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The Haunting: <br>Ghosts of NFL Past Refuse to Go Gently Into that Good Night

September 26, 2006

From The Publisher:

The new issue of PressBox hits the streets this Friday, July 15, and features a powerful cover story penned by Michael Anft. The story highlights a portrait of the average NFL player through several scenarios in this player's career. It deals with the ups and downs and the pain and suffering leading up to the all too often shortened life expectancy.

This subject of retired NFL players and the unfortunate plights that many face has long been important to us at PressBox. In September 2006 (Vol. 1.23), we asked Michael Olesker to investigate this complex issue. What he delivered was "The Haunting," a poignant look at a group of former Colt greats. 

With the passing of John Mackey earlier this week, I have been thinking quite a bit about "The Haunting" and the issues of player safety and health.

- Stan "The Fan" Charles, July 10, 2011 

By Michael Olesker

They are the ghosts of autumns past, moving along the shadows of the National Football League with their haunting sounds of distress: the grinding of artificial hips, the jangling of detached vertebrae. And now, the insistent rising of some of their voices.

Two months ago, the NFL and its Players Association tossed pro football's retirees a bone instead of a football. Pensions would be increased up to 25 percent a year. Brand new money would help provide care for those like John Mackey, the former Baltimore Colt suffering from dementia who now spends most of his waking hours in adult day care.

Hall of Famer Artie Donovan
Sabina Moran/PressBox
Their work done, the NFL and the current players then took their bows and waited for applause.

Instead, they're hearing angry words from some retired players who feel shunted aside instead of grateful. Many feel short-changed on pensions by a league that has grown enormously prosperous. They feel cut adrift on medical help by a business that tacitly encourages its employees to wreck one another's bodies and then preposterously offers no medical benefits on the lingering after-effects.

"Now they make the case that they're upgrading the pensions by $120 million a year," said Bruce Laird, the former Baltimore Colts defensive back. "So what? I was never a good math major, but I know the league's about a $6 billion business that was built on our backs. Let's talk about real numbers -- the ex-players like me getting a $55 a month increase when gas is $3 a gallon now. Hey, don't tell me you gave me something. If you give me a dollar and you've only got $10, that's something. But not this. This is crumbs."

Laird's voice is joined by former Colts as well as others around the league. There are estimates that as many as 400 former players, some now in their 70s, get less than $400 a month from their NFL pensions. At this year's Super Bowl, a week-long auction will be held to establish a Gridiron Greats Fund, a charitable trust to help former players pay their medical bills and supplement meager retirement benefits.

"It's a sad situation from a social and moral perspective," said Baltimore labor lawyer Joel A. Smith, whose clients include Major League Baseball umpires. "What they have to do is balance the current players with the obvious needs of the preceding generations. Football is different from other sports. The body contact is so rough. The average football career is much less than most professional sports. You think of the way John Unitas was treated all those years. If these guys didn't have workmen's comp, they'd have nothing."

But there are some retirees who defend the new financial package. The ex-Colt linebacker (and union rep) Stan White, for example, said he thought the deal was satisfactory. Ex-Cowboy and Redskin Jean Fugett, now leader of the NFL organization of retired players, admits there are problems but isn't willing to declare heartlessness on the part of the league or its current players.

And there are fans who wonder: Why in the world are these rich and famous men complaining about pension benefits and medical assistance when they made such great fortunes in their playing days?


Go back to the night of Sept. 13, to Baltimore's Mt. Washington Tavern. About a dozen of the old Colts have gathered. Sylvia Mackey, John Mackey's wife and caretaker, is also there. So is Sandy Unitas, widow of John Unitas, who still recalls the awful battles over medical coverage her late husband had with the NFL.

Rick Volk, Sam Havrilak, John Mackey and Toni Linhart (Sabina Moran/PressBox)

This night, it's a gathering for the John Mackey Fund, a charity formed to assist ex-players like the Hall of Famer Mackey, who suffers from frontotemporal dementia. It's an affliction similar to Alzheimer's.

In his playing days, Mackey with a football in his hands was a kind of unstoppable earth force. Off the field, he headed the NFL Players Association in its early battles for collective bargaining. At 64, Mackey's conversation now consists of perhaps a dozen rote sentences, muttered gently and repeatedly.

When the NFL released its new benefits package two months ago, it included a so-called Number 88 Plan (Mackey's old number) that will pay up to $88,000 a year for institutional care or up to $50,000 a year for in-home nursing care for retired players suffering from Alzheimer's or dementia.

The gesture arrives after several years of lobbying from Sylvia Mackey, including an impassioned letter she sent to then-Commissioner Paul Tagilabue. The new money, she said the other night, has put "some dignity" back into her life -- though, in her 60s, she'll continue to work as an airline stewardess "until I can get my full retirement benefits."

She has also talked with women in similar situations, "wives of guys in the Hall of Fame. We think there are 15 or 20 dementia cases -- and that's just from the 260 guys in the Hall." She rattles off several names from around the league. Laird adds a few names to her list, and so does ex-Colt Hall of Famer Art Donovan.

"It's the multiple-collision syndrome," Laird said. "It catches up. But the NFL doesn't want to hear about it. They're afraid it'll open up a Pandora's box. Why? Money."

"Sometimes John and I will catch some of those old films and see those great runs he made," Sylvia Mackey said. "He'll look at them and say, 'Is that me?' And I say, 'Yes, John, that's you.' "

But dementia-related illness is only a part of it. Football is a survival-of-the-fittest business computed in damaged muscle and bone. The after-effects linger across lifetimes.

"You get a bunch of old players together, and right away they're comparing body parts," Laird said. " 'How's the knee? How's the hip?' Me, I have no cartilage from the fifth to the seventh vertebrae in my neck. Both shoulders were separated numerous times." He reaches out his hands. "Scars on my hands from reaching through face masks, grabbing pieces of tooth. See this scar? That's from teeth. I had 12 concussions in 14 years. They'd stick amyl nitrate under your nose and say, 'Get back out there.' 'Yeah, man, I can go.' And you go right back in. That's the way the game is played."

But Laird, like the other retirees, gets no medical assistance from the NFL. The traditional concept is simple: Football was always perceived as a stopover game, a brief moment between college ball and a real, long-term business career from which the former athletes would receive medical coverage.

The problem was, such thinking denied the obvious: football is a violent game, whose crippling injuries resonate and deepen across the years.

"That's why John was so insistent about it," Sandy Unitas said recalling her husband's battles over his various injuries. "He felt the NFL had turned its back on him and all the other players. He paid for all his medical expenses. He had good insurance, and he could afford to pay. But he felt he was entitled to it, because these were lingering football injuries. He felt he was fighting for the players who couldn't afford to pay."

At the Mackey gathering a few weeks ago, ex-Colts Hall of Famer Lenny Moore put his finger on part of the problem.

"Most guys today, if they have theirs, they don't concern themselves with anybody else," Moore said. "Today's players are self-satisfied. When salaries started skyrocketing, they should have reached out to the guys who made it possible for them to make all this money. They don't even know who a guy like John Mackey is, and he's the one responsible for getting us collective bargaining in the first place.

"But there's another side to this, see? You're talking about professional athletes, you're talking about guys with a lot of pride. They don't want to say, 'Please help me.' Some of the old guys die broke because of it. You remember Night Train Lane (one of the NFL's greatest defensive backs)? Man, we had to raise money just to put Night Train Lane in the ground."

At 72, Moore still works for the State Department of Juvenile Services, which provides his medical coverage.

"The players today, they could care less about the guys who came before them," former Colts running back Tom Matte said. "And they're the ones deciding how much we get. Me, I get $1,438 a month pension from the NFL, plus social security. Believe me, it's not enough to live on." Matte works several part-time jobs, including broadcasting. He's been through major surgery on a few occasions; he gets no medical benefits from the NFL.

"What we got in the new benefits deal is a pittance," Matte said. "What we get medically is nothing. The fans might not want to hear it, but it's true. Some of them think we made a fortune. Hell, I came into the league getting $10,000 a year, plus a $4,000 bonus. And I was the seventh player taken in the whole country. The most I ever got was $85,000, with bonuses and playoff money."

Then there is Fugett, the Baltimore native who went on to play for Dallas and Washington, graduated from Georgetown Law School and now heads the Retired Players Department Steering Committee.

"I don't want to say today's players have turned their backs on us," Fugett said. "If there are health issues, there's a fund, and guys can get on the phone and see a doctor. Some of this is a matter of communication. But, yes, we're in a unique business. We're all walking around in pain almost every day. My back's been messed up since 1975, and I get no medical coverage for it. Nothing.

"When we were all playing, nobody really knew the effects on our bodies. A lot of stuff was never diagnosed. The doctors worked for the teams, and the teams just wanted you to play. They would get the medical reports, and we didn't. It's physical stuff, and psychological stuff, too. Look, we're all strong guys. We don't like to ask for help."

Included on such a list is Sisto Averno, who goes back to the beginning of Baltimore Colts football. He is past 80 now, and has to use a walker. He's had hip and knee replacements, remnants of old football collisions. The NFL has paid for none of it.

In his five years with the Colts, Averno's starting pay was $4,000. The most he made was $9,500. He was a 60-minute man: offensive guard or tackle, linebacker, kickoff and punt teams.

"One time, I separated my shoulder," Averno said. "I told the coach, Clem Crowe. He said, 'Block with the other one.' "

Averno remembers his first training camp at Westminster "I stood there with Artie Donovan," he said, "and we saw so many bodies in camp, we were ready to walk out. Then one of the assistant coaches came up and said, 'Come on, you're making $4,000.' I figured, 'He's right, that's almost $400 a game. Pretty good pay, ain't it?' "

In today's NFL, no player can imagine such puny numbers. Their sense of history goes back about 10 minutes. If they notice those ghostly forms out there in the shadows, they don't make the connection to their own vulnerable lives. They don't understand how these old men are haunting reminders of their own days to come.       

Issue 1.23: September 28, 2006