The late Peter Jennings used to name a person of the week on ABC’s "World News Tonight" every Friday. It was usually somebody doing something extraordinary to help those who couldn’t help themselves. It always seemed that Jennings' weekly honor was about as much publicity as they would ever want.
That’s different for Bruce Laird, my first PressBox Man of the Year -- not that he needs the publicity personally because, as Laird says, he is one of the lucky ones. Despite more than six and fewer than 10 concussions (but who’s really counting anyway, Gene Upshaw?), Laird is in good health for now, but he needs the publicity to help those less fortunate than himself.
The self-proclaimed and beloved "bad boy" who played for the Baltimore Colts from 1972 to 1981, needs to be out in front of people because of the heavy torch he now carries for his brothers who also suited up to play in the NFL.
Laird has increasingly become more passionate in his advocacy on behalf of former players and their problems. Prior to 2004, his work was focused locally in an effort to help ex-teammates who needed a few bucks to aid relatively small health issues.
But in 2004 Bruce visited with Sylvia Mackey and saw the devastating effects of her husband John Mackey's dementia, and the toll it was taking on his entire family. Mackey, the Hall of Fame tight end, had already lost nearly everything.
Laird set out to inform Upshaw of Mackey’s plight, figuring a simple explanation and plea would get an instant response from the head of the NFL Players Association -- but instant has become three years and counting.
After that 2004 meeting with the Mackeys, Laird went to an NFLPA meeting in Las Vegas to help his ailing ex-teammate and other former players in desperate need of assistance. In front of about 250 players and representatives, Laird told me he stood up to inform Upshaw and the union of Mackey’s plight. Upshaw quickly raised his hand and cut Laird off, saying, “Rest assured, we are aware of the Mackeys’ situation and we are taking care of it."
Laird followed up with the simplest of questions: “What can we go back to Baltimore and tell the Mackeys you are doing?"
Upshaw responded by saying he couldn’t talk about the specifics at that moment. Laird plowed on: "When will you be able to talk about this?”
Upshaw again stonewalled Laird, saying, “We really can’t tell you that either.”
Undeterred, Laird asked Upshaw, “When will you possibly be able to tell us anything about what you are doing for these players?" Upshaw repeated his non-answer.
A full-time advocate was born that day in Las Vegas.
Laird now juggles his humanitarian efforts for the retired players with his day job as an executive sales manager and new business procurement specialist for Multi Specialty Health Care, a regional provider for medical services specializing in neuromuscular medical issues.
He started a non-profit organization, Baltimore Football Club, with a mission to be a national advocate for retired players across the country for a better pension, disability reform and to be recognized by the NFL.
Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue helped get funding for former players who needed assistance to pay for caretakers. The total yearly amount, $88,000 for a player in a nursing home, coincided with Mackey’s number 88.
But it is the new commissioner, Roger Goodell, who has worked to take the high road on this cause. Since March 2007, Goodell has worked to forge an alliance between the NFL, NFLPA, NFL Charities, Hall of Fame and the NFL Alumni. Under this alliance, the league has named attorney Harold Henderson to administer a $10 million fund to help the increasing numbers of former players with serious medical issues. But, that’s still not nearly enough.
Last summer Laird and his Fourth-and-Goal team began plans for a fundraiser. Those efforts paid off to the tune of more than $100,000 raised at the "Salute to Artie Donovan" dinner at Martin’s West Sept. 20. The usual suspects from Baltimore showed up: Laird, Tom Matte, Rick Volk, Sam Havrilak, Joe Ehrmann. And a few came from out of town: Gino Marchetti, Bert Jones, Ken Huff and Don McCauley.
Proudest of how some individuals and corporations stepped up to help raise nearly half of the $100,000, Laird lists Peter Angelos, the Baltimore Ravens, Leroy Merritt, the Art Modell Foundation, Tremont Hotels and Rich Hagan as key players in the success of the September event.
Laird knows he is perceived as the least likely champion for the plight of former players. However, his reputation as a ferocious competitor on the field was unquestioned, and his loyalty to his old Colts teammates fierce.
While his reputation for approaching life away from football might have been previously described as less than serious, the new Laird is clearly on a mission. Fueled by the dismissive Upshaw, Laird has taken on the cause of his less fortunate brethren with the same passion he had when a receiver came across the middle.
Laird may not be the smartest guy in the room with Upshaw or Goodell. But, for an ex-defensive player, he clearly has gone on the offensive and put these more powerful men on their heels.
For that, along with his courage, Laird is the first PressBox Man of the Year.
Issue 2.52, Dec. 27, 2007