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SUPER BOWL XXI : DENVER vs. NEW YORK : No Benefits and Much Bitterness for Those Who Quit Before 1959

January 24, 1987|EARL GUSTKEY | Times Staff Writer

Another Super Bowl goes by, along with another year of unaided anguish for some old, crippled men who built the game that will be watched Sunday by roughly half of America.

They were the pioneers, the tough, hard men who played in the 1930s for maybe $100 a game, washed and sewed their own uniforms, played because they loved it and never went on strike.

The average National Football League player salary today is about $200,000. In addition, NFL players get medical and pension benefits. So are retired players--providing they had the good sense not to retire before 1959.

The issue of the "pre-'59ers," as it's known, is one that won't go away for the NFL. All players who retired before 1959 are excluded from benefits. The players on the winning Super Bowl team today will get bonus checks of $36,000 each, besides their six-digit salaries, but not a dime of the riches flowing from today's game or the NFL's $2.1-billion TV contract will find its way to the pre-'59ers.

A year ago, Tom Fears, the Rams' Hall of Fame receiver from the 1950s, talked angrily about the league's old-timers being excluded from benefits.

"We're the ones who built this game, we're the ones who sold the game to the public as a major sport after World War II," he said. "We're the ones who put those first 100,000-plus crowds in the L.A. Coliseum.

"The players today are greedy bastards who could care less about the guys who paved the way for them. I'm talking about players in the Hall of Fame, for crying out loud, who are crippled up with old football-related injuries . . . and these greedy bastards today, who're making all this money, won't give them one (bleep) dime!"

Pre-'59ers have their own organization, the NFL Alumni Assn., which markets the names of old-timers such as Red Grange and Bronko Nagurski on calendars and other merchandise, and at golf tournaments, and raises enough money to pay small royalties to some members.

The NFL Alumni Assn. and the NFL operate a "dire need" fund to help certain cases. Money, up to $12,000 a player, is administered by NFL charities.

Interviews with numerous pre-'59ers revealed that two early NFL stars, Nagurski and Clyde (Bulldog) Turner were both in poor health but were too proud to fill out applications for assistance from NFL Charities.

Dave Williams, a receiver who played from 1967-73, primarily with the St. Louis Cardinals, has worked for several years to urge the NFL Players Assn. and the league's owners--who supply the players' pension fund--to provide pension and medical plans for pre-'59ers who played five seasons. There are about 420 left, Williams said.

"The players' association team reps voted 28-0 last April that the pre-'59ers should be included in our pension plan," Williams said. "They also identified the pre-'59ers issue as the No. 2 bargaining issue with the owners this year, right behind the freedom to move from team to team.

"We've written a letter to the commissioner, pointing out to him that the player pension fund is over-funded now, that it would cost very little to cover the pre-'59ers."

Letters and talk. Another year gone by. Ed Sprinkle, who played 12 seasons for the Chicago Bears in the 1940s and 1950s, summed up years of frustration this way:

"If this goes on long enough, there won't be any of us around to embarrass them anymore. We'll all be dead."

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