Sports Columnist Bryan Burwell

On Sundays it always looks so beautiful.

From the safe distance of stadium seats or a family room couch, the NFL looks like a well-choreographed but tolerably violent bit of athletic artistry. It is a thing of beauty the way tailbacks and receivers dabble in their highly skilled, space-seeking acts of avoidance and the big-bodied linemen and linebackers indulge in their endless slam dances at the line of scrimmage.

On Sundays in the NFL, we all oooh and ahhhh.

But if you want to know what the NFL is really like, you need to stroll through the halls of an NFL training complex on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and see the men who play this brilliantly violent game. It doesn't look so beautiful at midweek. These are the days when their well-muscled bodies go through the incredible physical aftershock of Sunday's endless collisions.

On Wednesdays and Thursdays, the players wince and limp.

"My body doesn't stop aching until Thursday," Leonard Little said as he sat in front of his locker stall at Rams Park. "People don't have any idea what sort of damage is done to our bodies during those games and how long it takes us every week to get to feeling normal again."

The toughest daily test for pro football's battle-weary athletes is finding a way to determine whether their bodies are sufficiently healed enough to be put to another Sunday test. No matter how badly we think we understand what sort of physical toll they endure, or how quickly they should be able to muster up some tough-guy persona that lets them play through those aches and pains, it ain't that simple.

"Anyone could be tough in someone else's body," tailback Steven Jackson said when someone questioned why he wouldn't be able to play through the pain of a right thigh bruise he suffered near the end of this week's 34-14 victory over the Dallas Cowboys, and be ready to rumble this Sunday against the New England Patriots.

Jackson knows how important he is to the Rams' fortunes. He understands clearly that this is a dramatically better football team when a healthy Steven Jackson is the offense's primary weapon. He knows what is at stake if he can find a way to get back on the field at or near full strength in time for Sunday's showdown on the road.

So on Thursday, for the second consecutive day, Jackson spent most of the two-hour practice in a training room pool trying to heal those battered muscles in his bruised thigh. He said he felt a lot better Thursday than he did on Wednesday, and probably three times better than he did four days earlier when he walked out of the Edward Jones Dome locker room with a stiff-legged gait.

But as badly as a desperate public might want him to miraculously heal and suit up for that Patriots game, Jackson is trying to remove emotion from the equation as he tries to see whether his leg is good to go. "I'm going to try to be there," he said Thursday as he sat in the equipment room munching on a snack. "But we'll have to wait and see."

In other words, Jackson wants to give his tender leg all the time it needs to return to 100 percent effectiveness. If it takes seven days, so be it. If it takes 10, that's what it will be. I know he wants to keep this thing rolling, because he is on one of those unconscious athletic spurts that ballplayers often dream of. Over the last three games, he's averaging almost 5 yards a carry and 116 yards on the ground, and he wants to keep that going, and help the team keep its two-game winning streak alive.

But here's what I don't know. I don't know whether he should play or not because I'm not in his body or in his head. Off the field, he doesn't strike me as one of those kamikaze risk-takers who have no problem sacrificing their bodies for the good of the team. He appears to be a more pragmatic soul who carefully ponders each decision without any rah-rah emotion.

Either way though, it should always be left up to him. And luckily for Jackson, his head coach — a former NFL wild man by the way — agrees. "I think it has to be up to (the player) whether he feels good enough, because I'm not in his body and I can't tell what he's feeling," said Jim Haslett. "And every position is different. (If a lineman) breaks a finger, obviously they can play. (But) if a running back hurts a leg, it's a little different. That's why they call them running backs, because they run all the time. If it was an arm or something, it would be different. Really, I trust (Jackson's) judgment, or (any) player's judgment, and then the medical staff and you go from there."

Some players are willing to take the risk because they have that kamikaze streak in them, or they live in a world where there's a constant fear that someone is lurking not too far away to take their job. I understand both psychologies, because that's a harsh reality of the cold-blooded business of the NFL. You are always an injury away from a wicked descent from NFL starter to the weekly inactive list.

But fear should never force an athlete into a foolish — or career-threatening — mistake. Don't be stupid. Don't be an irrational hero who rushes back too soon, then suffers a more severe injury that jeopardizes the rest of the season, or the rest of your football life.

There should be only one standard that applies when it comes to an athlete deciding what are the risks and rewards for suiting up on Sundays, and those standards should always be internal, never external. And no one should ever indulge in measuring the size of an athlete's heart by his willingness or resistance to making that ultimate physical sacrifice.