With the San Francisco 49ers in pursuit of a second straight Super Bowl appearance, the team has taken care of all the bumps and bruises, stresses and strains needed to take on quarterback Cam Newton and the dreaded Carolina Panthers on Sunday.
But as a howling flu bug advances across the country like a Colin Kaepernick-led touchdown drive, the Niners are just as cautious about viral germs that can transform swift, muscular maulers into weak, washed-out wimps.
"If I see someone on the team even sniffling," said starting free safety and avid hand-washer Eric Reid, "I will step back and walk around them and hope I don't hurt their feelings." He openly confesses to taking hot showers before and after spending time in the team's therapeutic ice tubs. "I learned my lesson about germs at the beginning of the season when I got sick from my daughter. Never again."
During this do-or-die playoff run, all of the Niners coaches, trainers, medicos and players are as dedicated to avoiding the flu as they are to dodging flying tacklers. Every player received an influenza vaccine at the facility last month.
However, the best defense these days inside the training camp in Santa Clara are the countless bottles of hand sanitizer -- in the cafeteria, locker room, meeting rooms, classrooms and on numerous desks. Even inside the team's massive, bodybuilding cathedral, where thousands of sweaty football muscles explode daily, stacks of steel machines surround a slender 5-foot pedestal holding a dispenser of Purell.
While a giant sign above roars, "As Iron Sharpens Iron, So One Man Sharpens Another," a tiny one on the dispenser boldly whispers, "Healthy hands start here."
Ask fullback Will Tukuafu about his personal anti-flu protocol, and he instantly whips out tiny packages of Emergen-C.
"I mainline three of these for breakfast, lunch and dinner," he explained about the 0.3 ounce powder that promises to transform a glass of water into 1,000 milligrams of vitamin C. "I also get serious with saunas, steam, and I get plenty of other fluids moving through my body. In the playoffs, you've got to suck it up. No matter how sick you get, you've got to get back to work."
Of course, Michael Jordan's famous "Flu Game," during the 1997 NBA Championship Finals, lives in the annals of incredible, competitive feats. The wobbly and miserably sick Chicago Bulls star broke open a gridlocked series against the Utah Jazz with an astonishing 44-minute gut check that included 38 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals and 1 block.
But after surviving last week's minus-14 degree (wind chill) polar vortex game in Green Bay, along with the worrisome return of the H1N1 swine flu, coach Jim Harbaugh doesn't want to take a chance on requiring a Jordanesque performance from a sick player. It's every coach's concern this time of year.
"If someone shows even a sign of being sick, we'll separate them from the rest of the group," said Scott Shaw, director of sports medicine at San Jose State University. "Just last week, we had a (varsity) kid who seemed like he was getting the flu, and we ordered him to sit up in the stands and watch basketball practice. He felt better the next day, but because he was having stomach issues, we didn't know if it was food poisoning or the flu. Our policy is let's be cautious and see what happens."
Even with something like the flu -- which can be deadly -- determined athletes may be able to hide how they are feeling. So trainers and doctors must keep close watch and ask: How significant is your illness? What are your symptoms? Do you have a fever? Are you dehydrated? Is there vomiting and diarrhea?
The Niners also urge athletes to be forthcoming with information as soon as possible. As guard Mike Iupati put it, "Dude, go see the doctor and go home to rest. We need you for Sunday."
Placekicker Phil Dawson, a cold-weather guru honed by years playing in Cleveland, tells his new teammates to heed "the stuff dear ol' mom taught you when you were a kid," including good nutrition, plenty of fluids and adequate bed rest. "If everyone on the team does those things, we always have a fighting chance."
As of Friday, when the Niners flew east, the team had not detected any problems with flu, but caution was practiced by everyone on the campus that now sits in the shadow of Levi's Stadium, sprouting ever skyward.
"Don't shake my hand," Harry Edwards said at practice this week as he was meeting someone new. The famed sociologist and consultant to the Niners, cognizant of Sunday's stakes, said, "give me a little fist bump instead, because I don't want to spread my sniffle germs to you or anyone else out here."
Contact David E. Early at 408-920-5836.