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Big holes in the NFL safety net for former players like Bob Zeman

As the NFL looks at ways to protect current players, what about those from the past? Zeman, who played in the 1960s, is dogged by medical problems from game injuries but has to cover them himself.

February 02, 2013|Bill Dwyre
  • NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell speaks during a news conference on Friday in New Orleans. Although he discussed player safety, he had nothing to say about helping former players struggling with football-related injuries.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell speaks during a news conference on Friday… (Erik S. Lesser / EPA )

LA JOLLA — Bob Zeman will do the same as millions Sunday. He will grab the remote, find an easy chair and turn on the Super Bowl.

"I still like the drama of the game," he says.

He won't exactly be a fan. More like an observer. He knows too much and has seen all too closely the underbelly of a National Football League that has successfully romanced an adoring public while chewing up some of its past and spitting it out.

Zeman is part of that past.

He played six years in the American Football League, which joined the NFL in the 1970 merger. He was an all-AFL defensive back in 1962 with the Denver Broncos. He began his pro playing career with the Chargers in 1960 and finished with them in 1966.

"The last play of the last game of the season was my last play," Zeman says. "I tried to tackle Mike Garrett [Kansas City Chiefs]. He went one way, my left knee went the other, and my career was done."

For the next 34 years, Zeman lived the nomadic life of an assistant coach. He coached at his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin, and went to Northwestern and even to the NFL's experimental league in Europe.

But most of his time was in the NFL. He was with the Raiders when they beat the Vikings in Super Bowl XI in 1977, then along the 49ers sidelines 13 years later when they beat the Broncos. With the Raiders, he was hired, and eventually fired, by Al Davis.

"Many days were 18 hours," Zeman says. "You didn't leave until Al dismissed you."

It is with this history that Zeman will watch the Super Bowl here. Also with baggage.

Zeman is 75. He has had nine surgeries for football-related injuries. The knee that was injured when he tried to tackle Garrett has been repaired twice. He has a new hip and ongoing shoulder problems. Also, a drop foot brought on by back injuries not properly addressed.

"On days where I couldn't run," he says, "they'd put me in a whirlpool."

A few years ago, he was in a crosswalk with his wife and tried to run as the light changed.

"I couldn't move my legs," he says.

The back surgery that resulted leaves four rods and eight screws in his back and a hopeful diagnosis that, with time and nerve-healing, the drop foot will improve.

Still, Zeman is among the lucky ones. His brain still works. He doesn't forget any more than anybody who is 75. He has no tremors, no signs of depression that many think triggered recent high-profile suicides of NFL players Dave Duerson, Ray Easterling and Junior Seau. All played defense; like Zeman, all were hitters rather than hittees.

Did he have concussions? Not officially.

"I got dinged a lot," he says. "Lots of 'Oh, wow, that was a bad one.' Once, I got knocked out in a game but played the next week. I didn't remember what had happened the previous two weeks. But it all came back, little by little. "

Even Dr. Phil could get that one right. Concussion.

Zeman is like most from his generation. He played a tough game, maintained a stiff upper lip and kept going. He knew there would be injuries. What he didn't know, nor was anybody telling him, was that they would bring life-altering years of pain.

He says he'd probably do it again, then shrugs as if understanding that is the typical male-ego response. He nods at the recent statement by President Obama that, if he had sons, he'd pause before letting them play football. Zeman has three sons and a daughter and says he never objected to his sons playing — one played four games with the Rams. But he adds that knowing what he knows now, he'd probably say no.

Zeman is a quiet man, soft-spoken. He is from a generation more stoic, less likely to pound on a table. In essence, he spent most of his adult life working for the betterment of the NFL.

As a player, his top salary was $17,000 — the Broncos relented and upped him $2,000 after his All-Pro year. When he played in exhibitions, he was paid $50 a game.

"It was $38 after taxes," he says.

His best salary as an NFL assistant was $180,000 with the Seahawks in 1999, "but they hired me late, so I only got half," he says.

He took his coaching pension in a lump sum and invested it. He now lives off dividends from that, plus Social Security and his player pension. With a recent raise, mostly an NFL public relations gesture, he gets about $2,500 a month from the NFL. If he were a six-year baseball veteran, that would be close to $9,000. Medicare (footed by taxpayers) has taken care of his surgeries. Had he been on a major league baseball roster for just one game, whether or not he played, he would have lifetime medical benefits. The NFL, he says, sends him names of doctors they recommend, all of whom he would pay for himself.

He tried for long-term disability insurance, but the NFL's plan rejected him. "I take pills for blood pressure," he says.

Commissioner Roger Goodell, in his State of the NFL news conference Friday in New Orleans, addressed many topics, including player safety. But his concern was for current players. The old guys are not flying under the NFL's radar. They aren't even on it.

Zeman wants the NFL to pay attention. More likely, it will establish a new program with a fancy name and send out a slickly worded press release.

Zeman and his group want the NFL to remember. The NFL wants them to go away.

No matter. Soon, they will all be dead. The NFL will send out a press release of sympathy.

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