The clock is ticking for Columbus Blue Jackets forward Nathan Horton. Currently contending with a degenerative back injury that has left him unable to play this season, Horton may have to make a decision about whether or not to have a surgery that would effectively end his career. The veteran forward opened up about his ordeal for the first time in an interview with Aaron Portzline of the Columbus Dispatch.
According to Portzline, Horton is enduring “a living hell” while dealing with constant pain that leaves him unable to many everyday things.
“I can’t stand up like a normal person; I can’t bend over,” Horton said in his first public comments about his condition. “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.”
But the alternative to dealing with such misery is just as awful. Horton could have surgery to relieve the pain, but the procedure — likely a three- or four-level spinal fusion with a titanium rod — would mean the end of his NHL career at only 29 years old.
“I don’t want to have surgery, because of what that means,” Horton said, his voice breaking behind a smile. “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’s choice is an unenviable one. He is supposed to be in the second season of a seven-year, $37.1 million contract. At 29 years old, he should still have some great years ahead of him and was viewed as a huge piece to the Blue Jackets’ puzzle. Walking away is so much easier said than done.
Having the surgery would be expected to bring relief to the constant pain Horton has been dealing with. But after he has it, there’s no going back. The finality of that decision is one that Horton is obviously and unsurprisingly wrestling with. He deserves the chance to take as much time as he needs to make the final call one way or another.
According to Horton, this issue basically came out of nowhere while he was rehabbing his shoulder from surgery the fall after he signed with the Blue Jackets. He played in only 35 games last season while dealing with the shoulder rehab and a groin injury later in the year.
If Horton can no longer play, he couldn't retire either, at least not officially. If he did, the cap recapture penalties would significantly impact the Blue Jackets and Horton wouldn't receive the money he is owed after signing the contract last fall. He could be placed on long-term injured reserve each year to keep his $5.3 million annual average salary off of the cap, but he'd still get paid.
The Blue Jackets have been going through a tumultuous season overall when it comes to injuries. In addition to Horton’s mysterious condition, the team has lost several key players at various points this year due to injuries. They still have a long line of notable players sitting out.
But when it come to someone’s quality of life, what is going on with the team seems trivial. These athletes are human, their bodies can break and sometimes they break well before they were ever supposed to.
But Horton hasn’t stopped hoping for a better outcome than calling it a career.
“I’m not giving up,” Horton told the Dispatch. “I still feel young other than my back. As long as I can hold off the surgery, I feel like there’s a chance. A chance for something. A miracle. Something.”
Horton may need a miracle, but hopefully whatever decision he makes will be in his best long-term interest and one that he can be at peace with. This sounds like just a miserable ordeal.