QB Chris Simms first began to suspect something more serious than heat exhaustion in the last two minutes of the September 24 game
Chris Simms smiles a lot, more than most, and perhaps now we know why. The man is an absolute champion at locating the silver lining.
For instance, his reaction to having his spleen surgically removed after it was ruptured in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers game against the Carolina Panthers on September 24: That's one less organ he has to worry about injuring in the future.
"Why not play - I can't hurt my spleen again," laughed Simms, when asked if he would like to return to the field this season. "I feel good about that. That's one less thing I can hurt. If I, over the next few weeks, feel like I'm on the right track and my body's responding well and I can get back into shape, I'm never going to turn down playing football. I love it too much."
Obviously, Simms' spleen injury and subsequent splenectomy is no laughing matter, and the fourth-year quarterback spent 25 thoughtful minutes discussing the issue on Thursday during his first public appearance since his surgery. But neither is the situation one that has dimmed his trademark smile or left him fearful of continuing his career.
Simms went into surgery quickly after arriving at the nearby St. Joseph's Hospital on Sunday evening and didn't awaken until 3:30 on Monday morning. He did not, at that waking moment or in any of the hours that followed, find himself preoccupied with the ordeal he had just endured.
"No, I can't say that I was," said Simms. "I realize that it was a dangerous situation, but I'm just not the type of person that thinks like that. I try to stay in a positive frame of mind always. I think any athlete is probably that way. We don't think about what could have happened or what might have happened. All I know is I'm here and I'm feeling better every day. We'll go from here."
Simms also does not feel as if any portion of that game or the performance of the Buccaneers' medical staff could have been handled any better. After answering a string of questions to that effect, he even finished his press conference on Thursday with a final, unsolicited round of thanks to everyone who helped with his treatment.
"First of all, I would like to thank everybody in the Buccaneers organization," he said. "The support my teammates have given me, the people in the front office, it's been unreal. I want to thank Dr. [Joseph] Diaco, for one, for making the diagnosis [and] for getting me over there when he did. It was a tough situation for him and he made the right call and I'm healthy and that's the bottom line."
Since Simms' injury was internal, it is difficult for anyone, including him, to establish a precise timeline for when and how badly he was hurt. Simms believes his problems began when he took a sandwich hit from two Carolina defenders while throwing the ball away on the Buccaneers' second possession, but isn't sure if there was any internal bleeding until much later in the game. Though he was uncomfortable to varying degrees throughout the game, Simms didn't suspect anything more serious than heat exhaustion or bruised ribs until late in the fourth quarter.
"Until the fourth quarter there, late in the fourth quarter, it wasn't the worst pain I had had [in a football game]," he said. "I felt banged up. No, I didn't feel great, but not until the fourth quarter, the last minute-and-a-half, two minutes of the fourth quarter, was I really starting to feel really painful and really out of it."
Simms headed off the field and straight to the training room when the game ended, having begun to suspect something more pressing in the closing minutes. Diaco, the team physician, examined him again at that point and, after pressing on Simms' stomach, indicated for the first time that it could be a spleen injury. Diaco immediately summoned an ambulance; his actions were lauded by the physicians at the hospital, who confirmed the injury with a CAT scan and sent Simms immediately into surgery.
"All of them pretty much said that it was a great thing that Dr. Diaco caught it when he did," said Simms. "Because it was getting very close to being an extremely dangerous situation. After that CAT scan and I heard the urgency in the doctors' voices, I knew there was something pretty wrong. Even on TV, you don't hear people say, 'We're going into surgery in 15 or 20 minutes.' I knew I was beat up at that point."
Simms is still in the early stages of recovery, having just been released from the hospital six days ago. He was fed intravenously for a week and is still finding it difficult to maintain a high energy level. He is putting off serious consideration of whether he can play again this year until he has had a few weeks to feel how his body is recovering.
For the moment, the important thing is that he feels healthy. The most significant long-term effect of the splenectomy is that he will now need to update his vaccinations every year for the rest of his life. The effects on his confidence, happiness or feelings about football? There don't appear to be any.
If anything, Simms is smiling even more these days, in part because of the support he received from the community during his ordeal. The second half of Simms' closing statement on Thursday was directed appreciatively at Buccaneer fans.
"I would like to thank all of the Buccaneer fans out there," he said. "The flowers, the food, the candy, all the letters and cards that people have sent me – unreal. I can't tell you how much it meant to me, especially at a time where I was just sitting in a hospital bed. Things like that, believe it or not, do cheer your day up. I was of course pretty bored and it was fun to sit there and read some of these nice things people had to say to me. So I definitely want to thank the Buccaneer fans."
(To read Simms' open letter directly to the fans, click here.)