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NFL retirees feel forgotten and fight for benefits

10:02 PM, Jul 9, 2007   |    comments
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"The thing about it, when you're playing, sometimes you're not aware that you're all banged up," Wood says. "To think that, at my age, I'm having surgery for something that happened years ago — and not getting paid for it. It makes it tough.

"If I never played football, I'd be walking right now."

Wood is just one voice in a growing storm of dissent against the NFL Players Association, which is responsible for providing veterans their pensions and, to a degree, disability benefits.

In his 2006 Hall of Fame induction speech, former New York Giants linebacker Harry Carson called out the NFL on its treatment of hurting retired players.

"I would hope the leaders of the NFL do a much better job of looking out for these individuals," he said. "If we made the league what it is, we have to take better care of our own."

Hall of Famers such as Carson, Mike Ditka and Joe DeLamielleure have focused their frustrations on Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFLPA and a Hall of Fame guard who played for the Oakland Raiders from 1967 to 1981.

"Why does the most lucrative professional sports league in the world have the worst pension and disability plan?" DeLamielleure asks. "My answer is: Gene Upshaw. He's the one running this thing."

Many ex-players envy Major League Baseball retirees for their pension plan, which pays $175,000 annually for life after age 62 to players with 10 years of service.

"The MLB average pension benefits are three times higher at $36,700 average vs. the NFL's $12,165 average benefit," former cornerback Bernie Parrish says, using a figure based on the average pensions of all retired players, not just recent ones.

"According to Forbes, baseball's gross income is approximately $4.3 billion while the NFL's gross is over $7.1 billion. ... Baseball continues to prosper on less income and higher expenses. There is no excuse not to have the NFL retirement benefits matching MLB's."

To help assist veterans in need, Carson, Ditka, DeLamielleure, former Packers guard Jerry Kramer and other former NFL stars have launched the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund, a non-stock, non-profit corporation. Through auctions and donations, the GGAF has raised about $350,000 since Feb. 2.

NFLPA spokesman Carl Francis says the union appreciates what the GGAF is doing but wonders why it has never contacted Upshaw.

"They've never requested a meeting to say, 'Let's work together to help veterans in need,'" Francis says.

"They're playing a public relations game, doing everything through press conferences. But the bottom line is getting things done to help these retired players."

Kramer, a founding member of the GGAF, says he'd like to see the NFL increase everybody's pension to at least the poverty level. His pension amounts to $358 a month.

"The NFL needs to address this so guys don't have to be living in the (bleeping) homeless shelter," Kramer says.

Grumbling has gotten so widespread, the NFLPA issued a memorandum warning chapter presidents of conduct detrimental to the union's best interests.

"Retired players are important to us. They helped us build the game," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said at a recent Charlotte Regional Partnership luncheon honoring Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson.

"I don't think anybody I know has done more for retired players, or players in general, than Gene Upshaw ... but I understand it's an emotional issue."

In light of his accomplishments, Upshaw and his supporters don't understand the backlash they're facing. In 1983, he took command of an association that was more than $4 million in debt; now it has more than $220 million in cash and assets. According to the NFLPA, its retirement plan has assets of about $1 billion. Upshaw has negotiated pension increases for retired players in each of the last four collective bargaining agreements. He also said he once helped pay Hall of Fame cornerback Lem Barney's mortgage when he heard of his medical bills.

Most recently, Upshaw has helped implement the "88 Plan," named for Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey (who wore jersey number 88 for the Baltimore Colts), to help ex-players who had dementia.

Doctors diagnosed Mackey with dementia when he was 59. His wife, Sylvia, went to Upshaw to initiate the program, which provides up to $88,000 annually for institutional care or $50,000 for in-home care for ex-players with dementia or Alzheimer's disease.

Since the plan — approved as part of the bargaining agreement struck last year — went into effect in February, 54 players have applied for assistance and 35 have been approved. Francis says some of the remaining number are still being processed.

But Upshaw has also made comments that have stirred trouble rather than soothe the inflammatory issues that have swirled about him and his organization.

Of his relationship with former players, a Charlotte Observer story quoted him as saying, "The bottom line is, I don't work for them. They don't hire me, and they can't fire me. They can complain about me all day long. They can have their opinion. But the active players have the vote. That's who pays my salary."

He later told the Philadelphia Daily News the Observer misquoted him, that he was only referring to DeLamielleure, who admits, "I wake up every day to get Gene Upshaw fired. Who else is there to get fired?"

Upshaw told the newspaper: "A guy like DeLamielleure says the things he said about me; you think I'm going to invite him to dinner? No. I'm going to break his ... damn neck."

DeLamielleure fires back, "He says it was just 'locker room talk.' But he makes $7 million a year as a union leader. If I threatened him like that, there would be two policemen at my door. I take the threat seriously. He has the power and money to make it happen."

Because of the game's inherently violent nature, football players face long-term physical ailments that other athletes escape.

A 2003 University of North Carolina study found 263 of 2,500 retired NFL players said concussions may have had a permanent effect on their ability to think and remember as they got older.

Former safety Andre Waters, a 12-year veteran, recently committed suicide at 44. Neuropathologist Bennet Omalu studied Waters' brain tissue. According to The New York Times, Omalu discovered a succession of football-related concussions left Waters with the brain tissue of an 85-year-old man.

The physical nature of the NFL often leaves veterans unable to lead normal lives, and many rely on their pensions to survive.

Many of them have, for a variety of reasons, taken pensions at an early age, driving down their monthly payments. Herb Adderley, an ex-teammate of Wood and another member of the Hall of Fame, receives a monthly pension of $126.85 — but he elected to start collecting his pension at 45.

Like Adderley, DeLamielleure began collecting his pension check at 45. Had he waited till 55, he would collect $3,200 a month. Instead, he receives $1,247 a month.

A business associate's criminal activity forced DeLamielleure to take his pension early to put food on his table, he says. He says he never declared bankruptcy and worked two jobs — one of them moving furniture — to feed his six children.

"You talk about a gut check," he says. "Try moving an elliptical trainer up a flight of stairs when you're 46 years old."

Wood says many players of his era were shown life-expectancy charts for football players. "You see that and say, 'Why should I wait until I'm 65? I might be dead by then,'" he says, referring to studies he was shown indicating many former players don't live into their mid-60s.

Baseball players may take their pension before 62, but the money is prorated. In 1993, Upshaw and the union urged change that prevented players from touching their pension until they turn 55.

In the 1960s, Wood helped Vince Lombardi's Packers win five championships. But since November 2006, after he fell at his Washington, D.C., home, Wood has been hospitalized twice and lived in two assisted-living facilities.

His lawyer, guardian and former Southern California teammate, Bob Schmidt, has sunk $45,000 into Wood's home in an effort to make it wheelchair-accessible. "We're just trying to make his life as good as it can be," Schmidt says.

Until then, his home is the assisted-living facility.

To further complicate Wood's situation, his wife, Sheila, died five years ago. "My saddest hour," Wood says. "If she saw me like this, she'd raise a whole lot of hell."

Every now and then a care provider will enter his room and leave his door open. He doesn't like that.

The highlight of his day comes each morning when he awakens to live another day. The worst comes a few moments later, he says, "When I realize I'll be sitting around here the rest of the day."

Wood has had surgeries on his neck, shoulder and lower back. He's had knee- and hip-replacement surgeries. "And I'm sure I'm forgetting something," he says.

Says Kramer, "Willie has gone through hell."

Wood has no income other than his $2,000 a month pension. In March, Schmidt held a fundraiser to help pay for Wood's medical bills; Schmidt estimates Wood will incur about $100,000 in medical expenses this year.

Despite successful knee surgery in March, Wood remains in a wheelchair. He suffers from arthritis and memory loss. When USA TODAY Sports Weekly visited Wood at the first assisted-living facility before his knee surgery, he sat in a wheelchair between the bed and the dresser. He was shirtless, wearing a pair of gray sweatpants, gray socks and brown slippers. He asked his guest to pull a T-shirt from the closet. It was gray and oversized.

No rugs adorned the room's gray tile floor. A Zenith flat-screen TV and a DVD player sat atop a four-drawer dresser. One of the drawers held a small collection of discount DVDs, mostly old Westerns. And that bed — it was so small; the first night, he fell out. But it was a private place, without the odor of urine common to the rooms down the hall.

Wood had looked forward to his knee surgery, because he dreamed of playing golf again. Before his accident, his life revolved around his golf outings. "I wish I had started playing it sooner," he said. "I really enjoyed it. Hell, maybe if I played golf for a living, I wouldn't be crippled right now."

A nurse wheeled in his lunch: rice, cabbage, a pear, an 8-ounce carton of whole milk.

"I would much rather be sitting in somebody's joint, having a glass of white wine," Wood said, sipping the milk. "But that is not to be."

Returning punts — that's what did him in, Wood believes. "People coming at you full speed to zap you — you feel it."

When asked why he agreed to return punts, he responds, "For the glory."

And another reason: pride.

"If I said I didn't want to return punts, a reporter might question your manhood," he said. "The fans pick up on that."

Pride has kept more veterans from speaking out, according to DeLamielleure. But for him, the bottom line is simple.

"I don't care if Gene Upshaw stays in there as long as our pensions are the same as baseball," DeLamielleure says. "Period. That's it. If he can do that, God bless him.

"Just do the right thing."

By Chris Colston, USA TODAY

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