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Athletes' pain dulls our fantasy

The thing about pain is this. We seem to have an increasingly high tolerance of somebody else's. Witness, for instance, the sideline celebration of the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday afternoon.

The 49ers have just won a game in the final seconds, the best feeling possible this side of a contract extension. Fists are thrust into air-traffic patterns, palms collide with palms, primal screams are loud enough to frighten the birds.

But if the 49ers felt no pain, one corner of their bench area painted a different picture.

Welcome back, the demons seemed to tell Mike Sherrard. Welcome back.

Perhaps you lost this in the weekend reports of NFL games. Perhaps you didn't want to know. It's easier that way.

Sherrard, a player who has been kicked around by fate for some time now, took another blow Sunday. Late in the game, at the end of a 35-yard reception that set up the winning field goal, his right foot caught in the turf, and his fibula _ his world _ cracked.

It was the third time that Sherrard's right leg has betrayed him. The third time that he was running toward an excellent career in the NFL, and the third time that life has shoved him backward.

"This hurts your heart," 49ers tackle Bubba Paris said. "It's like a part of you dying. A part of the 49ers died today.

"But in this game, when somebody goes down, somebody else goes up, and the games go on."

And no one thinks about the wounded. Somebody goes down, and the networks break for commercial. Sell a few tires while they drag the guy off, and the public won't have to think about it.

Part of it is that we have become numbed by the commonness of injuries. Part of it is that the show goes on in such a hurry that there's no timeout for sympathy. But I fear that part of it, too, is us.

You see these guys on the screen so often that you tend to think of them as TV characters. Sylvester Stallone's Rocky hits the canvas, and he isn't really hurt. So when Mike Sherrard hits the ground, it's easy to pretend his pain is no more real than Rocky's.

Celluloid heroes never feel any pain, right? And celluloid heroes never really die.

But these are not actors. These are humans, and their scars are real.

Following the 49ers game, linebacker Matt Millen asked a reporter to stand still. He then reached up with his left arm and pushed against the reporter's right shoulder, until he could get a painful muscle to stretch out.

Across the locker room, across any locker room, it is hard to find a player without a surgical ribbon across his knee, or the shoulder. Injury is no longer a possibility, it is a probability.

But try not to think about it. Try not to think about the anguish that Sherrard must feel this week as he contemplates his own brittle bones.

Tell yourself about how well these men are paid. Tell yourself that they're famous. Tell yourself that you follow football to escape your own problems, not to embrace those of others.

This game is the best of us, and it is the worst. It is a beautiful sport, a blend of speed and power that sometimes seems like several games in one. It is the achievement of a common goal, and the fantasy lets the rest of us in on that achievement.

But it is also a brutal, violent game that takes a harsh toll on its participants, that leaves men with artificial hips and permanent limps. And it is a nation turning its head and trying not to see.

Oh, you are a compassionate person. You'd care about Sherrard if you let yourself consider it. But you don't.

Sherrard has been here before. A former No.

1 draft choice of the Dallas Cowboys, Sherrard possessed the speed and grace that seemed to guarantee stardom. Then he broke his leg. And, even as he tried to rebuild it, it broke again. Real pain, real tears.

Still, Sherrard worked his way back, and the 49ers found themselves with a superb backup to Jerry Rice and John Taylor. "I felt we had the three best receivers in football," said 49ers coach George Seifert.

Now, this.

"It makes no sense," said 49ers backup quarterback Steve Bono. "But then, a lot of things about this game make no sense if you really think about it."

And that's the key. It is easier not to care, because there is no room in your fantasy for the pain of their reality.

So ignore it. Look the other way. Talk about something else until it goes away.

And try not to think about it. Whatever you do, try not to think about it.