Many former National Football League players believe that their NFL experiences will cost them years off their lives, according to a recent Times survey.
And although there is no empirical data to confirm their claims, there is medical evidence and opinion suggesting that the players may be right.
The survey questionnaire was sent to 1,000 former players whose names were taken from the 1988 National Football League Players Assn.'s Retired Members Business Directory. A sobering 66% of the 440 former players who returned the survey said that football would affect their life spans, compared to 14% who said it would not. Another 20% didn't respond to that question or didn't know.
Among the reasons most often given for players dying before their time were:
--Excessive weight gain, both during and after a player's career.
So keen is the competition for a spot on the roster, so frenzied is the franchise's desire for success, that players live by a new motto: "Bigger is better--or else." Thus, they acknowledge widespread use of steroids and the accompanying risks--in some instances, life threatening.
"It's like a street fight," said Russ Bolinger, a former Ram offensive lineman who used steroids to bulk up during the latter part of his career. "If somebody brings a club, you bring a club."
Linked with this, the players said, is the problem of post-playing career obesity. After competing for season after season at unnatural weights, a retiring player must fit his football body into the non-football world. Accustomed to cholesterol-rich diets, burdened with steroid bulk and, in many cases, physically limited by lingering football injuries, it can be a surprisingly difficult transition.
"I'm amazed I'm still alive," said John Babinecz, 37, a former linebacker with the Dallas Cowboys, who is a pediatrician in Paoli, Pa.
--The physical trauma of the game and its long-term effects.
Players contend that the violent nature of the game lends itself to shortened life spans. Hit after hit, block after block, tackle after tackle, they reason, can't be beneficial to the body. Nor can playing with injuries and pain, returning from surgery too soon, subjecting themselves to cortisone shots, enduring misdiagnosed ailments and competing on artificial turf.
In all, 78% of the players responding said they suffer physical disabilities related directly to football.
--The mental anguish of life after the NFL.
For many players, the real hurt takes place in the mind. According to the survey, 54% of the players admitted that they experienced emotional strain when they left the league.
That strain ranged from brief periods of despair and adjustment to serious thoughts of suicide. In some instances, players underwent trauma rather similar to what a Vietnam War veteran encountered after returning to the everyday world.
"I call it, 'The Baby and the Bottle Syndrome,' " said Rick Upchurch, a wide receiver with the Denver Broncos for nine seasons. "You either cry or be satisfied. After you leave the game, you don't have a triple-A team to go to or the CBA (Continental Basketball Assn.). When you're out of the game, you're out of the game."
There apparently exists a curious love affair between a majority of the former players responding and the NFL. It transcends disturbing statistics, alarming trends and ominous warnings.
For example, the recently published "The Jobs Rated Almanac," using information primarily from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, ranked 250 occupations according to work environment, income, outlook, stress, physical demands and security. The NFL player finished 241st overall and was listed in the bottom 10 of each category, except income.
And since 1960, 78 vested NFL players--those who played at least four seasons--have died, according to the NFL Players Assn. Of those 78 players, 73 of their ages are known. The average age at death: 38.2.
The NFL Management Council breaks down the causes of death as follows: 28 heart attacks, 14 cancer, 10 auto accidents, 5 gunshot wounds, 5 unknown causes, 2 respiratory arrests, 2 drownings, 2 aircraft accidents, 2 kidney failures, 1 ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease), 1 head injury, 1 stabbing, 1 electrocution, 1 cocaine intoxication, 1 traumatic chest injury, 1 AIDS, 1 suicide.
The NFLPA lists three suicides, not one.
Yet, despite these numbers and a widespread belief by the players themselves that football shortens lives, that the game creates unrealistic and unhealthy weight demands on the body, that the sport causes high degrees of physical and emotional stress, 55% of the respondents said that they would play professional football again--even if it might reduce their life spans by 10 to 20 years.
And although 60% of the former players answering said that the NFL didn't have either their long- and short-term interests in mind, there remains a solid majority of veterans who would gladly trade years for games, including one Dr. John Babinecz.