NFL Player Uses Cupping to Cope

By: Peter Gwin

Photographer: Fritz Hoffmann

New England Patriots linebacker James Harrison knows about pain—KNOWS about it. For more than two decades, he has been delivering and receiving crushing blows on football fields. The violence has taken its toll, including a serious back injury six years ago that required multiple surgeries. Nevertheless, Sunday night, at age 39, he will step onto the field for Super Bowl LII as the reigning oldest defensive player in professional football.

Last spring, photographer Fritz Hoffmann and I visited him in Arizona to document his offseason workouts (lots of power lifts) and meticulous health routine (no alcohol, refined sugar, or processed carbs). In between his mammoth weightlifting sessions, we asked him his secret for playing such a brutal game at such a high level for so long. “Ain’t no damn secret, man. HARD WORK, lots of hard work!”

Well that, and a lot of attention to caring for his body. Harrison said he spends about $350,000 a year employing a team of specialists, including massage therapists, acupuncturists, and chiropractors, who help manage the punishment his body endures. (He noted that it’s a tax-deductible business expense.)

His interest in alternative treatments goes back to his childhood. “I was in a car accident when I was about eight or nine. It messed something up, knocked me out of alignment. My father’s boss’s brother was a chiropractor, and I started going to see him. I’ve seen a chiropractor from that point through the rest of my life.” Over the years he’s tried several different chiropractors. “I can tell as soon as a new guy puts his hands on me if he knows what’s he’s doing,” said Harrison.

His current chiropractor lives in Denver, and Harrison flies him in twice a week during the season for treatments. He also flies in Lisa Ripi, an acupuncturist from New York, and Codi Hoos, a massage therapist based in Tempe who uses cupping, an ancient therapy practiced for centuries in China. Plastic cups are placed over certain muscles, and little plungers on the cups allow the air to be sucked out creating a vacuum that pulls blood out of the muscles and leaves round, crimson bruises on his skin. The combination of all the different treatments, Harrison said, reduces muscle soreness and allows his body to bounce back quicker from his intense workouts and practice sessions.

I mentioned to Harrison that scientists are skeptical about chiropractic treatments, cupping, and some of the other therapies he uses. Harrison shrugged. “All I know is before I get treated, I HURT, and after, I feel better.”

His teammate quarterback Tom Brady is also a believer in what many consider alternative medicine. A year older and among the NFL’s oldest offensive players, Brady employs his own strict diet and regimen of therapies. These, he has said, have allowed him to keep competing past the age when most players’ bodies break down.

“Some guys do some of the things I do,” said Harrison. “Some don’t. Players try different things. You have to find what works for your body and be committed,” said Harrison. “Guys come to me and tell me they want to do what I do. I tell them the price, and they say, ‘I’m not going to give someone $10,000 for a season of treatments.’ But they’ll run their ass to the club and drop $5,000 or $10,000 on a table,” he shakes his head. “And you can’t write that off.”