Stretched out on a massage table in his Long Island City condominium, Jets fullback Tony Richardson closed his eyes. Over the next hour, he groaned and grimaced and eventually fell asleep, as Lisa Ripi, the traveling N.F.L. acupuncturist, went to work.
Ripi poked and prodded Richardson on a recent Tuesday, using blue and pink needles, until his body resembled a road map marked with 120 destinations. “SportsCenter” provided mood music. Afterward, Richardson said his soreness had mostly vanished.
“They always tell me I’m their little secret,” Ripi said. “I feel like the little mouse who takes the thorns out of their feet.”
Professional football players partake in a violent game, and as the season progresses, they spend more time in training rooms than on practice fields. They visit chiropractors and massage therapists, practice yoga, undergo electronic stimulation and nap in hyperbaric chambers.
Yet relatively few receive acupuncture, which brings smiles to the faces of Ripi’s clients. They remain fiercely territorial. They fight over Fridays because it is closest to their games. They accuse one another of hogging, or trying to steal her.
All swear by Ripi’s technique, which she described as closer to Japanese-style acupuncture than to traditional Chinese methods. She focuses less on established points and more on sore areas, using needles to increase blood flow, relaxing muscles tightened in the weight room.
Players say her sessions are their most important treatment. They feel more loose, more flexible. Richardson finds acupuncture uncomfortable but said it made an immediate 10 percent difference. For sculptured bodies tuned like racecars, 10 percent constitutes a significant improvement.
As Pittsburgh linebacker James Farrior said: “I’m not the same if I don’t have it. It’s like getting the game plan. You can’t go into the week without either one.”
Ripi, 46, travels at least 20 days each month during the season, treating 40 players on five teams (the Ripi Division: Jets, Giants, Steelers, Bengals and Dolphins). She flies to Miami on Sunday, Pittsburgh on Monday, New York on Tuesday, Cincinnati on Wednesday, back to Pittsburgh on Thursday and back to New York on Friday. She works 96 hours a week and naps mostly on airplanes. By Friday, even her assistant sends “hate texts,” Ripi said.
In 13 years of working with N.F.L. players, Ripi said proudly, she never missed an appointment. She did miss dozens of holidays, did have three marriages end in divorce, did make abundantly clear her first priority.
“Think of the impact she has every Sunday,” Richardson said. “And it’s funny, because she’s not really a football fan, or really recognized. But we know her importance.”
Raised in a traditional Italian family on Long Island, Ripi lived in a healthy household, at the directive of her father, John: no white bread, no soda and an abundance of vitamins.
Ripi took a winding path into acupuncture: art school, aerobics instruction, massage therapy and body building, in which she qualified for several national competitions. Despite standing 5 feet 3 inches, she squatted and dead-lifted 250 pounds.
In 1996, a friend suggested that acupuncture would alleviate Ripi’s shoulder pain, and after two sessions, it disappeared. So Ripi went to school for acupuncture and Chinese pharmacology and finished the five-year program in four years.
Soon after, while visiting another friend in Costa Rica, Ripi met the actor Woody Harrelson, who asked for treatment “posthaste,” she said. She slipped a business card into Harrelson’s luggage, which led to two years of traveling with and treating him, and to other celebrity clients like the singer Mariah Carey.
Back in New York in March 1998, Ripi was referred to Jumbo Elliott, an injured offensive tackle for the Jets. She knew nothing about football and assumed Elliott was a body builder until she saw his Jets memorabilia. He later offered to take her to training camp and introduce her to his teammates.
Players require individualized treatment. Steelers linebacker James Harrison takes more than 300 needles, and Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora begs for fewer than 40. Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis hates needles and grips the table as if under attack.
Ripi views the players more as brothers than clients. She saw the world with Cincinnati linebacker Dhani Jones for his Travel Channel show. She stores tables at the players’ houses; travels to training camps, Super Bowls and Pro Bowls; works every Christmas and Thanksgiving. Ripi’s services are not cheap. She charges $220 for one treatment or $1,200 each day, and expenses.
She spends roughly 12 hours each Thursday treating at least 10 players at Farrior’s house, where the Steelers hold their men’s “spa night” featuring acupuncture. Ripi cooks dinner for them, and they play cards while they wait turns. She starts with nose tackle Casey Hampton at 3:30 p.m. and finishes with Harrison roughly 12 hours later.
Ripi can tell the position each plays simply on the location of the pain: wide receiver (legs, shoulders), offensive lineman (elbows, back), quarterback (throwing shoulder), defensive lineman (back), running back (hamstring).
On Sundays, she sometimes watches football. But Ripi’s clients often face one another, prompting conflicting emotions, especially when a defensive client mauls an offensive client, and she ponders how she will treat the resulting pain.
Depending on their tolerance (or honesty), players described acupuncture as painful, slightly painful or not painful; as a pinch or a burning sensation. They said the groin and the back of the knee hurt the most. Jets offensive tackle Damien Woody said, “She’s kind of lethal with it.”
Ripi performs a combination of massage with acupuncture to relax players and find sore spots and trigger points. She does use established points, too, to increase the flow of what she called stuck blood. This season, Revis went to Ripi for his injured hamstring, and she stuck one needle atop his head.
“She might hit a nerve, and you might get a zap,” Jones said. “Or she’ll put one in your groin, and pain might shoot into the big toe.”
Recently, Deadspin reported that Ripi oversaw the Jets’ massage therapist program when two therapists were sent inappropriate text messages from the former quarterback Brett Favre. The Web site said Ripi urged the therapists to remain silent. Ripi declined to comment on the report, but she is considering hiring a lawyer. (She does not oversee the massage program.)
Her clients wonder why most teams ignore less traditional methods like acupuncture, with all that they invest in healing players’ battered bodies. Farrior, wearing his team president hat, said he would require it.
Ripi says that more teams and athletes across all sports will eventually turn to acupuncture. Her clients do not seem so sure. Some teams do not even have massage therapists or nutritionists on staff, Jones said. But Ripi has faith because she still treats retired players, because even front-office types like Bill Parcells tried her table, because, she insisted, acupuncture works.
John Ripi described his daughter as softhearted and giving, and over the years, he learned to accept her absence at family gatherings. He came to understand how all the dots connected, from Harrelson in the jungle, to Thursday nights at Farrior’s house, to a life spent healing football players without fanfare. “I take what I do seriously,” Ripi said. “It’s a euphoric, spontaneous feeling. They come first. Before anyth ing. Before me.” With that, Ripi went home to pack. The traveling N.F.L. acupuncturist had a flight to catch.