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Inside the NFL: Need a lift? Take a whiff. How smelling salts remain in use

Think of it as grabbing onto a live electrical wire or being splashed with ice-cold water.

That's the sensation many NFL players seek before and during every game from a little helper that can be found in all dressing rooms and bench areas throughout the league: Smelling salts.

Compact. Convenient. Just crack open a white plastic capsule, roughly the size of a small stick of gum, and take a whiff.

Readily and legally available, smelling salts long ago moved beyond their intended purpose to help in the treatment and prevention of fainting to a popular pick-me-up for athletes, especially at the collegiate and professional levels. As pointed out in a recent piece in ESPN The Magazine, their most extensive use can be found in the NFL.

Buffalo Bills players have long incorporated them into their game-day ritual. Former Bills nose tackle Fred Smerlas remembers them being extremely popular during his career, which spanned from 1979 to 1992.

"You know what it is? It's in search of something," Smerlas said by phone. "You go right up on that line. Whatever you could take (legally), you would take. I didn't really need to take anything because I was hyper and big anyway, but anything you can do that won't be detected, guys would do."

In that regard, times haven't changed. The smelling-salts routine is very much alive and well on the Bills.

"It kind of like shocks your nervous system for a second and wakes you up a little bit," veteran center Eric Wood said.

What's the tangible value? According to medical experts, there is no scientific proof that any exists.

"Does it work?" former San Diego Chargers team physician Dr. David Chao said by phone. "People can argue eye-black works. Medically and scientifically, eye-black doesn't work, but if it pumps you up and you look good and you feel good, what's really the harm?"

An unnamed former NFL athletic trainer told ESPN The Magazine that smelling salts represent "a classic, comical example of how NFL players think. If one guy does it and he has even some small bit of success with his new routine or superstition, the next week everyone will be doing it."

Players have essentially relied on anecdotal sharing of an experience – induced by the ultra-potent smell of vapors created by a mixture of ammonia and rubbing alcohol – they believe is necessary to help them survive/excel in their game. They have widely concluded that preparing for three hours of violent collisions sometimes requires a bit more than what one can do on his own.

"You've got to have an edge to you on the field," Wood said. "Or else you're at risk of either embarrassing yourself or hurting yourself."

"It's a terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible, rancid smell," said Bills defensive end Eddie Yarbrough, who discovered smelling salts as a football player at Wyoming.

Yarbrough inhales one capsule right before kickoff. He takes another hit just after halftime.

"It kind of like heightens your senses to a certain extent," Yarbrough said. "It puts you in that 'zing' mindset that you can't be relaxed. All you need is a half a sniff and it's in your nose already. Your body won't let you inhale any more than that."

"It kind of gives you a little juice," said Bills reserve offensive guard/center Ryan Groy, who also gets his smelling-salts fix just before kickoff and right after intermission. "I'm sure there are guys who use them every series before they go out. At random times, you'll see guys go up and grab one. It's kind of one of those times like, 'Alright, I need a wake-up here, I need to focus.'"

Neither the NFL nor its medical staffs officially endorse or recommend the use of smelling salts. Yet, when it comes to supplying them, the Bills, like every team in the league, are generous.

It's not uncommon for a club to go through a box of 50 during one game, with empty capsules strewn all over the ground surrounding the benches. The ESPN The Magazine article noted that more than 100 broken capsules were on the Dallas Cowboys' sideline after a game this season against the Los Angeles Rams.

And players aren't the only ones who do the inhaling.

"Coaches, trainers (do, too)," Wood said. Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis is among many NFL types who have been photographed using smelling salts.

"I don't get carried away with it," defensive tackle Kyle Williams said. "Sometimes you get out there and you get cold and (your sinuses) get stopped up. I use it more for just kind of clearing any junk I might have out rather than some kind of high or to get you going or anything like that."

Groy remembers getting his first wake-up whiff as a rookie with the Chicago Bears in 2014. He did it as part of a group effort with the rest of the Bears' offensive linemen who broke open 10 to 15 capsules and dumped them into an empty Gatorade bottle wrapped in black tape.

"You shake it up and smell it," Groy said. "That was extreme, that was wild. Everybody's screaming. It was kind of a tradition. It was fun."

He said he hasn't been part of a group smelling-salts experience since.

Other members of the Bills say they choose to avoid it all together. That includes two other senior members of the team, guard Richie Incognito and linebacker Lorenzo Alexander.

"I'm already hyped enough," Alexander said. "If I do anything that's going to take me to another level, I get exhausted. I learned that my first year in college. I came out of the tunnel screaming, yelling, 'Ahhh!' and was wore out.

"I used to see a lot of special-teamers sniffing them before they'd run down on kickoff. (They said), 'You want some of this? You want some of this?' And I said, 'Y'all are crazy.' But I guess whatever it takes, right?"

Dr. Joseph Estwanik, a fellow with the American College of Sports Medicine, doesn't agree with that logic. He thinks smelling-salts users are ignoring potential short- and long-term health risks.

The biggest possible short-term risk, according to Dr. Estwanik, is that inhaling ammonia can serve as a masking agent for concussion symptoms. He also pointed out it could mask exercise-induced asthma and change in alertness due to dehydration.

"We know, on the back of every ammonia bottle that you buy in any store, it says, 'Do not inhale fumes,'" Dr. Estwanik said by phone. "My concern is to the long-term consequences to the body. Ammonia and rubbing alcohol … we know that neither of these is appropriate to absorb into the membranes of the nose, throat or lungs."

But Dr. Chao is one medical professional who doesn't see much cause for alarm.

"If it makes them feel good, it makes them hyped up, it makes them think they're more awake, there's probably an upside to using it," he said. "But, medically, there's not much downside or upside."

Quick reads

* The NFL has just past its midpoint and, as ESPN's Adam Schefter shared in a tweet Friday, it has already has lost a number of big-name players to season-ending or possible season-ending injuries. It's the sort of staggering development that gets overlooked in discussions about the decline in the overall quality of play and sagging television ratings.

The most recent hit to the league's dwindling list of marquee talent came Thursday night when Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman sustained a ruptured Achilles against the Arizona Cardinals.

The rest of the list, which includes players who never saw the field during the regular season, goes as follows so far: Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson, Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck, Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill, New York Giants wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr., and Brandon Marshall, Chicago Bears tight end Zach Miller, Philadelphia Eagles offensive tackle Jason Peters, Cleveland Browns offensive tackle Joe Thomas, Baltimore Ravens offensive guard Marshall Yanda, Houston defensive end JJ Watt, Houston outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus, Kansas City safety Eric Berry, Minnesota running back Dalvin Cook, Arizona running back David Johnson, Philadelphia running back Darren Sproles, New England wide receiver Julian Edelman, and Jacksonville wide receiver Allen Robinson.

*Add Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin to the NFL players who are speaking out about wanting to do away with Thursday Night Football. Besides Sherman, the Seahawks had other players injured against the Cardinals. And Baldwin believes the short week of preparation is a factor.

"This (expletive) should be illegal," Baldwin was quoted as saying in The News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash. "It is not OK, it’s not OK. You can quote me on that."

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