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NFL old-timers feel the pain

Injured veterans are angry at the current regime, but even angrier at their union.

June 07, 2009|BILL DWYRE

FROM LAS VEGAS — The room was filled with scarred knees, partially paralyzed limbs and fingers that headed off in directions they were never intended to go.

There were wheelchairs, walking canes and lots of orthopedic shoes.

Mostly, there was anger.

This was the recent summit meeting of retired NFL players. It was held way off the Strip in Las Vegas, in a hotel that afforded $59 room rates. It was a nice hotel, but one that represented the current financial state of so many in the room, while also representing what current NFL owners and players would scoff at as a meeting place.

Represented in the room were six decades of ditch-diggers and road builders. It could be argued that many of them had a large role in making that big game at the end of each NFL season worth its designation as super.

This gathering was difficult for them. Youth is gone, but pride remains. Their success was built on a tendency to shut up, strap on the helmet and play, usually in pain. Now, all these years later, the pain remains, but shutting up is much less appealing.

This was a renegade group, still not on solid footing as to who is its leader or exactly how to get what it said is its rightful due. It is angry at the current NFL regime of Commissioner Roger Goodell and the 32 owners, but less so than at the organization it once thought represented and protected it in crucial matters such as health and disability benefits and pensions. That was the NFL Players Assn., headed for so long by the recently deceased Gene Upshaw.

Respect and compassion for the dead is the generally accepted way in our society.

At the 2009 Independent Retired Football Players Summit & Conference, there was not a shred of that. In death, as he was late in his regime as NFLPA president found to be collecting annual salaries of between $4 million and $7 million, Upshaw is despised by this group.

Dave Pear, the first Pro Bowl representative of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and later a teammate of Upshaw's with the Raiders in Super Bowl XV in 1981, who is currently the de facto leader and who spoke passionately and eloquently at the summit, said of Upshaw and the NFLPA, "Al Capone wasn't even convicted of things this bad."

The post-Upshaw NFLPA delivered one piece of good news last week, when it backed off its appeal of a lawsuit that will bring a distribution of $26.25 million to retired players who had, initially, been cut out of marketing deals. But to this group, that is merely a baby step.

Pear wasn't the keynote speaker at the three-day event. None was needed. The essence of the proceedings was summarized in a large sign placed at the bottom of the speaker's podium for the first session and remaining there to the end. It said what this group says it has gone through for years, maybe decades, in its attempts to get equitable pension benefits and healthcare from a union it says caters only to today's players.


* Mike Sandusky is 74. He played 109 games for the Pittsburgh Steelers, made one Pro Bowl at offensive guard and was one of the main men leading the way in 1962, when John Henry Johnson became the first Steeler to rush for 1,000 yards.

Sandusky said he once urinated blood for an entire halftime and the team doctor sent him back out for the second half, saying it was probably just a bump on the kidney. He said he went to the hospital with a bandaged face to witness the birth of his daughter, and his wife and daughter got to go home before he did, because a doctor saw he had a broken jaw.

He has had a seizure and said he probably had "about 10 concussions a season." He said he knew that because of others who have had them and describe the same white light Sandusky said he saw each time.

He works as a security guard, and his wife, Barbara, said he continues to work only for the health insurance.

* Bob Lurtsema is 67. He was a defensive end with the Minnesota Vikings, New York Giants and Seattle Seahawks and played in two Super Bowls. He injured an elbow and the Vikings offered him $2,500 to give up any liability in the ensuing surgery. He took it and now cannot straighten out his arm.

"Eleven seasons, 13 surgeries and I only missed two practices," Lurtsema said, adding, "Back then, $2,500 was a lot of money."

* Jim Summers is 64. He was the 217th pick in the 1967 draft and played 11 games with the Denver Broncos. In that 11th game, he took a hit that partially paralyzed his left arm and he never played again. He said he can no longer work, that he is in pain all day, every day, and that he has never received a penny in disability from the NFLPA.

"I called them so may times I can't even count," he said. "They never called back."

* Earl Edwards is 63. He was a defensive tackle and played 150 games with four teams -- the San Francisco 49ers, Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns and Green Bay Packers. His fingers look like a failed attempt at a Boy Scout knot.

* Conrad Dobler is 58. He spent nine years as an offensive guard for the St. Louis Cardinals, New Orleans Saints and Bills. At one time, he was known as the dirtiest player in the NFL. Now, he walks with a cane.

The official NFLPA group had its annual meeting the same weekend as the Independent Players Summit.

It was in Palm Springs, and the new Upshaw, Washington lawyer DeMaurice Smith, a unanimous choice of the 32 player reps, presided. Smith took over in March and has said he will represent all players, current and past.

With newcomers, there is always hope. But history tells the NFL men of the past that their future will be more of the same:

Delay, deny and hope they die.


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