His Faith Is His Medicine : Browns’ Vardell Makes Hard Religious Choice Because of Knee Injury
When Tommy Vardell was a little boy with a fever or stomach ache, the cure was always the same.
He would crawl onto his mother’s lap and together they would lose themselves in prayer until the fever broke.
When he was a young man with a sprained ankle or a broken collarbone, the cure was always the same.
He would find a quiet spot in his room, close his eyes, and once again look to his source of strength.
Somehow, he always found it. In his first 17 years as a celebrated running back, from the Pop Warner League to Stanford to the Cleveland Browns, he missed only three games.
“Turning to God, and leaning on him, has always been my medicine,” Vardell said.
Today, in a townhouse outside Cleveland, he is lost in prayer again. Only this time he is facing an injury more devastating, and the stakes are much greater.
Vardell is relying on his unusual faith to recover from reconstructive knee surgery that does not fit into the tenets of his religion.
As the NFL’s only acknowledged Christian Scientist, Vardell, 25, had never visited a doctor on his own. He had never taken a prescribed drug, a spoonful of cough syrup or even an aspirin.
When parts of his body were twisted, bruised or even broken, he refused to allow the routine applications of ice, heat or ultrasound stimulation.
When he was hurting, the only prescription he filled was for prayer.
“I simply know there is absolutely nothing that arises that can’t be resolved by appealing to God and his laws that govern us,” Vardell said in his first in-depth interview about the subject. “From Day One, Christian Science has been my health-care system.”
Since the afternoon of Oct. 2, Vardell has used that system more than ever.
On the third play of a game against the New York Jets, Vardell reached back to catch a short pass from quarterback Vinny Testaverde. He was hit by Jet safety Brian Washington. Vardell’s left knee twisted into Cleveland Stadium’s wet grass.
The minute Vardell hit the ground, he began praying.
He was still praying several hours later when he was told the knee required surgery if he hoped to continue playing football.
It was the sort of procedure he had agreed to undergo, if necessary, before the Browns made him the ninth overall pick in the 1992 draft.
He told the Browns he would honor his word and have the operation.
But he also asked them if he could have a few days to work it out himself. The doctors wanted to operate immediately.
He surprised them by declining pain medication during the 36 hours before the operation. One of the attending nurses even commented that he couldn’t believe Vardell was in no pain.
He also surprised doctors by using no more than one day’s worth of pain medication after returning home, two days after the surgery.
A month later, Vardell is smiling and cheerful as he hobbles around his townhouse, wearing a brace that has already replaced a cast.
He does not have the drugged-out look some people have after a major operation. He has not gained weight, even though he has been unable to walk.
“Right now, I’m working with the trainers in their rehabilitation, but I’m getting some wonderful prayerful work done,” he said. “It’s not like I have this unbelievable faith that makes God’s laws apply to me. His love for us and His healthy government of us applies to everybody, whether they are aware of it or not.”
The oft-repeated statement by NFL insiders who know of Vardell’s beliefs is not really a statement, but an amazed question.
How does he do it?
How does one of the 150,000 members of the Church of Christ, Scientist, survive in professional football?
“His beliefs and pro football, they seem so opposite,” said Bill Tessendorf, the Browns’ trainer.
Football players routinely spend as much time in the training room as on the field, even when they are not injured.
Many need pain pills or anti-inflammatory medicine merely to recover from a weekend game. Some take so much medication to help them survive a practice week, they could qualify as pharmacists.
There are cortisone shots, electro-stimulation therapy, muscle relaxers, the cupful of pills delivered to your hotel room the night before an important road game.
Then there is Vardell.
“I am really surprised he has gone this far while being able to stick to his beliefs,” said Standley Scott, veteran Stanford trainer. “I really respect his values.”
Scott did not know of Vardell’s religion when the running back signed with Stanford as an All-San Diego County running back at Granite Hills High.
When Vardell began politely refusing customary pills and routine treatments, Scott quickly figured it out.
“We wouldn’t waive medical clearance,” Scott said. “He had to be safe to play every week. But other than that, Coach (Dennis) Green ordered us to give him a lot of latitude.”
When X-rays indicated a broken foot in his freshman year, Vardell politely turned down pain medication. Five years later, a more thorough predraft exam showed that there had never been a break.
“That’s how these things work out sometimes,” Vardell said.
When he broke his collarbone in the final game of his college career in the Aloha Bowl, his refusal to medicate it, and perhaps hasten his recovery, was considered draft suicide by many.
His special workout for scouts later that spring, however, was impressive enough to move him among the top 10 picks.
“When people wonder how I can practice this faith . . . I wonder, how can I practice anything else?” Vardell said.
Every team that considered drafting Vardell in 1992 questioned him about his religion.
“With teams looking to invest time and money in me, they had to know they could handle me the way they saw fit,” he said. “I understood their perspective, and while the circumstances weren’t ideal, it seemed right to concede to their methods of handling injury for the greater good of everybody.”
While he undergoes more treatment than he would like, he is still allowed to refuse medication not absolutely necessary.
“The informal agreement we have is that we treat him, and the good Lord heals him,” Tessendorf said. “But we’ll give the good Lord a chance to heal him first.”
Although he says that discomfort with his new environment did not contribute to his play, Vardell struggled through his rookie season, and early in his second year.
Nicknamed “Touchdown Tommy” by Green for his 34 touchdowns in his final two seasons at Stanford, Vardell didn’t score until his 17th pro game.
In his first two seasons, he was given the ball only 270 times and gained 1,013 yards, scoring three touchdowns.
But this season was different. He said he stopped worrying so much about fitting in.
He had become a proficient blocker and pass receiver--16 catches for 137 yards--while helping the Browns to a 4-1 record when he was injured.
In other words, he was becoming a Midwestern version of Dallas Cowboy fullback Daryl Johnston
Bill Belichick, the Browns’ coach, was openly moved by his loss.
“Tommy’s a very special player,” Belichick said. “Although I think we have good depth in our backfield, we don’t have another Tommy Vardell, by any stretch of the imagination.”
That last sentence can hardly be debated.
Vardell is the league’s only player who never had a family doctor.
But contrary to popular perception about his religion, “I’ve always had a choice,” he said.
That statement is supported by the other strong Christian Scientist in his family, his mother, Travis.
Although juries have found the church liable for Christian Scientist children who died of untreated illnesses--and parents guilty of involuntary manslaughter in those same cases--Travis said that was never an issue in their El Cajon home.
Vardell’s father Ken is not a Christian Scientist, and was always given an option of taking Tommy or brother Ted to a doctor.
“I told him, they are your children as much as mine,” Travis said. “If you want to see a doctor, fine.”
Ask Vardell about his various illnesses as a child and he shrugs. Because he never saw a doctor, he doesn’t know what he had.
Only that he survived whatever they were.
“The more I saw His work in my life, the more I understood me,” Vardell said. “I realized that obeying His laws was not limiting, but freeing. And that living rightly is not self-righteous and isolating.
“Once I felt the peace and joy and power that was available to me, there was no way I could ever turn from it.”
Friends remember seeing cuts and scrapes on Vardell’s body, even a nasty gash under his chin once.
“But he was amazing,” said longtime friend Donnie Carroll, a former outfielder in the Dodger system. “He was always fine. He always got through things.
“I find it very difficult to believe that he can have that same lifestyle now. But obviously, he has found a way.”
That way includes a lifestyle that is often healing to others, as well.
“He is the most accommodating, gracious person I have ever met,” said high school friend Reid Marquand. “He’ll come back home for a vacation, we’ll be sitting around at a restaurant and see somebody he hardly knows from a long time ago . . . and he always asks not just how they are doing, but what they are doing, and whether they are happy doing it.”
Vardell is still famous at Stanford for surprising the insecure fifth-grade son of his fraternity house cook.
The boy had been getting bullied at school by people who didn’t believe he really knew Vardell. After hearing the story from the boy’s mom, Vardell showed up at the school one afternoon and sat with the youngster during lunch.
An old woman selling flowers on a downtown Cleveland street corner will not soon forget him, either.
Vardell once jumped out of his car, bought all of her flowers, and left her a huge tip.
“I’m sorry some of these stories are so syrupy,” Travis said. “That’s just Tommy.”
The best story of all, Vardell figures, will occur when he runs onto the field next year with his knee in one piece.
He will run, he says. And his knee will be in one piece.
The way he sees it, it doesn’t take a medical degree to figure that out.
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