of issues that can lead to depression after football. Your heart goes out to him and his family, but it's too soon to assume this was because he played football."
Oh, Lynch has an idea of the physical toll of the sport. He once crashed into a pile with enough force to break another player's hand in two places. Unfortunately, it was his teammate Warren Sapp. He once left an opponent knocked out on the field. It was his brother-in-law, former Bears tight end John Allred. NFL Films once named him one of the 10 fiercest hitters in the history of the game.
Then there was 2003, his final season with the Bucs, when every hit seemed to send electric shocks down his arm because of chronic neck stingers. That injury almost knocked him out of the league.
"I was scared," Lynch said. "Things were happening that shouldn't be happening in terms of my arms going numb. There was a time in our last game against Tennessee when I hit (running back) Chris Brown, and I went down and both arms were numb and not moving. I thought, 'This is enough. I'm tired of this.' I never liked to take a lot of medicine to play, but I was taking stuff to get me through. I thought, 'This is stupid. I'm done. What am I doing?' "
Lynch said he would have retired if doctors hadn't assured him there was a procedure to fix his neck so he wouldn't be bothered anymore. Lynch went on to make four more Pro Bowls in as many seasons with the Broncos.
Again, however, Lynch insists he isn't worried about the lingering effects of playing. For one thing, he was never officially diagnosed as having any concussions as a player in the NFL.
"I guess it gets into the definition of what a concussion is," he said. "I had a lot of times when I was woozy and I told the safety who was playing with me — Dexter Jackson or Charles Mincy or Danny Robinson — to take a few plays in the box while I stood back here and recovered. I don't think that's a concussion, but maybe it is.
"At the end of the 2006 season against Pittsburgh, (Broncos linebacker) Al Wilson and I hit heads, and for about 10 seconds, both of us were lying on the field. But I remembered everything. How many times did I see stars? Countless. Fortunately, I don't feel any ill effects."
The last concussion Lynch remembers, he says, came back at Stanford when he was knocked out during the Notre Dame game. He came back in, however, and helped his team come from behind to upset the Irish. These days, the doctors probably wouldn't allow him back on the field.
Yes, Lynch said, he would go back into that game again.
Yes, Lynch said, if he thought he had a concussion during his NFL career, he would hide it if it meant getting back on the field.
And maybe that's the point here. Former NFL players prefer their game to be physical. Lynch says he wants the league to do the research, and to improve the helmets, and to protect the players. Still, he says, this is football.
"I'm not sure this game works as two-hand touch," Lynch said. "The validity of the sport depends on the physicality.
"I remember when I grew up watching, it was comic relief when someone was knocked woozy. Follies used to show it. NFL Films used to show it. Knocking someone out was a badge of honor. I think it still is."
None of that lessens the tragedy of Duerson's death, of course. None of it should lessen the concern of the NFL.
For Lynch, however, the mornings still come without pain and the memories without scars.
Consider him one of the lucky ones. He does.