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SUPER BOWL XXI : DENVER vs. NEW YORK : NFL VETERANS : LIVING WITH THE PAIN : One-Time Ironmen Like Jim Otto, Who Is 49 Going on 90, and Butkus Are Hobbled for Life

January 24, 1987|CHRIS COBBS | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — He has undergone 18 operations, a dozen of them on his knees. Three times, he has had an artificial knee implanted in his right leg, and he needs a new one. There are fused vertebrae in his back that will require more surgery. He has had his nose fixed to help him breathe more easily, but now his neck needs surgical repair.

Jim Otto belongs in a rocking chair, if not a wheelchair. But as one of the enduring symbols of pro football's iron-man ethic, he is too proud to be seen in public with so much as a cane.

"I've been sore as the dickens every day since I retired 11 years ago," he said. "Every day is like the day after a game used to be.

"I don't take any pain medication because I don't want to get hooked on it. I have learned to live with the pain and I don't think of living any other way."

Otto, 49, who for 15 years wore the famed double-zero on his Raider jersey, ranks near the top of the list of most-battered National Football League retirees.

One of seven former players seeking increased benefits for total disability under the league pension plan, he hopes to raise the awareness of the needs of yesterday's heroes. Some apparently are ignorant of their rights to collect, and others are too embarrassed to come forward and admit how much they hurt.

There are few, though, among the 3,000 or so retired veterans vested in the league's pension plan who aren't hurting or hobbled.

"We are talking about trampled gladiators," said Miki Yaras, director of benefits for the NFL Players Assn. "I deal with the underbelly of the sport. I can rattle off the details of Otto's knees faster than my own social security number.

"I would guess that at least 70% of retired players can't put their feet on the floor in the morning without pain. It could be 95%. I would welcome someone to prove me wrong."

They vary in degree of suffering, from Darryl Stingley, paralyzed for life, to Alan Page, who has a crooked little finger but suffers more anguish from three years as a lawyer representing players frustrated in the attempt to collect better benefits.

In a recent series of interviews with retired players, a common thread emerged. All were affected to some extent by pain and degenerating bodies, a product of the drive that had made them successful players. Some were bitter, but none were anti-football.

Many once believed, naively, that they were indestructible. They responded both to peer pressure and their own internal pressure to play when hurt. In the process, they irreparably damaged the physiques that set them apart from the rest of us. In the main, they accept that as the price of engaging in a collision sport.

A few case studies:

--E.J. Holub, former Kansas City Chief linebacker, has had 17 operations, 12 of them on his knees, but manages to go about his business as a rancher.

"I walk stiff-legged, like Chester on 'Gunsmoke,' " the 49-year-old Holub said. "But I'm still able to drive tractors and bulldozers, ride bucking broncos and cut horses. I'm most affected when I'm unloading hay or pipe, which makes the bones rub on each other.

"I have no regrets. I played in the first and fourth Super Bowls, and I got indescribable pleasure from the companionship of my teammates. To me, the sad part is the steel workers, longshoremen and carpenters, all the men who have injuries but don't get the ink because they are not gladiators."

--Stingley, 35, a former New England Patriot wide receiver, is confined to a wheelchair nearly nine years after he was injured in a collision with Raider defensive back Jack Tatum.

"I haven't given up on life," said Stingley, who lives in a custom-designed condominium in Chicago and works with organizations that help the handicapped. "I'm not rich, but I'm getting by. I guess I live a middle-class life, but I wish it was upper class.

"My (two) kids are fed and clothed, and there will be enough for their education. If I had played longer and earned more, I would have been able to help more of my family. But I'm not really bitter. From the first bloody lip you get as a kid, you have to assume the risk in this game."

--Dick Butkus, 44, the former Chicago Bear linebacker, plans to pursue his acting career until the day arrives that he must have an artificial knee.

"There's a price attached to everything," said the man once regarded as the most macho figure in the sport. "When I talk about injuries with my pals, I just laugh. I wouldn't change a damn thing about my career.

"My knee sometimes suckers me into feeling I'm OK, and then stiffens up, but I've gone 10 years without surgery. I've adjusted my gait to avoid pain, and I just get on with it.

"I can understand why some guys more messed up than me might have bitterness, but not me. I have no qualms, no problem with the game."

--Charlie Waters, 38, a former Cowboy defensive back, is now in the real estate business. He has an unstable knee that keeps him from running as much as he'd like, but he doesn't regret the gung-ho attitude he once had.

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