The Rams are 3-0 in the 2011 preseason and one win away from a perfect mark before the regular season begins. On Thursday and Friday, the final preseason games will be played, and following those games, each team will prepare for the cutdown to the 53-man limit. There will be close to 900 players released or placed on an injured list on the cuts to 53. There are several players battling soft tissue injuries, pectoral strains and rehabbing joints. Competition is fierce within a small window to display your talents in the preseason. The old slogan, “You can’t make the club in the tub” ripples through every NFL locker room as cutdowns near.

Thanks to the growth hormones and steroids in today’s beef and chicken, high school players are bigger, stronger and faster as they mature into young men and move on to the college level. Only two percent of college players have the skill set to develop into an NFL player. They spend the rest of their lives telling tales of high school lore, and the stories get more animated as they grow older.

The National Football League is for the elite player; grown men wearing light weight plastic, looking to decleat one another. The action is faster and extremely violent, making it more exciting for the fantasy football population, couch potatoes, and the wives that deal with the Monday morning arm chair quarterbacks sitting at home or enjoying a beer and brat among the population of NFL jerseys tailgating in stadium parking lots around the country. Meanwhile, it’s what the players are struggling with behind the scenes that rarely get any attention.

I had the opportunity to speak with Marshall Faulk, the Hall of Fame running back. The one topic that stuck with me was injury recovery. When I asked him how he was feeling since his retirement, he replied, “My body has not been the same since the second quarter of the first game of my rookie season.” Football players are at risk every time they step onto the practice field or into game action. Several suffer significant, long term and sometimes catastrophic injuries. Survival and longevity are the keys to success. So is luck.

There is nothing more sobering then watching ESPN footage of former NFL players like Curt Marsh, a childhood friend of mine and former Washington Husky teammate. Curt was drafted by the Raiders in the early 80s as an offensive lineman. Since his career ended, he’s had a procedure to amputate his right lower leg above the ankle. He is suffering from other complications after years of combat, and spends most of his days in a wheelchair. At the age of 52, he struggles to function on his own or lead a normal life. Ask yourself is it worth it.

Modern medicine has changed. Athletes are treated immediately, rehabbed and ready to go back to battle much faster than players of the 40s, 50s and 60s. The aftermath of years of service as a modern-day gladiator is not pretty. There are hip and knee replacements, strokes and death at the average age of 60, and the ongoing study of the repercussions of head trauma. Players are now donating their brains to science, and this forces me to ask, “How much do you love the game and is the risk of long-term injury really worth it?”

The NFL is the only professional league that doesn’t guarantee player salaries. This means a player is only as good as his last paycheck or contract extension. The NFL player lacks financial security that other professional athletes cherish. Players feel the pressure to make the team every day, every play, and every game. As an NFL executive told me many years ago, “Players have to perform daily and despise the label of chronic visitor to the training room, injury prone or having a low threshold of pain. Injured players, especially aged veterans, are looking over their shoulder at upper management. The money men and general managers constantly look for the younger cheaper talent that is brought in to replace older players.”

The NFLPA (National Football League Players Association) protects their clients, but teams let them go when they feel their time is up. These modern-day gladiators are pushed to the brink of muscle failure, and when you can’t perform you’re no good to them anymore. The union makes sure the players’ rights under the new CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) allow them protection despite the pressure from coaches, teammates and the front office.

The bottom line is that players must play with pain, minor injuries, broken bones, swollen joints, partially torn ligaments, or worse. They all risk long term injury. Despite receiving a better benefit package from the offseason litigation process which forced a lockout, improvement to the system of retired players took a step in the right direction.

But these gladiators all must ask themselves the same question before the new season begins.

“How much do you love the game?”

Rams Injury Update: Linebacker James Laurinaitis, pectoral strain (questionable against Jacksonville); tight end Michael Hoomanawanui will remain in St. Louis to rehab his right calf.