'I feel like a 90-year-old man'
Wesley Walker says he is in constant pain, can’t sleep without medication and has suffered so much nerve damage and muscle loss that he needs help to remove the cap from a bottle of water.
Walker, 59, was one of the NFL’s most athletic players during his 13 years as a Jets wide receiver. But he said his health has been on a steady decline since he left the game in 1989.
“Now when I get out of a chair, it takes me so long to get my body moving that I feel like a 90-year-old man,” Walker said. “That’s me. That’s what I’m like every day.”
And he’s not alone.
Life after football can be a difficult and harsh reality for former NFL players, and many believe the league did not do enough to prepare them.
A survey of 763 former pro football players conducted by Newsday in conjunction with the National Football League Players Association’s former players division showed:
61 percent of former players said they found it difficult to adjust to daily life after their NFL career.
85 percent said they did not believe the NFL adequately prepared them for the transition to life after football.
42 percent said injuries from their playing career have been the biggest challenge in their post-NFL life, while 41 percent cited career direction.
89 percent said despite the difficulties they said were caused by playing football, they would do it again.
Walker, a retired elementary school gym teacher in the Kings Park school district, said he has endured seemingly nonstop doctor visits, surgeries, various prescription drugs and other treatments. But he said he has found little relief from his constant pain.
In the last year alone, Walker had two surgeries he said he’d been putting off for years. One was on his left shoulder to fix a torn labrum and rotator cuff. And he had spinal fusion surgery during which doctors inserted 10 screws and a rod to help stabilize the spine, he said. Walker believes these injuries are the results of hits he took as a player.
He also had surgery last month to repair a torn left Achilles, which he said he suffered while taking an awkward step at an autograph signing.
Walker is among the approximately 5,000 former NFL players involved in a class-action lawsuit accusing the league of allegedly concealing the dangers of concussions. A federal judge has yet to rule on a revised settlement agreement reached last June.
A handful of former football players — most notably San Diego Chargers star linebacker Junior Seau — have committed suicide in recent years and were later found to have been suffering from a brain trauma disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), that is caused by repeated hits to the head.
Those are the cases that haunt retired players who say they are in pain.
“I think about Junior Seau and all the guys that committed suicide,” said Bruce Harper, 59, a Jets running back and kick returner from 1977 to 1984. “People have no idea how it feels to go through life with stuff that just won’t go away. It’s horrible.”
Walker admits he’s scared.
“What I’m dealing with right now,” Walker said, “is the unknown.”
'Sounds like a car accident'
Football is a violent sport.
“It really is hard to put into words just how violent and how intense those hits are,” said Boomer Esiason, the TV and radio commentator who played quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals, Arizona Cardinals and Jets from 1984 to 1997.
“I will say this, that when I would hand the ball off and I would watch a guy go into the pile, what you hear and what you see, you wonder how guys are coming out of that,” said Esiason, 53, who lives in Manhasset and played high school football at East Islip.
The up-close sounds of those collisions have stayed with Esiason.
They’re all in there together, the arms, the legs, the helmets, the shoulder pads, everything is all just in a giant pile,” he said. “And what that sounds like, it sounds like a car accident.”
And for a running back whose job is to attack that pile 25 or 30 times a game, it’s the equivalent of experiencing “25 or 30 car wrecks” in one game, Esiason said.
It’s impossible, he said, for those players to come away unscathed.
The violent nature of the sport is why life after football is so different for former players than life after any other major sport.
“The violence associated with the sport just isn’t there with baseball and basketball,” said Peter Davies, a neuropathologist at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset who has studied the challenges of life after football.
“You don’t go out on the field with the intent to hit somebody on every play in these other sports like football players do,” Davies added. “Maybe it’s there in a limited extent in hockey. But that’s about it. There’s a tremendous amount of violence in the NFL.”
What ailments do you suffer from that you believe are related to your NFL playing days?
That’s why the biggest challenge in retirement is health. In the survey, players said they are still affected by injuries to their knees (70 percent), lower back (67 percent), shoulders (65 percent), neck (56 percent) and head (49 percent).
Researchers continue to learn more about the long-term effects of head injuries.
According to Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, 76 of the 79 brains of deceased NFL players studied at the Department of Veterans Affairs’ brain repository in Bedford, Massachusetts, have shown some form of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disease.
Jovan Belcher, a 25-year-old Kansas City Chiefs linebacker who was from West Babylon, shot and killed his girlfriend before shooting himself in December 2012. An autopsy found that his brain showed signs of CTE.
In football, concussions were once considered a natural part of the game. There was even a sense of pride among players for bouncing back quickly from a big hit and returning to the field.
“There was a while in my career,” said Chad Brown, 44, a linebacker for the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers and Seattle Seahawks from 1993 to 2007, “where I didn’t think I was playing hard enough unless my bell was rung.”
Bruce Harper said that when he played for the Jets “we did not call them concussions. We said we got the crap knocked out of us. Or we went to the sideline and we got the little smelling [salts] and, OK, get back in.”
Kyle Turley, 39, an offensive tackle for the New Orleans Saints, St. Louis Rams and Kansas City Chiefs from 1998 to 2007, said he had only two diagnosed concussions.
“But knowing now what a concussion is,” he said, “I had multiple concussions every season.”
Turley said his most significant concussion occurred during a game in 2003 when he was knocked unconscious and didn’t return. He has no recollection of what happened immediately afterward — or days later.
“I know I stayed overnight [in the hospital], maybe two nights,” he said. “Two days later I’m back at practice.”
NFL concussion data 2011-13(includes preseason and regular-season games and practices)
Faced with increased scrutiny regarding the damage of concussions, the NFL told teams in 2007 for the first time that players should not return to a game or practice if they had been knocked unconscious. Those rules have advanced greatly since then.
Beginning with the 2013 season, an independent neurologist was required on each team’s sideline. The physician was responsible for diagnosing players who had suffered head injuries, taking the decision out of the teams’ hands.
Players who suffered a concussion were automatically ruled out from returning and were required to go through numerous tests before being cleared to practice or play.
The NFL said the number of concussions decreased 13 percent during the 2013 season, the last year on file. League officials cited efforts to raise awareness among players about the dangers of helmet-to-helmet hits as a reason.
'I was the American dream'
When Aaron Taylor retired from football after the 1999 season, the former Green Bay Packers and San Diego Chargers guard thought he was embarking on an idyllic life.
“I was 28, single, retired, had no debt and I was a homeowner,” Taylor said. “I was the American dream.”
Taylor, now 42, had a Super Bowl ring and a healthy bank account to show for his five-year career. The pain in his surgically repaired knee had become too much for him to continue playing, but Taylor didn’t mind. He reveled at the thought of spending his days with no commitments, thinking only about fishing, hunting and traveling.
I was living the life that’s portrayed on TV and in the movies, the idyllic life in Southern California with palm trees and blue skies,” he said. “And I was miserable.”
“Inside I was lonely,” Taylor said. “It was dark. I had no purpose. I had no sense of self.”
What led Taylor to that dark time were aspects of retirement he did not foresee —— loss of identity, loss of structure and loss of purpose, all brought on by the sudden absence of what had been the dominant motivating aspect of his life for as long as he could remember: Football.
“Everything that I had done until then, my life revolved around the game of football,” Taylor said. He says he was treated for alcoholism in a 12-step program, which started him on the road to finding his new normal. What happened to Taylor is not unusual, Peter Davies said.
“They go through this incredibly traumatic period, really, of job loss where they are no longer making millions of dollars, they no longer have the camaraderie of the locker room,” Davies said, “and they’re really just out there with very little guidance as to where they should be going and how they should be coping with all this.”
In the Newsday survey, one retiree commented: “As a lifetime football player you are told when to eat, sleep, go to the bathroom, work out, everything. When you retire you are all of a sudden responsible to create that structure. This has been a challenge for me.”
The sudden change of identity status is a challenge, too.
“From high school on through college and 13 years in the NFL, I was always, ‘I’m a Michigan Wolverine,’ or, ‘I’m a New York Giant’ and now I’m just Amani,” said Amani Toomer, 40, a Giants receiver from 1996 to 2008. “And having to deal with that — and having to accept that — took a little time.”
The NFL has responded by building out its “player engagement” department, which is intended to help active players think about their futures beyond football.
In 2013, the league began holding expenses-paid conferences — called Transition Assistance Program — for newly retired players so they could meet with other former players to learn about the psychological, physical and social challenges they faced when they stopped playing.
“With football, it’s kind of unique in that when you’re done playing football, that’s it,” said James Thrash, 39, a wide receiver for the Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles from 1997 to 2008 who now runs transition programs for the NFL. “There’s no rec league where you can go out and play and hang out with the boys and play a football game.”
The goal of the program, the league says, is to somewhat recreate the locker-room setting that they valued during their playing days to openly discuss once-taboo problems such as anxiety, depression, relationship management, finances and finding their new normal.
Dealing with life after football is different than what professional athletes face in sports such as baseball and basketball because of the highly structured lifestyle that football players live and the physical violence of their sport.
“There’s going to be no time in the rest of your life, unless you become a televangelist or a rock star, where you’re going to have 65,000 people jump to their feet at something you do,” Chad Brown said.
“The addiction to that feeling, that takes time to wean off that. So rationally you can say, ‘Yes, I’ll never be able to do this again. I’ll never get 65,000 people to jump to their feet. I won’t see my name on the back of jerseys everywhere I walk.’ You can rationalize that. But the emotional part is much more difficult to cut off. And it literally is just a cutoff process.
“One day you’re a football player,” Brown said, “and the next day you’re not.”
'Some really fail miserably'
The average salary for NFL players this past season was about $2 million. According to the NFL Players Association, the average length of a player’s career is 3 1/2 years.
Most players likely will not be paid close to that kind of salary in their post-playing career. Former players say that adjusting to their new financial reality is challenging.
Rob Carpenter, 46, who grew up in Amityville and played wide receiver for the Jets, New England Patriots, Philadelphia Eagles and Cincinnati Bengals from 1991 to 1995, filed for bankruptcy shortly after retiring.
“I wasn’t the first, I won’t be the last,” he said.
The NFL is littered with the cautionary tales of big-name former players who have fallen on hard financial times, guys who squandered millions, through frivolous spending, bad business deals and investments or legal bills.
Have you struggled financially since your playing career ended?
“Football players get lots of money up front, in the form of a bonus,” said Reginald Wilkes, a linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles and Atlanta Falcons from 1978 to 1987 who is now a Wayne, Pennsylvania-based financial adviser at Merrill Lynch. “But they can tear up their knee, be out for a year and their career is over.”
In the survey, players commented about their financial struggles:
“Lost a significant amount of the money I had saved and invested in bad, and what turned out to be a fraudulent, post-football investment.”
“Trying to get to a point where I was making close to what I was in NFL.”
During the last round of collective-bargaining negotiations four years ago, the NFL Players Association allowed for the first time for two former players to be in the room.
One of them was Jim McFarland, now 67, who played tight end in the early 1970s for the St. Louis Cardinals, Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins and later became a lawyer and a state senator in Nebraska.
McFarland said when his name started appearing in media accounts surrounding the negotiations, his email inbox began filling up with messages from former players, with many of them expressing a need for increased pension checks — and fast. Some told him they needed money to avoid getting evicted.
“These players, they went into selling used cars, they became professional hand-shakers, they sold insurance,” McFarland said. “They tried to make a go of it. Some of them are successful, but some of them really fail miserably.”
The negotiations resulted in the league creating a $620-million “Legacy Fund” to increase the pension benefits awarded to some 4,700 players who had retired before the 1993 season.
Players who retired before then needed four years in the league to be eligible for benefits, but those who retired afterward needed only three years to be eligible. That was a source of frustration among older players, many of whom blamed the union for not looking out for them during previous collective bargaining.
The league also has created a series of programs to help active players with financial management, including one that helps teach them to stick to a budget and invest smartly as well as a 24/7 confidential financial support hotline.
Not all players struggle, of course. Some do quite well in their post-playing careers, whether it be as a broadcaster or entrepreneur.
Former Bills special-teams star Steve Tasker, a CBS sideline reporter, said active players need to be thinking about what they’re going to do while they’re still playing.
“The key to being successful after you’ve finished playing is the same key that makes you successful as a football team: Preparation,” said Tasker, who also works for the Bills’ marketing department and is a spokesman for the biggest automobile group in New York State.
“You have to find something you want to do when you’re done, find out what it takes and pursue those ends.”
89% would do it all again
Despite the difficulties that players face after they leave the game, few had regrets.
Asked if they would still play in the NFL if they had the chance to make the decision again, the overwhelming majority — 89.12 percent — said yes.
But not Wesley Walker.
He loved many things about his time as a professional football player and is proud of his career. But the 25 years since have been filled with pain, sleepless nights, too many questions and not enough answers.
Walker was a world-class sprinter at the University of California and known as one of the fastest players in the NFL. But he said in recent years he couldn’t beat the kindergartners he taught in a race across the gym.
He said it took all his effort in 2013 just to get through the school day, and then he would spend the rest of the day in bed, tired but awake.
Spending time with the kids in school always had a way of lifting Walker’s spirits — if only for a few hours. But in 2013, for the first time, he said he was “dragging” all day.
Once a model of physical fitness, Walker said he has lost all muscle tone. “I’m starting to look like a skeleton,” he said.
Increasingly embarrassed by his physical appearance, Walker said he went on sick leave in January 2014. Just before the start of this school year, he submitted his papers for retirement to focus on his health.
“If I had it to do all over again, knowing what I know now, there’s no way I would do this,” Walker said of football. “Not feeling this way.”
About this project and methodology
Life After Football is a nearly two-year project that included the anonymous and voluntary survey of 763 former players, a review of hundreds of pages of court papers and more than 70 interviews with former players, NFL and NFL Players Association executives, doctors, professors and other experts.
Next Sunday, Super Bowl XLIX pits the Seattle Seahawks against the New England Patriots in Glendale, Arizona. The NFL said last year’s Super Bowl was watched by an average of 111.5 million people, more than any television show in U.S. history.
Retired players say they paved the way for that success, helping the NFL become a multibillion-dollar business juggernaut.
They fault the league for not doing a better job of looking out for their well-being.
The survey, in which players were not identified by name, was conducted in conjunction with the NFL Players Association’s former player services department in December 2013. A team of Newsday reporters and editors developed a list of questions, and Nolan Harrison III, a former NFL player with the Raiders, Steelers and Redskins who is now the senior director of the NFL Players Association’s former player services department, sent the survey via email and text message to more than 7,000 former NFL players.
It was not a scientific sampling of former players because Harrison said he’s read that there could be another 9,000 to 13,000 living former players who are not in their database. Also, the former players who received the survey had to have Internet access in order to click on the link and follow it to a Web page to take part.
A total of 763 players responded. Their varying experiences in the league make for an interesting cross-section. Twelve responders said they played less than a year in the league while another 16 identified themselves as 14-year veterans. They are also young and old. Forty players reported that their last year in the league was 2011 while 37 said they last played football in the 1970s.
How long was your NFL career?
Responding to the survey results, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the league has spent years strengthening its efforts to help former players and recently made a series of improvements to its support programs.
“No other company or organization reaches back and takes care of former employees like this,” Aiello said. “With the help of the Players Association, we have implemented improvements in services, pension and other benefits for retired players totaling more than $2 billion.”
Troy Vincent, a former Pro Bowl cornerback and former president of the NFL Players Association who is now the league’s executive vice president of football operations, expressed frustration with the limited number of players who take advantage of what the league offers.
“We have different programs throughout the year through the Player Care Foundation doing checkups,” Vincent said. “Some of these physicals are $10,000 to $20,000 exams and they’re free of charge. And some of the lines are empty. That’s what’s unfortunate. But we have to keep pressing.”
Giants co-owner Steve Tisch said: “I think the reaction is more than noteworthy by ownership, by the league, across all 32 clubs and certainly at 345 Park,” referring to the league’s Manhattan office. “It’s a bit of a wake-up call,” he added, “and it’s a very timely wake-up call.”
Jets owner Woody Johnson added, “If there’s something that the NFL can do, something more that the teams can do, I’m all ears.”
How 763 former NFL players responded
Newsday conducted a survey of former NFL players in conjunction with the National Football League Players Association’s former players division in December 2013. Newsday reporters and editors determined a list of questions for former NFL players about their life after football. The survey was sent via email by NFLPA senior director of former players services Nolan Harrison to over 7,000 former NFL players. Their participation was voluntary. From that group, 763 players responded.
How long was your NFL career?
Did you find it difficult to adjust to daily life after your NFL career ended?
What’s been your biggest challenge in your post-NFL life?
On a 1-10 scale, with 10 being best, rate your physical well-being in post-NFL career
What ailments do you suffer from that you believe are related to your NFL playing days?
Were you diagnosed with a concussion during your playing career?
Did you use steroids or other PEDs during your career?
Did you take prescription painkillers during your career?
Do you currently take prescription painkillers for injuries suffered during your career?
Did you experience marital problems?
Did you prepare for life after football during your playing career?
Have you had a difficult time finding employment for a post-NFL career?
Do you feel the NFL adequately prepared you for the transition to post-football life?
Is the league doing enough to make the game safer?
Have you struggled financially since your playing career ended?
If you had the chance to make the decision all over again, would you still play in the NFL?
'The league needs to step up'
The erratic behavior started in 1998, long after John Mackey’s career as one of the NFL’s greatest tight ends had ended.
Finally, in December 2001, his wife, Sylvia Mackey, got some answers.
John Mackey, a star at Hempstead High School who played at Syracuse University and then enjoyed a Hall of Fame career with the Baltimore Colts, was diagnosed with dementia. Complications from the disease took his life on July 6, 2011, at age 69.
In December 2012, the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy revealed that Mackey had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in people — most notably athletes — with a history of repetitive brain trauma.
His diagnosis and death were reminders about the dangers of concussions and how they impact players after they leave the game. Former players suffer in varying degrees from the head injuries they sustained, and while the NFL has instituted safety measures to reduce the incidence of concussions, it is too late for the former players who now deal with the aftereffects.
According to the NFL, the number of concussions suffered in preseason and regular-season practices and games during the 2013 season dropped to 228, a 13 percent decrease from the 2012 season, when there were 261 concussions. The NFL said there were 252 concussions during the 2011 season. The numbers, however, do not include concussions suffered in playoff games.
Still, there are no guarantees that today’s players and those who will eventually play in the NFL will avoid concussion-related problems.
“I’ve seen so many at the Hall of Fame . . . and [the wives] started asking me questions about what did I see in John at first,” Sylvia Mackey said. “I could tell by looking at their faces that they were going through the same thing.”
She eventually grew so alarmed that she wrote a letter to NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue in 2006. “I said, ‘Paul, I feel that this [dementia and concussions] are not a coincidence,’ ” she said. ” ‘Whether it was caused by football or not, the league needs to step up and take care of these players.'”
Within a year, the NFL, which lacked specific benefits for former players dealing with brain-related illnesses, launched the “88 Plan,” named after Mackey’s uniform number with the Colts. The plan provides $88,000 per year for nursing home care and as much as $50,000 a year for adult day care for each former player in need. In 2010, the league included former players suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease, to the “88 Plan.”
The aftereffects of concussions have taken a heavy toll on former players. Some are deceased, due in part to problems associated with repeated head trauma.
Junior Seau, the former San Diego Chargers, Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots linebacker, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on May 2, 2012. It was later determined by the National Institutes of Health that Seau’s brain showed abnormalities associated with CTE.
Dave Duerson, the former Chicago Bears and Giants safety, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest in 2011. In a suicide note, Duerson asked his family to donate his brain to the Boston University School of Medicine, which has a department devoted specifically to studying former players’ brains. According to the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, Duerson was suffering from a “moderately advanced case” of CTE. Boston University also revealed that the CTE in Duerson’s brain was severe in areas that influence impulse control, inhibition, emotion and memory.
Other deceased former players diagnosed with CTE include Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster, Philadelphia Eagles safety Andre Waters, Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive lineman Tom McHale and Steelers offensive linemen Justin Strzelczyk and Terry Long.
More than 4,500 former players sued the NFL, charging that the league knew of and hid evidence of the dangers of concussions. The case was settled in August 2013 for $765 million. But U.S. District Court Judge Anita S. Brody rejected that agreement in January 2014, because she said there wasn’t enough money in the settlement to satisfy all future claims. The two sides agreed last July on a revised financial package that would eliminate the cap on damages. Brody has not yet ruled on the adjusted terms so no payments have been made to former players.
The settlement, however, did not represent an admission of liability by the NFL, nor did the league admit that the players’ injuries were caused by football. Among the litigants were Dallas Cowboys Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett, Buffalo Bills Hall of Fame offensive lineman Joe DeLamielleure and Giants two-time Super Bowl champion defensive end Leonard Marshall. All were diagnosed with likely CTE and/or symptoms associated with dementia that are consistent with CTE.
But not all players experience concussion-related problems after they leave the NFL. Boomer Esiason was playing quarterback for the Jets in 1995 when he was knocked out in a game after a hit by Buffalo Bills Hall of Fame defensive end Bruce Smith.
“I didn’t realize that it was going to be a five-week time period before I got back on the field,” said Esiason, who lives in Manhasset and played high school football at East Islip. “The hit I’ve seen a thousand times since then. I knew it was significant. I knew it was going to be intense. And I realize now when I went back on it, the right thing was for me not to play for five weeks because it was a scary hit.”
Today, Esiason, 53, who also played for the Cincinnati Bengals and Arizona Cardinals, is an NFL analyst for CBS and weekday talk-show host on WFAN. He said his health is generally good.
Harry Carson, a Hall of Fame linebacker with the Giants from 1976 to 1988, was one of the first NFL players to take a proactive approach toward the concussion issue. In 1990, he was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome by a doctor referred to him by Giants trainer Ronnie Barnes. Post-concussion syndrome is a condition associated with a head injury that can last for weeks or months. Carson has since become an advocate for more awareness of the dangers of head trauma.
Carson, now 61, looks back and says he would not have played football. But a Newsday survey of 763 former pro football players found that 89 percent (680 respondents) would play in the NFL again if given the chance. The survey also found that 57 percent (434) were diagnosed with a concussion during their playing careers. When asked what ailments they now suffer from that they believe are related to their NFL playing days, 49 percent (371) said the head.
Carson said he did not know about the potential for brain damage while he was playing.
People ask me if I had to do it all over again, and I say, ‘Knowing what I know now from a neurological standpoint, I would not play,’ ” Carson said. “Nobody told me about the whole brain injury issue.”
Carson, who was not a part of the concussion litigation against the NFL, said he is saddened by the plight of former players dealing with the aftereffects of head injuries, particularly those who have taken their own lives. He believes greater awareness can help prevent such tragedies and allow players to lead more normal lives once their pro careers end.
“I noticed the problems a long time ago, when most guys didn’t notice it,” he said. “Quite frankly, my feeling was that if it’s happened to me, it’s probably happening to a lot of other guys. That’s why I talk about it, to let guys know that there is something going on and that there’s something you can do about it.
“I feel like if the message got out that it was something that was manageable, then you wouldn’t have the Junior Seaus and Dave Duersons and any other guys killing themselves, because it’s manageable . . . Most guys who don’t have a diagnosis, they’ll think they’re off their rocker and they’ll resort to doing something their families regret.”
Marshall, 53, was recently told that he has symptoms commonly associated with CTE. He underwent a battery of tests at UCLA last year after experiencing a variety of symptoms, including memory loss, headaches and mood swings.
“I’m glad I know what’s going on now,” Marshall said. “I think it’s important we come forward with our situation. It really tests your ability to be patient with people and you have to deal with it on a daily basis. You have to learn to temper your behavior and deal with some of the issues associated with the disease.”
Chris Nowinski never played in the NFL, but he is deeply invested in the health and well-being of former players, particularly those who are dealing with concussion-related problems.
Nowinski was an All-Ivy defensive tackle for Harvard, but became a professional wrestler in 2002. He suffered a serious concussion in 2003 and developed post-concussion syndrome, which forced him to retire. Nowinski’s own injury taught him about the lack of awareness for concussions and brain trauma. He wrote the book “Head Games: Football’s Concussion Crisis,” which was published in 2006. He has worked with several retired NFL players in an effort to better understand the aftereffects of concussions. Nowinski co-founded the Sports Legacy Institute in 2007 and then partnered with the Boston University Medical Center a year later to research concussions, in part by studying the brains of deceased players.
According to Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, 76 of the 79 brains of deceased NFL players studied at the Department of Veterans Affairs’ brain repository in Bedford, Massachusetts, have showed some form of CTE.
“With the state of football, I think it’s clear that CTE is not an isolated problem,” said Nowinski, the co-director of Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. “We’re trying to unlock more information on what the disease is so that we can find ways to prevent it and treat it.”
The NFL is also spending millions on research involving brain injuries, partnering with the National Institutes of Health and providing funding to the Boston University study center.
“We obviously are very interested in the [BU] center’s research on the long-term effects of head trauma in athletes,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in announcing a $1 million grant. “It is our hope that this research will lead to a better understanding of these effects and also to developing ways to help detect, prevent and treat these injuries.”
NFL concussion data: Practice vs. Game(includes preseason and regular-season games)
NFL concussion data: Preseason vs. Regular Season
The NFL has since attempted to make its game safer through rules changes and increased awareness about the dangers of concussions. In 2013, the NFL’s head, neck and spine committee introduced new protocols for diagnosing and managing concussions, which included detailed steps for a player to return to the field after suffering a concussion. The NFL also put more emphasis on protecting players from helmet-first hits to the head and neck.
But Nowinski isn’t sure enough is being done.
“It’s going to be hard to solve the problem for the pros playing today in terms of preventing CTE, particularly because they’ve all come up in a football environment that didn’t pay attention to concussions,” Nowinski said. “I think there will be inherent conflicts forever, in that most guys from the team don’t have secure jobs and are not going to be forthcoming with concussions because they’re so common.”
Marshall wants people to know that the damage is real for former players dealing with concussion-related issues.
“We’re private people now and no longer professional athletes playing the game,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of fortitude that’s being exhibited in bringing our situation to the forefront and letting America have a chance to see what’s going on.”
'Pills were my mistress'
That’s how it started. Shane Olivea had just finished his first season with the San Diego Chargers, starting and being named to the NFL’s All-Rookie team. But the introduction to pro football had taken a toll on his body and a teammate told him about a friend who could get him something that would help. A couple of pops of Vicodin. It’s the same stuff they give people who have wisdom teeth pulled, so how bad could it be?
Olivea would soon find out. Within three years he would be out of the NFL, largely because of an addiction to painkillers that blossomed from two or three pills a day at first to his snorting ground-up OxyContin, an opioid, before taking the field for games.
“I never took another snap where I wasn’t under the influence of opioids,” Olivea said of the remaining 2 1/2 seasons in which he was a starter for the Chargers. He described his situation as “playing under the influence,” and described the feeling as if he’d walked onto the field after having a couple of drinks.
“You’re high, you’re stoned,” he said. “I wasn’t loopy. I was high, you get a high effect . . . You’re not drunk but you’re buzzed. You know you’re buzzed. You’re coherent but you’re not all there.”
Olivea, now 33, played offensive tackle for the Chargers and at Ohio State, where he was a three-year starter. He grew up in Long Beach, but his family moved to Atlantic Beach and he played for Lawrence High School his senior year. During his NFL career, from 2004 to 2007, he was listed at 6-4 and 325 pounds. Originally a seventh-round draft pick, he signed a $20 million extension in 2006. By then, he was already hooked.
Did you take prescription painkillers during your career?
He would routinely take $20,000 in cash out of the bank, slip across the border from San Diego to Mexico in a taxicab, and come back with a month’s supply. In all, he figures he spent around $530,000 in cash on medications that soon took over his life, ruined his career, and nearly killed him. When he checked into the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, California, in the spring of 2008 after an intervention by his family, doctors there told him he should not have survived the amount of drugs he had been taking.
“The best way I describe it to people is I was married to football and the pills were my mistress,” Olivea said of the start of his dalliances, which were kept secret from the team and other players. “And then within a four-year span my mistress was sitting at the dinner table and my wife was not in the house anymore. It sucked the life out of me. It affected every relationship I had, especially with my teammates.”
Olivea suspects he’s not the only one who has gone through an NFL career high on painkillers. More alarming — and more well-documented — are the rates at which former players removed from the structure and resources of their NFL teams turn to the pills that are so easily available.
Do you currently take prescription painkillers for injuries suffered during your career?
In a survey conducted by Newsday in conjunction with the NFL Players Association’s former players division, retired players were asked if they currently take prescription painkillers for injuries suffered during their careers, and 27.3 percent (208 of 763) said yes. (Respondents were not asked whether the medications had been legally obtained.) The survey also asked if they took prescription painkillers during their careers; 64.9 percent (495) said yes.
A 2010 study of NFL veterans by the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis focused on painkillers specifically and found that 7 percent of the former players were currently using painkilling opioid drugs and 71 percent of those who used opioids during their career — prescription drugs such as oxycodone, Vicodin, Percocet — went a step further and said they “misused” them (for example, took them for reasons or in doses other than the prescription). That study also found that 63 percent got their drugs either exclusively from a nonmedical source or a combination of both doctors and illicit sources such as a teammate, coach, athletic trainer, family member or street dealer.
The bottom line of the study: Former players are roughly four times more likely to use painkilling opioid drugs than the general population. That naturally increases the likelihood of addiction, which is already at epidemic proportions in the Unites States. According to federal statistics, more than 2 million Americans are addicted to painkillers.
“The dangers [of painkiller addiction] aren’t really prevalent until long after the careers are over. That’s the problem,” said Frank Mattiace, a former NFL and United States Football League player who is now a licensed drug and alcohol counselor and director of New Pathway Counseling Center in Paramus, New Jersey.
Mel Owens, a former NFL linebacker who is now a disability attorney in California and represents hundreds of players, put it bluntly.
“If you took all the medication out of the NFL, you’d have no league,” Owens said. “You go in as a healthy guy at 21 or 22 years old and just the massive amounts of medication they give you and the stress and strain of the game, you’re just ruined.”
Former Jets quarterback Ray Lucas was. He said he became hooked on opioid painkillers after his career ended because of a neck injury. He didn’t have insurance and couldn’t afford corrective surgery, so he began dulling the “excruciating” pain with medication. Like Olivea, he started out with just a few pills.
“Before you know it, you go from 100 pills a month to 400 pills a month, 800 pills a month, 1,200 pills, 1,500 pills a month which you don’t get from doctors,” said Lucas, who was receiving prescriptions from three different doctors and also buying on the black market, a habit that nearly bankrupted his family. “I was getting them from everywhere. Anything I could get my hands on. Roxies, oxys, Percocets, Vicodins. You name it, I took it, whatever the strength was.”
It got so bad for Lucas that he contemplated suicide. He planned to drive his SUV off the George Washington Bridge, he said, before receiving help for his addiction.
There were times where at night I’d take 50 and say, ‘Thank God I won’t be waking up tomorrow,’ ” Lucas said. “It’s pitch black. There is no light and there is no hope and there is no looking forward to anything. It just becomes darker and darker and you can’t do anything to get it to stop.”
Troy Vincent, a former Pro Bowl player who is now NFL executive vice president of football operations, said there are new protocols in the league these days to educate players on the ramifications — both in the present and the future — of the medications they are taking. In terms of doling out pills, many NFL teams have taken the onus off their physicians in recent years and now use third-party companies registered with the Drug Enforcement Administration to deliver prescription medications to players at team sites. Those companies also maintain usage logs that can be tracked by the league.
“We’re really trying to step up our efforts by educating not just the player but his influences that are around him about the long-term effects of painkillers,” Vincent said of reaching out to wives and parents as well. “It’s become one of our core areas of education as we talk about heart disease, cancer, pain medicine and long-term treatment.”
Language on the use of painkillers and policies for the care of addicted players was even added into the most recent collective-bargaining agreement signed in 2011. In December, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit by 1,300 former players against the NFL, writing that the collective-bargaining agreement between the league and the union was the appropriate forum to resolve claims that teams damaged the players by routinely dispensing painkillers.
Olivea said the Chargers were not aware of his addiction until it began to affect his performance. By then, it was too late. He didn’t know how to stop. He didn’t know he could ask for help.
“Pride, it’s one of those sins,” Olivea said. “Pride got me to the NFL, my pride got me out of the NFL. . . . The game of football always came easy to me. The crazy thing is that the game of life kicked my [butt].”
Olivea says he has been clean for more than six years and is still trying to catch on with an NFL team. He’s been living and training in the Phoenix area for several years.
“I spent my whole life training to get to the NFL and in less than four years I kind of ruined it,” he said. “I never played a game clean . If I can be that good stoned, how good can I be clean? That’s the only thing that’s a thorn in my side.”
He’s also close to finishing his degree in communications from Ohio State. If he doesn’t get an NFL job this offseason, he said, he’ll likely turn to coaching. He said his experiences can help him not only teach techniques and skills but also possibly steer young players away from the pitfalls of prescription medicines that he fell into.
“Having played in the NFL and also with my personal story, I could possibly help someone going down the wrong path or allow them to see what can happen,” he said. “I’m in a unique spot.”
Unfortunately, he’s not.
'Sitting on those planes talking business all the time'
On the field, the 1996 Jets were a waste of time, finishing 1-15 under coach Rich Kotite.
But deep in the belly of their chartered flights to ill-fated road games, two rookies were doing anything but wasting time. They were laying the groundwork for lives as former players in a new millennium.
“I remember sitting on those planes talking business all the time,” said Ray Mickens, recalling his conversations with No. 1 draft pick Keyshawn Johnson. Keyshawn would talk about Magic Johnson, who became a successful businessman after his Hall of Fame basketball career.
“He’d tell me what Magic had talked to him about, what Magic was doing, what he’d be doing with Magic . . . It kind of took off from there.”
That it did. Even as a very young man learning how to be an NFL cornerback, Mickens, a business major at Texas A & M, took an interest in off-the-field opportunities that could set him up for middle age and beyond.
Before he retired from football, he already was a successful businessman and has continued from there, more than eight years after he last played, primarily through ownership in retail outlets at airports.
Mickens looks younger than his 42 years and is around his playing weight of 182 pounds. But he does have his share of ailments. The biceps in both arms no longer are in their natural positions. He tore the left one tackling the Dallas Cowboys’ Joey Galloway in 2003.
How much time did he miss? “Oh, no, man, I had incentives to make,” he said. “I told them to tape it up. I could not take a play off. I never got it fixed. The other one doesn’t look as bad, but it’s still bad.”
Mickens also suffered concussions, he said, invariably playing through them. He has not been tested but said he sometimes gets headaches, and his memory is inconsistent enough that he writes down anything important.
Despite all that, he knows he is fortunate compared with many former players and tries to fight off any ill effects by staying in shape.
“I know I don’t want to let myself go, man,” he said.
Also, he has a good job. Ask Mickens and other successful former players their secret and many will tell you the same thing: being ready, and starting the process early.
“You have to understand what you want to do and prepare for that day from the time you get in the NFL,” said former Jets linebacker Bart Scott, 34, who retired from the NFL before the 2013 season to join CBS as an analyst.
“A lot of guys fail to do that because they never see the end coming. Then injury comes or something unfortunate comes and they’re stuck.”
Former Bills special-teams star Steve Tasker, 52, a CBS sideline reporter, said another key is accepting that even if nothing can replace the thrill of playing, that is not all there is.
“There is more to life than feeling the rush of covering a kickoff,” said Tasker, who also works for the Bills’ marketing department and is a spokesman for the biggest automobile group in New York State.
“It’s great, but you don’t skydive every day. You don’t bungee jump every day. There are a lot of joyous moments in my life that had nothing to do with competition.”
For Mickens, that included catching the business bug early. It began in the late 1990s when he got a contract to open a small kiosk that sold soft pretzels and soft drinks at Philadelphia International Airport. (His parents grew up in Philadelphia and he has many ties there.)
Total investment: $15,000.
He heard about the opportunity from an uncle who worked for the city. One catch: It required hiring welfare recipients. Mickens says he quickly learned being a business owner meant dealing with employees who, he said, were not all reliable or trustworthy.
“It was a $15,000 investment that I didn’t really make much money on, but it was the best thing that I could have done,” he said, “because I learned the business and I learned how people were.”
Things took off from there. When a new terminal opened, he partnered with Famous Famiglia pizza for an outlet.
“In the offseason I’d drive down to Philly after my workouts on a Thursday and spend a couple of days learning about the business, then came back up here Monday for workouts,” he said.
Mickens had an offseason home in north Texas and joined with HMSHost, a global retail food company, for outlets at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport.
Eventually he became a partner on 15 units that sell food, drinks, souvenirs and other items, with more in development. Mickens also owns rental properties throughout Texas.
He said players coming into the NFL today are more sophisticated and are given more support than in his day. But that doesn’t make the transition easy.
“A lot of the guys coming into college are from lower-income families; that means that one or probably both of your parents haven’t gone to college,” he said. “So how are they going to handle making $1 million, $2 million, $3 million? . . . You have to learn about that on your own.”
Mickens said he is just as passionate about his business success as he was about football — and has just as much of a chip on his shoulder.
“The stereotype used to be you’re 5-foot-8, you have to be 6-foot to be successful [in the NFL],” he said. “Now the stereotype is, hey, you’re a former NFL player, you’re not supposed to be successful in business. It’s another stereotype you want to break out of — or that I want to break out of.”
Did you find it difficult to adjust to daily life after your NFL career ended?
In a survey conducted by Newsday in conjunction with the NFL Players Association’s former players division, 480 of 763 responders, or almost 63 percent, said “yes” when asked: “Did you prepare for life after football during your playing career?”
Almost 66 percent of responding players said they did not have a difficult time finding employment for a post-NFL career and close to half (49.41 percent) said “no” when asked if they had struggled financially after the end of their NFL careers.
When Mickens learned Newsday was working on a series about life after football, he strongly urged there be a balance between the stories of former players who are struggling and the success stories such as his.
“I think more and more players are successful in business,” Mickens said. “They’re just not getting respect.”
What the players say
Several questions in Newsday’s Life After Football survey of former NFL players, done in conjunction with the NFLPA’s former players services department, allowed for respondents to provide their comments. The survey was anonymous. Below are some of the comments former players shared in the survey.
Question: What has been the biggest challenge in your post-NFL life?
“Every year I prepare for pro football season by conditioning my body/mind, but I have no locker room/training camp/team. I can’t shake this built-in seasonal preparation. It’s warrior normal to my mind.”
“Refocusing on another career. Fortunately, I was able to attend law school and become an attorney.”
Every day is a challenge to maintain control over emotions! Peaks and valleys! Experiences with the birth of new emotions, i.e., depression, panic attacks, fits of rage and bouts of crying spells! Lastly, how do you tell someone, doctor, friend, loved one, that your brain is hurt?”
“People perceive me differently. I have a hard time dealing with how people view me and how people have used my football career against me.”
“Being viewed as an ex-player. Not as respected. Not as desired. Not as useful. Not as wanted.”
“Being on a structured schedule for at least eight months out of a year for 20 years was a hard adjustment.”
Question: Is the league doing enough to make the game safer?
“Too much. You are not allowed to hit anyone.”
“It’s toooo safe. Everyone should wear flags!!!”
“Probably too much because to me it’s not real football anymore. I rarely watch it because it’s boring now. No action like in the past.”
“League it getting too soft.”
“No. The NFL needs to change the rules about hitting defenseless receivers trying to catch a pass or defenseless players being blindsided by a block. Instead of fines, players should be suspended from games as a penalty.”
“This is a losing proposition for the league. What made the game today is the violence.”
Quit changing the rules. Football is violent. Deal with it.”
“They are doing too much way too late.”
“They are making the game unsafe with all these new rules. Just let the players play!”
“Emphasize strength training the neck and start measuring neck size at the combine.”
“Need more psychological evaluations and counseling.”
Some of the assistance programs available to former football players include:
NFL Player Care Foundation: Created in 2007 in conjunction with the NFL Players Association, NFL Alumni Association and the Pro Football Hall of Fame, this program helps former players with medical, emotional, social and community support. The NFL says this program has granted more than $7 million to more than 750 former players since it was created.
NFL Life Line: A 24/7 phone line where players, former players, coaches and team and league staff can call to speak with professionals about personal or emotional issues.
Transition Assistance Program: Free for recently retired players and their significant others. They meet with other former players to discuss psychological, physical and social challenges they faced when they stopped playing. Sessions also focus on fitness, nutrition, career development and finances.
NFL Joint Replacement Program: Run through the NFL Player Care Foundation, this program “provides medical and financial resources to retired players who are uninsured or lack the financing to have joint replacement surgery.”
NFL Business Management and Entrepreneurial Program: Run in conjunction with the NFL Players Association and graduate business schools at Harvard, Notre Dame and Stanford, this program intends “to improve players’ ability to evaluate business opportunities through interactive workshops, stimulating discussions and practical knowledge.”
Boot camps: Run out of the NFL’s Player Engagement division, the league runs boot camps for players and former players interested in areas such as broadcasting, franchising, the business of music, hospitality and culinary management, filmmaking and sports media.
88 Plan: Named for John Mackey. who wore No. 88 for the Baltimore Colts, the plan provides retired players up to $88,000 per year for medical and custodial care resulting from dementia.
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