As a hydrant-necked fullback for the Los Angeles Raiders, Steve Smith pushed open hundreds of paths for Marcus Allen.
Now, Allen returns the favor.
The Hall of Fame running back stands behind Smith, wheeling him slowly around a crowded conference room in the Burbank Hilton and stopping every few steps so another cluster of old teammates can wrap their massive arms around Smith's withered body. Less than three years since Smith was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig's disease, he's confined to a wheelchair, his thin arms hang slack, and the tendons in his neck flicker as he strains out a whisper.
Around him gather some of the greatest players in Raider history -- Jim Otto, Gene Upshaw, Art Shell, Mike Haynes, Todd Christensen, Jerry Rice, Willie Brown, Tim Brown, Bo Jackson, Bill Romanowski, Charles Woodson and more -- all of whom paid their way to Burbank this weekend to participate in a fundraising autograph-signing show. Allen and former Raider executive Mike Ornstein organized the event, and proceeds from it will be used to form a fund to help offset the medical expenses incurred by Smith and other ailing Raiders.
And there are plenty. Jack Tatum is recovering from a leg amputation as a result of diabetes. David Humm suffers from multiple sclerosis. Lindsay Mason needs a heart transplant. Reggie Kinlaw needs both knees replaced. Mike Davis has severe hearing loss.
"When a person's in a desperate situation like that, you really don't ask questions; you just help," said Allen, who hoped to raise in the neighborhood of $400,000 with Saturday's all-day event. "This is the most immediate thing I can help with."
Most of the former and current Raiders flew into town Friday night and attended a very casual private party in the hotel, a time spent catching up and reminiscing. They posed for group pictures, mostly surrounding Smith, and laughed about the old days. There were players from five decades of a storied franchise, two former head coaches in Tom Flores and Shell, and former team physician Robert Huizenga. All bound by a common cause.
"It really illustrates what a team is all about," Allen said. "This team spans generations. But yet we feel like even if we didn't play together, it's one team. We care about each other. We care about guys' lives after football. We're reaching out to each other."
For Allen, the thought of helping some of his former teammates transcends his conflicted feelings about the franchise. This calling was much bigger than his public feud with Raider owner Al Davis.
"The organization didn't really jump behind this 100%, maybe because of some of the guys who were spearheading this," Tim Brown said. "But we hope that in the future the organization gets behind us. Because, like it or not, this is the organization. We'll get past the little differences. I'll work on that in the next year. The next time we have this deal, it would be great to have Mr. Davis walk in here. Once the right people go to him, I think we can get that accomplished."
Despite his dastardly reputation, Davis has been known to quietly help down-on-their-luck Raiders who come to him when their lives hit the skids. It's hard to survive on the meager pension the league provides. Otto, who went on to become a successful businessman when his playing days ended, says he receives roughly $1,500 per month from the NFL. Players whose career ended more recently get a bit more, but not much.
Smith wouldn't have needed the financial help had he not been stricken. But, because he's receiving alternative treatment that his insurance doesn't cover, his bills are overwhelming. He recently finished six weeks of treatments at a clinic in Reno, costing $20,000. He and his wife, Clie, a former Raiderette, regularly travel from their home in Dallas to meet with a specialist in Philadelphia. Now, they're investigating the possibility he was misdiagnosed with ALS and actually is afflicted with Lyme disease. Either way, he's suffering.
"Certainly, Smitty's situation is the most crucial," Brown said. "Nobody knows if he's going to be able to be here this time next year."
Meanwhile, across the room, Clie lifts a straw to her husband's lips, giving him a sip of water. She then gently dabs at his mouth. Later, Smith will call it one of the most amazing nights of his life.
"I know the people I played with are good, quality people and my friends for life," he said, working to get out every syllable. "But to feel the love from people that I never played with, but they were the Raiders, is very overwhelming."