Yesterday’s heroes, remembered

Kenny Easley wants to start by saying he’s one of the lucky ones. He’s had four knee surgeries and an ankle surgery. He’s had a kidney transplant and still takes two pills a day just to regulate his body’s ability to function.

Like the old joke about the three-legged dog that can’t bark or bite but answers to the name of Lucky, Easley still considers himself one of the fortunate ones.

Curt Marsh feels the same way. And he’s had the bottom of his right leg amputated, endured two hip replacements and has had rods put in his wrist and spine. He’s undergone 30 surgeries during his 48 years of life.

And yet luck, Marsh says, is on his side.

That’s because, unlike many NFL players from similar generations, Easley and Marsh are covered by disability insurance.

It’s the common story of those who do not get those same monthly paychecks that has motivated guys like Easley, Marsh and even some of the current stars of today to fight for a change in the system.

“I just feel that it’s my responsibility to help,” said Easley, a 48-year-old former Seattle Seahawks safety who has championed the cause for former players for more than a year. “I see guys who played with me who are suffering, and unnecessarily suffering. It doesn’t have to be that way.”

When it comes to sacrificing one’s body on the gridiron, a common analogy is that football is like being in 60 automobile accidents in a three-hour period. Easley recently compared the game to the ancient Roman sport that involved throwing a man and a lion into an arena for the entertainment of others. He once said it would be a “miracle” if any former player retired without at least one debilitating injury.

And yet, there are plenty of ex-players suffering without what they deem to be sufficient compensation from the league.

The stories of the unlucky ones are often told but not always heard. There is former offensive lineman Brent Boyd, who has been diagnosed with clinical depression stemming from, he contends, the concussions he suffered as an NFL player.

There is former NFL running back Delvin Williams, who had several knee and ankle injuries during his career and eventually spent 12 years, and thousands of dollars of his own money, fighting in court for degenerative disability coverage.

Earl Campbell, one of the most recognizable stars from the 1980s, uses a walker after undergoing back surgery. The list goes on and on.

“There are some players out here hurting, and some stuff has to be done,” Easley said. “It doesn’t have to be that way. We’re making strides, but we’re not where we need to be.”

Two Web sites — www.gridirongreats.org and Easley’s www.dignityafterfootball.org — have been dedicated toward helping players from the pre-collective bargaining agreement era.

And last month, current Kansas City Chiefs lineman Kyle Turley announced that he will give his paycheck from today’s game against Detroit to the cause. Five Kansas City teammates and Minnesota center Matt Birk are among those who have since joined Turley in donating today’s earnings.

It’s a good start, critics say, but there’s still work to be done.

The well-publicized argument, which went in front of a House of Representatives subcommittee over the summer, stems from a pre-Collective Bargaining Agreement disability plan that has many ex-players feeling left out. Boyd, Marsh and former player/coach Mike Ditka were among those who spoke before the House’s judiciary subcommittee in September, claiming that — in Boyd’s words — the NFL system is “corrupt” when it comes to disability coverage of players who retired prior to the 1993 CBA.

Easley, whose career ended after just seven seasons because of a kidney condition that he blamed on overuse of aspirin to help play through the pain, understands the plight even if his own finances are in order.

“If you retired before 1993, when they negotiated the CBA, you are basically stuck in a time warp in terms of disability, pension and survival benefits for your wife and kids,” said Easley, who has had several business ventures to supplement his income since a 1987 retirement.

To the credit of the NFL, and its players association, the system has improved over the years. And thanks to organizations like Gridiron Greats, money is being raised for the cause.

But for many, the help comes too late.

The most high-profile case involved former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster. The nine-time Pro Bowler suffered from amnesia, depression and several other disabilities that some have blamed on the injuries he endured during a 17-year playing career. According to a 2004 ESPN story, Webster became addicted to painkillers and often used a Taser gun on himself to take away the pain.

Webster died in Sept. 2002, at the age of 50, while living on the streets.

“He died a pauper’s death,” Easley said. “Mike Webster. I mean, he was the Pittsburgh Steelers. When you talk about the Steel City and all of that, a guy that was iron, Mike Webster was all that.

“He played (17) years, an All-Pro, and he couldn’t get declared disabled by the National Football League doctors. And he died — homeless, penniless and basically unnoticed. And that’s a shame.”

Then there’s the case of Marsh, who is comparatively fortunate despite more visible signs of the violence that football can bring. Marsh, who played six seasons as an NFL offensive lineman, had his right foot amputated in 1994 following a severe ankle injury he suffered seven years earlier. He has had 30 surgeries in his life in all.

“I’ve got lots of missing parts, and still for me to get (disability), it took three tries over a year and a half,” said Marsh, who works as a motivational speaker and still lives in Snohomish County. “You get caught in this labyrinth of trying to get help. They’re always looking for a reason not to give help. That’s how the system works.”

Marsh was also critical of a policy that pays disability but doesn’t always provide insurance to cover medical costs.

“Having a monthly check is great,” he said, “but people like me are also in the position where the body needs medical help as well. Just a check isn’t enough; you’re going to need to go to the doctor and have surgeries too.”

NFL spokespeople have contended numerous times that millions of dollars have been earmarked toward ex-players. The NFL Players Association put out a release over the summer stating that 317 ex-players were still receiving disability.

NFLPA president Gene Upshaw pointed out that the Players Association has increased funds toward ex-players in each of the three successive CBAs since 1993.

“We reject charges that the present NFL disability benefit system treats veteran players harshly or denies them access to benefits,” Upshaw said during testimony in the September hearing. “The factual record disproves those charges.

“Of course, the system can be improved, and (NFL) commissioner (Roger) Goodell and I are determined to simplify and expedite the processing of claims.”

Marsh admits that the NFL and its players association have made strides over the years. For example, the NFLPA lobbied for something called the “degenerative disability pension,” which compensates players whose health deteriorates after their careers are over. Under the former system that was in place before the 1993 CBA, players had 12 months to file for disability, and any future health problems were no longer covered.

But Easley and Marsh are among those who think more can be done.

“It would do the image of the league a lot of good,” Easley said last month. “This voice that is rumbling along and gaining steam, it’s not going to go away until there’s some justification for retired players.”

Thanks to active players like Turley and Birk, both of whom have opened themselves to criticism from their peers, that voice is now being shouted from later generations.

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