For former NFL players, the pain remains long after the applause goes away.
By Bob Rush
JANUARY 31, 2000: I often grow nostalgic when the Super Bowl rolls around. I will never forget my first NFL game, standing across the field from Tom Landry, Randy White, Ed "Too Tall" Jones, and fellow rookie Tony Dorsett. During the national anthem, I wanted to pinch myself, just to make sure it was real.
It was an interesting era. I saw the league go from 14 to 16 regular-season games. I witnessed wide-spread rule changes. Before a 1977 pre-season game, at Los Angeles Coliseum, I chatted by the water fountain with Joe Namath before he bowed out (yeah, I pinched myself again). In my later years, I was still around when "youngsters" like Dan Marino and John Elway entered the business. I had the honor of facing guys like "Mean" Joe Green, Jack Lambert, and Howie Long one-on-one. It was truly a privilege to face men that were my teenage idols, and yet hang around long enough to be an "elder statesman" when some of today's legends entered the league.
By my estimation, an average huddle today easily accounts for better than $25 million in annual payroll. Having been a center, I just can't imagine calling the huddle, signaling for 10 millionaires to get their butts in the huddle and shut the hell up. I think I could get used to it, however.
There are guys playing today, with the same credentials I had, making more than twice my career earnings as an annual salary. At my average NFL salary, I would have to play about 170 seasons to match a nine-year career today. Yep, I was born about 15 years too early.
I don't mind athletes making the big bucks. There are others in the same general field -- entertainment -- making a heck of a lot more, for far less effort (and no one kicking them in the head). If it were a perfect world, then teachers, the military, and police would be the highest-paid folks in society. It doesn't really matter. I'd have played for free anyway.
The toll on the body is a high price for the chance to play in the big leagues. I made it through my playing days relatively unscathed. I had only two hospital stays and one major surgery (reconstruction of my left knee) during my career. Sure, I sprained ankles, wrists, elbows, and knees. I separated shoulders, broke noses, and pulled muscles. No big deal -- everyone gets those types of "dings." Many of my fellow offensive linemen had numerous knee surgeries, along with shoulder, back, elbow, and neck repairs. They looked like walking railroad maps in the showers. Lots of injuries don't require surgery -- at least during your playing years. But when Father Time meets an aging warrior, things get interesting.
I started to think about this situation over the past few months. In October, my college roommate, Bob Jordan, invited me to play in an NFL alumni golf tournament in Nashville. I've been called a lot of things in my life, but "golfer" isn't one of them. Nevertheless, I did get to hang out with folks like Ted Hendricks, Otis Sistrunk, Jim McMahon, Ed Jones, and Bobby Bell.
I had a long conversation with former Kansas City Chief linebacker and NFL Hall of Fame member Willie Lanier about the injuries that go undiagnosed and untreated during and after one's playing days. You may recall that Willie wore a helmet that featured a strip of external padding covering the middle portion. He was knocked unconscious during his rookie year and sustained a severe head injury. Some years later, while traveling home from an away game, he confided in the team doctor that he was going to retire. The doctor then told Willie that they had actually "lost" him twice while he was unconscious his rookie year. Gee, now you tell me!
Recently, I saw fellow Memphis State alumnus and former NFL great Harry Schuh. I asked him the standard old-warrior question: "How's the body holding up?" He has severe damage to his knees and numerous other joints. Ditto for former MSU-great and sports-training guru Dean Lotz. Former Ole Miss and San Francisco 49er star Paul Hofer is a knee-replacement candidate. Scott Dill, recently retired from the NFL, has had at least one back surgery. No one is immune. Even "Iron Mike" Ditka carries some additional metal -- a hip replacement.
A recent HBO documentary about Johnny Unitas showed the former Colt quarterback's hands to be so gnarled he could barely sign autographs. Raider great Jim Otto has had two knee replacements. The list goes on.
Me? I've had four "post-football" surgeries (one neck, two back, one chest), all to repair damage related to football. Still, my elbows don't straighten out all the way, my wrists don't bend quite right, and I can do really neat tricks with my fingers.
It would be nice if the league had benefits that covered post-career repairs. I really got steamed when I once heard a local talk-radio host bemoan the fact that some retired NFL players had the audacity to collect workers' compensation. Was he trying to imply that you give up your labor rights at a certain income level?
Don't misunderstand me, I'd do it all over again -- probably for nothing. My rational is that there are a lot of folks out there with similar problems who didn't have nearly as much fun getting that way. Hell, if I had just been born later, I could buy my own hospital.
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