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Is a Short NFL Career Worth One Lifetime of Disabilities?


Perhaps the most painful of Jim Otto's 23 surgeries occurred five years ago. That's when doctors operated on his back for 11 1/2 hours to remove scar tissue and insert rods, screws and ties so he could walk again.

"Twenty-three, 22, you lose count after a while," said Otto, the former Oakland Raiders center. "I remember that one because I was almost paralyzed, and doctors had to pull my intestines aside to get to my back."

It has been 20 years since Otto retired after a Hall of Fame career. His dedication and durability symbolized the team's "Commitment to Excellence" motto.

In 15 seasons, Otto played 210 consecutive games and made the AFL All-Star or Pro Bowl team 12 times.

He was once the league's iron man, but Otto's body is now a combination of plastic joints, flesh and screws. He has had two major back surgeries, 16 knee operations and five artificial knees. He has arthritis in his shoulders and neck.

"Jim can't walk through an airport without the metal detectors going off," said Miki Yaras-Davis, director of benefits for the NFL Players Association. "Almost no one leaves this game unscarred either physically or mentally."

Few occupations can provide the riches and fame, yet simultaneously the danger, of pro football. One contract can provide financial security for a lifetime. One great performance, such as Joe Namath's for the New York Jets in Super Bowl III, can bring endless endorsements.

But pro football is a brutal game, a sport that long has glorified pain and punishment. It is filled with sights and sounds of collisions that are sometimes startling and other times frightening.

That crackling thud can mean a broken bone or a torn cartilage--and a redefined life.

According to the latest NFLPA survey, conducted in 1990, more than one-third of 645 players whose careers began as early as 1940 and ended no later than 1986 retired because of disabling injuries. Nearly two out of three retirees live with a permanent injury.

Two years ago, Detroit Lions guard Mike Utley took a hit and suffered severe spinal damage, leaving him nearly a quadriplegic. Utley's injury received a lot of media attention because it happened during a game.

But many former players are experiencing health problems after the spotlight dims, the celebrity fades and they cease to be larger than life.

Former Los Angeles Raiders offensive lineman Curt Marsh, who retired in 1987, had his right foot and lower leg amputated Sept. 21. Namath's famously fragile knees are so painful that he can't carry his children down steps. Former Chicago Bears tight end and head coach Mike Ditka waddles like a wooden toy soldier because of an artificial hip.

And Baltimore Colts Hall of Fame quarterback John Unitas' once-golden right arm has a restructured right hand. Unitas also has an artificial knee and will have a hip replacement soon.

"You ever go to a retired players association convention?" said Yaras-Davis. "It's an orthopedics surgeon's dream. They all have the crab-like walk, and it's hard to believe they were once these feared gladiators. Forty-year-old players are having the same problems as 80-year-old men."

"Wherever there is repeated trauma to certain areas, wherever joints and ligaments have been injured, arthritis and other degenerative diseases, well, it's going to happen," said Dr. Stan Lavine, team physician of the Washington Redskins from 1975 through 1985. "That's one of the major reasons why so many of these guys walk with limps."

Some are barely walking.

According to Yaras-Davis, a knee injury forced former Chicago Bears defensive lineman Roger Stillwell to get special devices to pull himself out of bed. He also had a ramp to enter the bathtub.

Stillwell, who played only three seasons with the Bears, walks with a cane.

Otto used to collapse in the early years of his retirement, even though he walks without difficulty now.

"It would become so embarrassing that I stopped going out in public," said Otto, who had his knees drained and injected with painkillers four times a week during his last three playing years. "There have been times when I've said, 'Why'd I do this?'

"But I wasn't going to lay there and whine. Football is a contact sport, and injuries are a part of the game. And if you can't take the injuries, get the hell out. Yes, I'd do it all again. It's not for whiners."

Former San Francisco 49ers defensive lineman Charlie Krueger was a tough guy. But a knee injury that was treated with repeated shots of cortisone and steroids forced him to end a 15-year playing career after 1973. Krueger now can't kneel and has problems walking on uneven surfaces. He hasn't jogged since January 1989.

Ten years of lawsuits against the 49ers left him with a $1 million settlement in 1989 and plenty of bitterness.

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