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Ex-NFL players will get support

League, players' union promise medical and financial aid. Some current players pledge to donate all or part of Dec. 23 game checks.

December 11, 2007|Greg Johnson | Times Staff Writer

Retired football players who are struggling with medical and financial setbacks received welcome news Monday when the NFL and its players' union promised financial and medical assistance for those in need of costly joint-replacement surgery and recuperative care.

Word of the new program came on the eve of a morning news conference in Minneapolis, during which an unknown number of current NFL players will announce that they are going to donate all or part of their Dec. 23 game checks to the nonprofit Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund -- a day tagged as "Gridiron Guardian Sunday."

Players who already have indicated they want to participate in the charity fundraiser include San Diego Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson.

The issue of assisting players who helped make the NFL what it is today has become an increasingly public and bitter feud, with a number of Hall of Fame members calling the efforts by the league and union inadequate. Now, however, some current players are willing to stand alongside these critics.

Although Gridiron Greats declined to state which players would be on hand in Minneapolis today, it is possible that Matt Birk, the Minnesota Vikings' Pro Bowl center, will be among them.

The news conference comes two weeks after Kansas City Chiefs offensive lineman Kyle Turley kicked off the Dec. 23 push with a promise to turn over to Gridiron Greats his own game check, which has a pre-tax value of $42,000.

Turley on Monday said other players, including Tomlinson, have begun to step forward. Tight end Tony Gonzalez and running back Larry Johnson, along with several other Chiefs, "want to help in some way."

"I don't really have a clue as to how many guys will help," Turley said. "But we'll continue to try and get the issue out there in the public, through the media, so more guys will hear about it."

The joint-replacement program unveiled Monday will be funded by the recently formed NFL Alliance, which draws its funding from the NFL, the NFL Players Assn., the Pro Football Hall of Fame and a league-sponsored retired players organization. The medical care program is part of a multi-pronged effort that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA Executive Director Gene Upshaw announced in the summer.

Administration of the joint-replacement program will be handled by a healthcare company that will operate a toll-free telephone line that will help former players to navigate the system. Medical care will be provided at 14 hospitals, including Centinela Freeman Regional Medical Center in Marina del Rey, the Cleveland Clinic and Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

The program will be open to athletes who play long enough (generally three years for current players) to qualify for retirement and disability benefits. A sliding scale will be used to determine how much financial assistance former players receive. Retirees who lack insurance and can't afford surgery "will not be responsible for the cost of either the joint-replacement surgery or post-operative rehabilitation," according to the league and union.

Joining Turley at this morning's news conference will be Mike Ditka, the former Chicago Bears player and coach who has been one of the most vocal critics of what he describes as the failure to properly care for aging players.

Ditka, though, drew criticism himself after USA Today published a front-page story last week stating that the Ditka Hall of Fame Trust solicited $1.3 million in donations during recent years but flowed only $57,000 through to needy former players.

Ditka, who founded the eponymous trust, also serves as a board member for the separately chartered Gridiron Greats organization. Jennifer Smith, director of Gridiron Greats, said Saturday that the newspaper report used IRS documents that didn't include more recent data. Ditka's trust, Smith said, "reported to us that it has provided over $153,000 to players referred to it by the GGAF."

In a prepared statement released Saturday, Ditka said that "it is unfortunate that the media has to attack something that is good. My only goal is helping people. We are doing that and will continue to do so."

Besides Ditka, other former players at today's news conference will be former Minnesota Vikings Chuck Foreman, Ed Marinaro, Carl Eller, Jim Marshall and Paul Krause.


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