The NFL: Where Neglecting Ex-Players Happens

Steven ResnickSenior Writer IJuly 2, 2009

The NFL has always been known for the violent hits, and in certain cases devastating injuries. In most cases, when a big hit happens, the player that gets hit usually is able to get up, some get up slower, some need assistance from teammates, and others may need a stretcher to be taken to an ambulance.  

So, would it be safe to say that the NFL would treat their former players well? Certainly it would make sense, because the NFL is one of the better-earning major professional sportsbut it couldn't be further from the truth.

I stumbled on an article titled "Casualties of the NFL" by Paul Solotaroff, who writes for Men's Journal and was in the book I recently purchased titled The Best American Sports Writing 2008.

It begins by using the example of Brian DeMarco, who's 6'7" and 323 pounds, according to the article as well as DeMarco played the first four years of his career with the Jacksonville Jaguars and his last year in the league with the Cincinnati Bengals, which was in 1999.

DeMarco was a pulling guard for the Bengals, and he not only could run well, but he was very strong, bench pressing 500 pounds.

The story furthers details on one fateful day that ended the NFL career of DeMarco, he was the lead blocker for Corey Dillon. He was set to deliver a hit on the incoming linebacker, but Dillon tripped and fell into the back of DeMarco's legs, pinning his knees to the turf. 

He started falling forward when the linebacker he was going after lowered his helmet and drove right through him. Thus, his chest was still going downfield and his hips were going upfield, practically knocking him in two pieces.

DeMarco says in the article, "I heard the pop in my back as I was going down and just felt this pain like I never felt before. I'm at the bottom of the pile under a thousand pound of guys and I'm thinking, 'I'm never getting up. I'll never walk again.'"

The Bengals trainers got him to the sideline after the incident and got him on a bench where the trainers tested his legs. He wasn't paralyzed, but was not able to sit up.

More disturbing is what happened next and that is the team doctor took out a four-inch needle, hiked up his uniform and injected DeMarco with lidocaine. After that, DeMarco got up because lidocaine is designed to numb the affected area, and he went back into the game.

Yet, re-entering the game meant that he was coming in with bits of his spine that had been broken on the play.

That was eight years ago, and now DeMarco is living in Austin, TX. He is now dirt-poor and can never find a comfortable position to sit or lay down because it causes him agonizing pain.

Painting an even more disturbing picture is what happens next in the article. Jennifer Smith was invited by DeMarco's wife, Autumn. She looks around and can barely believe her eyes. She says "there was no food in the house, and I mean none—not a box of mac and cheese or a can of tuna. Brian and Autumn hadn't eaten in a couple of days and between them had seventy-five cents. Total."

Gridiron Greats is an organization that has developed recently. It was created to help care for ex-football players whose injuries have left them in despair, and in this case this is why Smith flew in on such short notice to assist the Demarco's.

She had the ability to give DeMarco $2,500 to replenish the food supply and when the bank opened (she came in on a weekend), she was able to give thousands more.

I've got to say the article does an amazing job of going into depth of not just DeMarco but other players that the NFL has turned their back on.

Terry Long and Andre Waters committed suicide, one at 44 years of age and the other at the age of 45. Justin Strzelczyk died in a car crash at 36 years of age, and Mike Webster had a heart attack at 50.

When the brains of these former players were scanned, it showed staggering amounts of brain damage.

The NFL Players Association (NFLPA) takes in over $7 billion. Yet fewer than three percent of the men who played in the league receive disability benefits even though there are over $1 billion in assets.

Earl Campbell is only 52 but has to rely on a walker to get around. Al Toon ended his career after suffering his ninth concussion, and Wayne Chrebet retired in 2005 with concussion issues. Chrebet is still debilitated by the headaches caused from the concussions in his playing days.

Jim Ringo, Mick Tinglehof, and Webster suffered from severe dementia as young men.

The difference in today's game is huge. Around 20 years ago the average weight of an offensive linemen was 280 pounds and they could play into their 30s. Today the average linemen is 320 plus pounds and averages only three and a half seasons.

Darryl Johnston states, "When I broke my neck doing what I was trained to do, the league and union told me to get lost. The second I couldn't play I was dead meat to them. It was 'so long, see you later, and don't call us.'"

This is in reference to the fact that Johnston was looking to file for disability but was turned down by the retirement board.

Even Mike Ditka admits that it was tough when he played, as well. "I took cortisone injections three times a week and had four hip replacements after I quit the game, but that's football, and we chose to play hurt.

"We paid the price and thought the game would pay us back, but the league and union sold us out. In every sport, you've got your adversaries. I never thought we'd have to fight our own."

Ditka has also joined forces with the Gridiron Greats, founded by Jerry Kramer who serves as board of director. Sitting on the board is also Gayle Sayers, Harry Carson, Joe DeLamieulleure, and others.

Its purpose is to raise awareness of what the Players Association is doing to ex-players. Joe Montana states, "the NFL is the worst-represented league, on the players' side, in pro sports."

Ditka claims, "There's so much money in this goddamn game, and no one gives a shit about these guys. Bill Forrester's attached to a feeding tube, Joe Perry has to choose between eating and pain pills, and here's this Upshaw, with his $6.7 million salary, saying there's no dough left to help them out.

"That's greed talking, and nothing else." He adds, "It's criminal."

Gene Upshaw refused to speak to Solotaroff regarding the article. When Congress staged a hearing about the union's treatment of injured veterans in late June, he responded like a little kid calling Ditka too "dumb" to understand this issue and threatening to break DeLamieuller's neck.

He also elected to leave the country when Congress wanted to speak with him. What does that say about Upshaw?

There was an exhaustive investigation. It included countless interviews with injured ex-players, a look at their medical charts, reports from doctors selected by the league, and conversations with critics of the Players Association in the medical and legal community.

The findings showed that the pattern of conduct by the NFLPA denies former players the money they need and are entitled to. The NFLPA has painted a very bad picture of themselves by turning their backs on the men who built the NFL up in the first place.

Back to DeMarco, who can list names of players who were gone from the league: Tony Boselli, who played left tackle, gone at 29 after surgeries on his knee, shoulder, and ankle; Leon Searcy, right tackle, leg woes and waived at 32; Jeff Novac, left guard, retired at 31 after playing on a leg that bled, but won $5 million due to the doctor who performed surgery on him.

DeMarco states that the trainers were the ones that put the wood to the players. "They handed out these big, long packets of vicodin always hassling you with, 'You playing? You're playing right?' And that wasn't even on game day. That was Wednesday practice."

What's amazing though is what happened in 1997. In a game, DeMarco knocked down Tony Siragusa of the Baltimore Ravens. Siragusa was on his back, one leg planted in the turf, when DeMarco was slammed sideways by someone behind him and landed on Siragusa's upturned knee.

DeMarco shattered three ribs and two dislodged from the cartilage. He was carried off the field and was barely able to breathe because of the pain.

DeMarco states, "The doctor took this needle, filled it up with lidocaine, put a towel in my mouth saying, 'This'll burn.' He stuck that four-inch needle up under my rib cage—six big shots from my rib cage to spine, and suddenly I couldn't feel a damn thing. They wrapped up my ribs, which were sticking out sideways and sent me back in on the same series."

He further explains, "Anytime a crowd's gathered around on the sideline, they're doing something they don't want you to see."

Dave Pear states the same thing but that was back in the '70s. In a game against Seattle in '79, he took a hit that felt like "lightning" down his spine. Pear says, "I came over to the sideline and the team doctor—his nickname was Needles—sends me back in the game.

"He says I had a broken neck, and I was in agony the rest of the season; but he said I was a hypochondriac and there was nothing wrong with me, and host me up with whatever he said I needed."

It turns out that Pear needed seven surgeries on his upper and lower spine. He is not able to work and can barely earn a living when he could work. Pear had two young children but he was not able to take care of them and had to send them back to their mothers.

In 1983 was the first time Pear attempted to apply for NFL disability, and he was approved by the physician the league sent him to. Yet Dee Becker, a union claims representative, that he brought too much "information" to the examining room (basically stating he influenced the doctor).

His claim was denied.

In '95 he tried once more, this time under a new class of claims which meant permanent and degenerative conditions. Like the other time he applied, he had a slam-dunk medical case. The league's appointed doctor again found him suitable for disability, but again Pear was denied.

Pear asked, "What do you have to be to be considered disabled?" Becker responds by saying, "Unless you're in a wheelchair like Darryl Stingley, you won't get the benefit."

With nowhere else to turn, Pear took out his pension early and now gets $600 a month from the NFL for his six years of back-breaking service.

Mike Mosley cannot even put a roof over his head. A doctor botched his surgery. He was a returner and flanker with blazing speed—he ran a 4.28 40-yard dash.

The doctor who treated Mosley fixed the cartilage that Mosley tore, but did not repair the ligament which eventually frayed as he was trying to run. He went from returning kicks to not even being able to bend his knee.

In 1998, he filed for disability and somehow was approved. It meant that he got $9,000 a month, allowing him to buy small house and win custody of his daughter, who was five years old.

In 2004, without a word, the NFL union cut him off. He tried appealing but got nowhere. The union would stop taking his calls, and soon he lost his house and truck

He and his daughter had to move into his 75-year-old mother's house. They get by on her social security check of $319 a month.

Mosley explains, "There's nothing left, they took it all from me, and never even gave a reason. If you talk to Upshaw—and I tried like hell to—could you ask him how he lives with himself?"

There's even more questions the Union needs to answer, such as why has Conrad Dobler been denied five times for disability? He's had 13 operations on just one leg.

Willie Wood can't even pay for his assisted living. Mercury Morris is still fighting in appeals court to overturn the pension board's decision, 20 years later.

Yet, to ask the question to the league office, good luck! No one will answer the phone or return a call.

So, Solotaroff looked at the facts and found that in the '60s, the pension fund began to grow just like the game. Team owners in 2005 paid $67.9 million to cover the Bert  Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Retirement Plan, which earns millions more a year in additional interest on its vast investment holdings.

In 1993, it all changed. The landmark bargaining agreement between players and owners made partners of the long-term enemies. It created confusing new rules and it created a bureaucracy with a six-man board of trustees, made up of three reps from owners and players apiece.

A screening committee that has the power to approve or reject claims was also created.

Even worse is that ex-players have to prove that the injuries suffered were caused by football, or they have no chance of getting the $9,000 a month.

Mosley states, "That's the trick they pulled on me. They shopped and shopped 'til they found a quack doctor who would cross me off their list."

Worse still, the Union claims they paid out $20 million a year to 317 disabled ex-players and that many of them get the maximum benefit of $18,600 a month.

When going through the tax forms for 2006, the most recent year available, they show that only 121 players received disability and the estimated cost was $9.2 million.

Upshaw then misleads on how the money gets to the players. He states that the money comes from the active players, which is an outright lie. The only thing the players have done is decrease their annual salary by $56,000 to contribute to the fund.

What it really means is that every cent that goes towards the ex-players is from the owners themselves, not the active players.

Bernard Parrish claims that "Gene lies and lies, telling the young guys today that they'll have nothing to retire on if he pays us. It's divide and conquer, and it distracts them from his real job, which is guarding the owner's money."

Even more disgusting is the case of Webster. He was the member of the all-century team, but after he retired he showed signs of dementia.

According to lawyer Bob Fitsimmons, "He was drifting for years when I got him to the doctors, who diagnosed severe TBI (traumatic brain injury). The union hired an investigator to try to discredit Mike, brought their own doctor in who agreed with my doctors, and they still denied us three or four times and kept trying to spend him dry.

"Finally we got to trial and won a huge judgment in district court. But even after the union lost again on appeal, Upshaw told reporters that when the board voted that day, they'd still go against Mike, six to nothing."

What's sickening is the fact that Upshaw is supposed to put the players' interests first, not the owners. Upshaw was the most highly paid union chief—he made more than Billy Hunter and Donald Fehr.

Yet, the only thing that can define Upshaw's legacy as head of the union are his failures. He never got players guaranteed contracts, long-term health insurance, and failed to get a big percentage of total revenues as union chiefs have in other sports.

Ditka states, "I know too many guys it's happened to—Larry Morris, Jim Ringo, Harden Hill, John Mackey; I could go on and on. It just tears you apart to see 'em like that, and then have the league claim it didn't come from football. Why is it all on their wives and families, and how many more are out there?"

In 1994 the NFL established the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, with Dr. Elliot Pellman at the chair. His expertise wasn't in neurology and that is one of the possibilities why his experts could not find a link between concussions and dementia.

The reason for this was because of Brent Boyd, who like so many ex-players ran out of appeals. His case is definitely sickening, considering he had the opportunity to get $1800 a month, but wanted more because of the concussions and chronic pain.

Barry Axelrod helped him out as well, trying to get the NFL to give him the monetary damages. They went to two different doctors who concluded the same things—that the pain was caused from the concussions.

He went to a third doctor, a neurophysician named Barry Gordon. Gordon didn't even bother taking a look at him—instead a grad student did the exam.

Did the student even do any tests? No.

The only thing he did was shine a light into Boyd's eyes and checked his reflexes. Gordon wrote in his notes that the records were incomplete and that was how Boyd lost out on the money: because he was out of appeals, even with the numerous doctor visits he had before.

Body says, "Every reputable expert says that blows to the head'll cause damage if it happens enough. The NFL happens to have the only neurologists who say the jury's still out."

As stated, Pellman was no expert in neurology and it showed. Why? Because he backed up the practice of sending players with concussions back into games. 

Which, of course, he was scorned by leading neurologists for, and in 2005, The New York Times reported that he'd misstated his bona fides for over a decade. Pellman stepped down right away.

Andre Waters' suicide in November of 2006 opened a lot of people's eyes to the dangers of head injuries. The release of the forensic exams showed that he had a brain of an 88-year-old patient.

Strzelcyzk, like Waters, Long, and Webster, also had the brain of a much older man, or what is referred to as a severely punch-drunk boxer. The NFL committee's doctors downplayed the findings and thought that they were an exception and dismissed their claims as "soft science."

Jennifer Smith, the woman who was helped the DeMarco's, spent a week with them. She helped get things paid as well as getting them a used truck. The fund that she worked with helped get the DeMarco's $20,000, but even with that the charity can't help the DeMarco's out that much longer.

Smith states, "What Brian needs—what all our guys need—is for the league and union to honor their obligations. We're a band-aid at best."

The touching moment of the story is that Smith was able to get DeMarco to a pawn shop in town. What was at the pawn shop? It was a weathered pigskin that was signed by every member of the Jacksonville Jaguars from their inaugural season.

After reading this story, there were a few words that could describe my feelings after reading it. Here are some examples: pissed, angry, sick, etc...

The example of Boyd reminded me of Steve Wallace, who was a left tackle for most of his career with the San Francisco 49ers. I remember him having to need a special helmet because he had so many concussions.

Steve Young and Troy Aikman also had to retire early due to concussions. How is the NFL going to treat those three if they suddenly deteriorate due to the concussions they suffered in their careers?

It's amazing how many stories of ex-players there are being turned down by the league and what makes it worse is the fact that there are a limited numbers of appeals a player has to get disability.

Other sports like baseball and basketball have guaranteed contracts. So, even if a player is injured they can still get money or at least save some so if they need it at a later date they have it.

Even worse is that team doctors are willing to put players back into games when they are severely injured. That isn't even ethical.

Although, I do see the league changing its stance on concussions. There have been times where a player has suffered a concussion or head injury and for precautionary reasons they are sent to the doctors.

I wonder why that might be. Could it be that ex-players have been fighting with the Players Association for disability for so long that they are now trying to cover their asses by sending them to the hospital?

Recently there has been a $28.1 million settlement between the Players Association and retired players, but it wasn't about disability, it was about licensing misuse.

The good news for the ex-players is that DeMaurice Smith has taken over as the head of the Players Association after the death of one of the most despicable human beings in Upshaw.

Smith was quoted as saying that he "wanted to move toward a better partnership between retired players." This comes from the article recently in the New York Times titled "NFL Union Reaches Deal with Retired Players."

If Smith wants to build a better relationship with the retired players, it is time for him to change the way the process of getting disability is handled. This means getting rid of the men currently on the board who are just as bad as Upshaw.

There are definitely changes that Smith needs to make and it starts with getting these ex-players the disability they deserve.


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