James Laurinaitis has never felt so limited before.
His right arm felt useless. Laurinaitis couldn’t straighten his arm or bend it all the way, couldn’t bench-press, couldn’t press any kind of weight, couldn’t play the way he’s been playing his whole life.
Laurinaitis had torn the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow in Week 6 against the Cleveland Browns. Until that point, Laurinaitis had seemed indestructible, a borderline mythical figure who played one of the game’s most physical positions but never complained about pain.
Worst of all, he had to wear a brace that began at the middle of his biceps and stretched to the middle of his forearm — a massive piece of equipment that looked like the sort of bionic exoskeleton a futuristic warrior might wear in a summer blockbuster.
“I wasn’t trying to look like J.J. Watt, but I had to with that big thing on my arm,” Laurinaitis said. “Gosh, I hated it. It didn’t allow me to use my hands as well as I wanted to. I really had to go in and shoulder-block because I couldn’t lock out.”
Laurinaitis still played nearly every down.
He always does. According to NFL Network records, Laurinaitis has missed just 21 snaps in his entire career, playing 7,498 of a possible 7,519 snaps over seven seasons.
“I remember all those snaps I missed, too, and I’m mad about them,” Laurinaitis said. “One of them was in Denver; I got poked in the eye, and that’s why I wear a visor now. The other snap, I cut my ear, believe it or not, and had to get four stitches in my ear. .. I don’t like to miss any snaps.”
Laurinaitis’s invulnerability is hard to explain.
Even for the men who coached him and played with him.
“He’s just so rugged that I don’t even know if he ever had a health concern, because if he did, he wouldn’t tell you,” former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said. “The thing about James is, he doesn’t do it because he’s macho. He does it because he doesn’t want to let anyone down.”
And he’s always gone full tilt.
Always at the center of the action, Laurinaitis made 852 tackles in St. Louis, 375 at Ohio State and posted 193 tackles in his senior season alone at Wayzata High in Minnesota. Despite all those collisions, he’s never missed a game, and he’s rarely even been in the training room.
Former Buckeyes defensive coordinator Jim Heacock believes Laurinatis’s intensity has helped keep him healthy. In Heacock’s 41 years as a coach, he’d see players relax at times, get a little lazy around the pile.
“The thing about James, he went 100 percent, 100 miles an hour every single snap, he never took a play off,” Heacock said. “I think he just went at such a pace that it prevented him from being injured.”
His genes probably haven’t hurt, either. Born into a family of professional wrestlers — his father, Joe, was known as the Road Warrior Animal — Laurinaitis has always had the build to take a pounding, and although he didn’t wrestle, the linebacker has spent his whole life around contact.
Laurinaitis played hockey all the way through high school, so he’s used to the way a body responds to contact.
“We played him both on offense and defense,” his high school coach, Brad Anderson, said. “Typically, even the toughest guys will have a shoulder you’ve got to brace up or something like that. I can’t remember James ever having anything we had to treat.”
He’s been the same way at the NFL level.
But former teammate Will Witherspoon has another explanation for Laurinaitis’s ability to stay on the field.
“The only day in the NFL that you feel good is the first day of training camp,” Witherspoon said. “I won’t say his best games have come when he’s not healthy, but he has the tools — he’s so smart and prepares so hard — that he knows how to get the job done even when he’s hurt.”
Even Laurinaitis finds himself at a loss to explain his durability. He works hard to prepare his body to play: Hard offseason training, flexibility exercises, hot tubs, cold tubs, massage, acupuncture, anything and everything to keep him close to 100 percent.
But even all of that work isn’t a good explanation.
“Quite frankly, I have seen a lot of guys do all that stuff, too, and still get hurt,” Laurinaitis said. “I don’t really know what it is. It has just been a blessing to stay healthy.”
Laurinaitis’s durability has meant his teams can count on their leader being in the lineup.
And Laurinaitis always ends up becoming a leader of the defense.
When Laurinaitis enters a locker room, his preparation and ability to understand defenses make him an obvious leader.
“What made him stand out was his ability to focus on learning that was not typical of a high school football player,” Anderson said. “We haven’t had anyone like him before or since.”
Laurinaitis’s leadership landed him at Ohio State. Despite being the only senior on a Wayzata defense that made the state final in high school, he was only a three-star recruit, and the Buckeyes were at the height of their power under Tressel.
Normally, a three-star recruit might not catch Ohio State’s eye, but Laurinaitis’s high school English teacher wrote Tressel an impassioned letter about her student. The more Tressel learned, the more he liked.
“We started studying him and watching his film, and it was a no-brainer,” Tressel said. “He was better than that English teacher said.”
The three-star recruit practiced so hard in his first training camp at Ohio State that the older players wanted him to take a step back. By the end of the season, when future first-round pick Bobby Carpenter broke his leg, Laurinaitis stepped right into a rivalry game against Michigan and a Fiesta Bowl appearance and held his own.
Then Laurinaitis took over the leadership of the defense the next three seasons.
“When you think about James, you just think about a complete player, a complete person,” Heacock said. “There’s just no weaknesses.”
Witherspoon remembers thinking the same thing in both of his stints with Laurinaitis in St. Louis. Laurinaitis is not the type to make a lot of noise vocally right away.
But the way he went about his business impressed Witherspoon.
“A consummate leader,” Witherspoon said. “A guy that a lot of guys will respect, the way he prepares, the way he works, and a guy that will just step into the hole with authority.”
Laurinaitis, at 29, has a lot of miles on his legs. All of those snaps can take a toll on even the most durable body, and Laurinaitis arrives in New Orleans after a season that prompted some critics to wonder if he’s in decline, even though he was dealing with the elbow injury.
“For the first time in his career, he’s a quarterback who can take a lot of snaps, keep that clock moving, actually give the defense a chance to catch his breath. This is going to be like a breath of life for him,” Witherspoon said. “James has got a lot left in that tank.”
A tank that has never come close to hitting empty before.