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Joe Henderson Columns

NFL just beginning to pay price for ex-players' health issues

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Published:   |   Updated: March 20, 2013 at 08:15 PM

About 18 months ago we began a project here that became known as Broken Bucs.

Much had been written and said about the physical and mental plight of retired National Football League players, but most of it was anecdotal – based on a struggling individual here or there.

We decided to find as many members as we could from the 1979 worst-to-first Tampa Bay Buccaneers and identify their ongoing health issues. To my knowledge, no news organization had ever tried to look at an entire team before. The result was striking.

At a hotel in north Tampa for a meeting that included many players from that team, I watched as player after player limped into the room and told story after story about their struggles. Some of them could barely walk. Others talked about bouts of confusion and forgetfulness.

I visited former Bucs running back Jerry Eckwood in Nashville. He is battling dementia, possibly caused by multiple concussions he suffered as a player. He is four years younger than me and his coherence comes and goes, often within a single conversation. That scared the stuffing out of me.

Nearly every ex-player we spoke with complained that when they tried to get medical help through the NFL, to which they were entitled, they were stonewalled.

I remember John Reaves, who played quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles and other teams, said of the NFL's attitude toward retired players, "It's delay, deny, and hope you die."

This is in the news again because six former Bucs -- including tight end Jimmie Giles and running back James Wilder -- joined in a lawsuit against the NFL and two equipment makers over alleged negligence in dealing with head injuries. The lawsuit claims "callous indifference" and "reckless abandon" against the defendants.

Not everyone is sympathetic.

Some of the comments on TBO.com are highly critical of the players for joining in this lawsuit, filed late Friday in Los Angeles.

Many of you think they should have known the risks that now seem obvious. Some of you figure that these players made a deal with the devil for riches and glory early in their lives and have to pay the price today. Indeed, I've talked to many retired players in the last few years who say they'd do it all again if they could, even as badly as they hurt today.

Many of them masked the pain as players with powerful, numbing drugs. It got them through three hours on Sunday, but now they can barely walk. Stupid? Probably, but that was the culture of the NFL -- you can't make the club in the tub, that sort of thing.

We now know a concussion is a serious brain injury, but back then it was treated as a nuisance. So, as former Bucs safety Cedric Brown told me Monday, a player sniffed an ammonia capsule and got back in the game as quickly as possible.

No one thought anything about it until decades later when some of these players began to fall apart physically and mentally. The NFL has essentially been shamed into providing more assistance to these players, but this issue has barely started rolling.

You're annoyed at the ex-Bucs who joined in this lawsuit?

Well consider this: NFL owners just spent the summer locking out their players because they wanted a larger slice of the more than $9 billion the league brings in each year.

So far, the legal attacks have come from basically a handful of players who were in the league more than 30 years ago. All of them speak to a culture of playing through pain, injuries, concussions, and doing whatever it took to stay on the field. If they didn't, they were out of a job.

Think of the thousands of players who have passed through the NFL since then.

Many of them carry the same physical time bombs in their bodies that these players did – bombs that will start going off in a few years in the form of crippling arthritis, the need for joint replacement, memory loss and even dementia.

These lawsuits are going to keep coming. The claims will keep coming. The need for assistance will keep coming.

You think the players should have known what they were getting into?

Maybe.

But I'd also counter it's a moral issue with the NFL. These men built the league and were basically treated as pariah years later when they needed help. That's why there is this lawsuit and all the others.

If the NFL had been more proactive with its retired players, it might not have come to this. I'm not saying this lawsuit has merit; I'm also not saying it doesn't. But I do understand the frustration that led these players to file.

As we found out in our Broken Bucs series, the league-appointed doctors spent more time trying to avoid insurance claims from retired players than trying to help. "Just because you had nine knee surgeries as a player, what does that have to do with needing a knee replacement now? You might have tripped getting out of your car. Can you prove you didn't?"

Delay, deny, and hope you die.

Those simple words keep going around in my mind.

Now those players have some words of their own: See you in court.

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