Inside linebackers typically are regarded as some of the toughest players in a violent sport — warriors who play through pain and deliver crushing hits in blood-stained jerseys.

Air Force junior Ken Lamendola only enhanced that reputation last season.

Lamendola revealed this week that he played almost the entire 2008 campaign — from Week 2 on — with a separated shoulder and a hernia. And in a season that served as an ode to throw-back tough guys such as Dick Butkus, Sam Huff and Jack Lambert, he started every game and made a team-high 118 tackles.

“Kenny’s biggest strength is his grit,” Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said. “He padded up and he went.”

Not that it wasn’t painful.

“It sucked,” Lamendola said. “Especially filling a fullback head-on. I’d try not to think about it, but it’s there. You know it’s coming.”

Those close to Lamendola left the decision about whether to play up to him.

“My dad (Jerry) — he’s a foot surgeon — he told me, ‘It’s your body, you know how it is, you know your limitations, you have to be the one to make that call,’” Lamendola said. “And (then-team doctor) Dr. (J.T.) Tokish said the same thing.”

To Lamendola, missing games “wasn’t an option.”

That meant missing practice wasn’t optional either, as Calhoun mandates players must practice to participate in games.

So Lamendola wore a brace on his injured shoulder and a compression wrap around his waist and went on the field week after week. Between games he had to do alternative training because, “I couldn’t even bench more than 225 (pounds), if that,” he said.

Lamendola had to wait for an ankle sprain — suffered in the bowl game — to heal before he underwent shoulder and hernia surgery. Recovering from those procedures kept him out of spring practices, “but it’s worth it now because I feel a lot better”.

Not that feeling bad would keep him off the field.

“At inside ‘backer, everybody around you better look and say, ‘They don’t come any tougher than that guy,’” Calhoun said.

They can say that about Lamendola.