The story of Nathan Horton is a sad one, to say the last. The 29-year-old Columbus Blue Jackets winger has likely played his last hockey game thanks to a degenerative back injury that has been causing him constant pain.
Horton first noticed a problem with his back when he was rehabbing a shoulder injury right around the time the Blue Jackets inked him to a seven year contract worth $37.1 million. This was in July of 2013 and he didn’t play a game for Columbus until January 2 of 2014 when he scored the game-winning goal in his club’s 2-0 victory over the Coyotes.
Horton assumed things would loosen up in his back, but that wasn’t the case. He even caused himself a groin injury as he adapted his skating style to accommodate for his back, so it was back to the drawing board once more.
And now, it’s reached a breaking point.
“I can’t stand up like a normal person; I can’t bend over,” Horton told the Columbus Dispatch. “I can’t run. I can’t play with my kids. To get in and out of the car, I’m like a 75-year-old man…so slow and stiff. I can’t sleep at night. I try to lay down and my back seizes up and I can’t move, so sleeping is out. I’m like a zombie in the daytime.”
In order to repair the injury and have any hope of walking or just living normally again, Horton will need to have at least three of the five vertebrae in his lumbar region fused with a titanium rod. The trouble with this mobility-saving procedure is that it restricts the mobility and flexibility of the lower back, which in turn makes it nearly impossible to be a hockey player.
“We get our regular patients back to a point where they can swim and be active and live normal lives. But playing a competitive sport — especially one like hockey with the body checks and the hitting — that is not something that’s going to happen,” said Dr. Safdar Khan, chief of the division of spine surgery at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center.
For a person in constant pain, one has to imagine that the surgery is the only option here. Horton hasn’t made the final call, but in all likelihood he’s seen his last hockey game.
“I don’t want to have surgery, because of what that means,” Horton said. “I don’t want to live with this pain, but I don’t want to make that decision. It’s hard for me to say that, at 29 years old, I’m done. I mean, really? Done at 29?”
Horton never had a history of back problems and this degenerative condition really did seem to come out of nowhere. When he signed with the Blue Jackets, he passed the routine physical. When he played with the Bruins, there were no problems. And now?
“I couldn’t get my socks on,” Horton said. “I could barely tie my skates. But I’ve played through stuff my whole career. I kept going.”
Hockey is, like other sports, the sort of bizarre ritualistic “thing” where playing through the pain is almost a given. Players like Sidney Crosby are called “sissies” by bloodthirsty fans for taking the time to heal properly. But for Horton, there are few options. He faces a lifetime of debilitating pain that will inhibit his ability to play hockey or a lifetime without hockey.
Done at 29.