As we enter the 2011 football season, let us all remember the life-long consequences players must endure. Their conditioning, dedication, hard work and grueling play on the field takes its toll. Keep in mind that the wear and tear on football players does not disappear when they leave the game.
A conference room big enough to seat 500 people in Novi, Michigan, was the host for the third annual Gridiron Greats Hall of Fame Benefit Dinner. While the NFL pioneers and the Gridiron Great supporters mingled, I found myself watching each legendary athlete converse as if it were like a family reunion. In fact, that is exactly what the atmosphere was like.
The fraternity of players from the 1940s were talking with the men from the 1970s. A remarkable event, in which over seven decades of athletes joined one another for a greater good. George Guerre from the 1946 Michigan State team stood with current Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Larry Foote raising awareness and money for the Gridiron Greats Assistant Fund (GGAF). This is a 501 C-3 organization that is benefiting former and retired NFL players.
One of the GGAF's assistants walked up and handed me a Gridiron Greats football. He then told me Mike Ditka was over sitting at the table by himself, and to go have him sign the football. At this point, I am not sure if I was the fan or the sports reporter (or both).
While Ditka was signing my ball, I introduced myself and stated that I was here to incur about the organization. He then told me poignantly, "Go ahead and sit down."
Ditka started explaining to me the development of the GGAF and how he had become involved. As a former football player, Ditka, 71, understands and has seen first-hand the long term medical conditions in which these former NFL players suffer.
Great lengths have gone into helmets to ensure safety.
"The players are suffering from dementia at an alarming rate," Ditka stated. "The concussions and hard hits these guys have endured have taken its toll. Those helmets are weapons. No matter how padded you make them to protect the head, they are weapons."
In trying to understand the magnitude of the medical aspect, I asked him about the facilities in which some studies for dementia and brain trauma have taken place.
He replied with deep conviction, "We have been blessed with the greatest medical facilities in the nation. They have offered their services and we are grateful that they are willing to support our cause."
(The medical centers that have offered procedures to these gridiron greats do the procedures pro-bono).
Dick LeBeau is a supporter (and honoree) to the Gridiron Greats
As much as one may think that Ditka is intimidating, I am seeing a side of a man that genuinely cares about this fraternity of competitors. He is passionate, yet adamant in his endeavor and presents himself in a tone to which he is borderline pleading to the NFL , the NFL players and those Gridiron Great supporters to pay attention to these retired pioneers that need our help.
Moreover, the players from the earlier eras have paved the way for this American sport and we, as football followers, should heed the request of Coach Ditka and the other retired football players.
Some players, along with Ditka, question a majority of the current NFL players as to why they would not want to give back to the guys that got them to this point in the sport. It is not just about the medical care, all of us fall on hard times.
"Not sure what it is going to take to get these current players [and the NFL] aboard, but we have got to start doing something to get their attention," Ditka said.
Albert Haynesworth receiving a 7-year $100 million contract (2009).
"There should be no excuse as to why we can't help out each other and help those that served this game with honor. They just need our help," Ditka said.
In fact it was stated, in conversation with players, that over 3,000 NFL alumni are now retired and 130 NFL players alone passed away in 2010.
"The misconception is that these [retired] players got paid a lot or have pensions," Ditka continued. "That's not exactly the case." (Ditka's annual salary was $12,000 as a player).
Furthermore, pensions were given based on the amount of years in which their career was played. Some players who played in the 1950s—it was said that one alumni only received $175 a month—do not receive what those that retired in the 1980s receive, certainly. The pay scale is not the same.
Roger Goodell (L), Mike Ditka (C) and Gale Sayers (R). Ditka talks to NFL committees to raise awareness to the GGAF.
Ditka stated, "If the NFL would compensate their players like the Major League does for baseball players, this could be remedied."
The NFL is not set up for a mandatory contribution to the retired former players, based on today's current pay scale. There have been ideas stated that the current NFL players could possibly produce between 2%-4% of their contracted salaries to the GGAF or the NFL could pay an annual 1% of their total revenue. These are also expressed notions from former players as well as donors alike. The pretense sits well with Ditka. As the GGAF motto says: "Do the right thing."
In conclusion, I traveled to Michigan to gain knowledge about this organization. I, too, am desirous about football and charity as a whole. If ever to gain knowledge about these two aspects coming together, it is safe to say that Mike Ditka could not have made it any more clear. The Gridiron Greats that made the sport of football what it is today need us. We are, after all, family. George Guerre and Larry Foote have led by example. Indeed, they are doing the right thing.
Ditka then shook my hand and concluded, just as profoundly as he did when he invited me to sit down, "We have really got to help these guys."
The Chicago Legends Golf Classic will be held September 19, 2011 in Bloomingdale, Illinois. Special Guests include former NFL running back Mike Adamle and Super Bowl Champion defensive end Dan Hampton. Proceeds will go to the Gridiron Greats Assistant Fund.