January 31, 2008
Washington, DC— Nevada Senator Harry Reid spoke on the Senate floor this morning about the need for the NFL to consider increasing benefits for former players that sustained life-altering injuries.
Below are his remarks as prepared for delivery:
This Sunday, families will gather in living rooms across our country to watch Super Bowl 42 in Glendale, Arizona.
Whether the game is a nail-biter or a blowout, we will long remember the heroics: a goal-line stand, a fourth-down Hail Mary, or the player who suffered a first quarter injury yet played through the pain to lead his team to victory.
These Sunday heroes will soak up the cheers of an adoring nation.
But there are hundreds of former NFL players who no longer hear the cheers. Instead, they suffer great pain as the result of life-long injuries from their days on the field.
Some of them are stars and legends. Some are wealthy, some live comfortably.
But most others never hoisted a trophy or earned a spot in our memories. Many were faceless figures behind helmets, lost to history but for yellowed photographs and dusty highlight reels.
They helped build the league but never earned much from their on-the-field days. Often they worked second jobs in the off-season.
Far from basking in the kind of wealth we associate with the athletes of today, many are now struggling just to pay their medical bills and make ends meet for their families.
But when they came to the NFL’s retirement plan to claim their disability benefits, they were rejected.
The league to which they gave their hearts, souls and bodies, has not stood by their side.
In September, one of these former players, Brent Boyd of Reno, Nevada, came to my office to tell me about his struggles.
Brent is a mountain of a man. In his playing days, he was 6’3”, 270 pounds. You couldn’t see Brent without thinking – that is a football player.
Brent played college ball at UCLA and was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings.
During a preseason game in 1980, Brent remembers only waking up after a hard hit, with a terrible headache and his vision temporarily gone in one eye.
His coach asked his rookie lineman whether he could see out of the other eye. When he answered yes, he was told to get back in the game.
Brent did what was expected of him and played through his injury. He said that playing through injuries was the culture of the sport.
That was just one of countless hard hits Brent took during his playing days.
He told me – how would you like to play football on cement with just a rug covering it? That’s what the old artificial playing surfaces were like.
Every hit left him in great pain – but each time, he got up and took another.
It wasn't until years later that his doctors began to connect the dots – and discovered that his chronic dizziness, fatigue, depression and headaches were a result of head injury – a result of hit after hit he took during his six year career.
Unable to hold down a steady job because of these injuries, Brent went to the NFL retirement plan for help -- but he was granted just $1,550 a month in disability payments – far below the $8,200 promised to ex-players whose injuries resulted from football injuries.
Brent told me of the struggle that ensued: multiple doctor’s visits, delays and more denials, and financial troubles.
We all know that football is a dangerous profession. For those who earn millions, perhaps it is fair to say that the reward is worth the risk.
But Brent played in a different time.
He never signed a big contract, never earned a shoe endorsement deal, never appeared in commercials.
Now, he struggles just to pay his bills and keep a roof over his head.
Is Brent’s story an exception? Far from it.
Two football greats – Mike Ditka and Jerry Kramer – have created the “Gridiron Greats” fund to help retired players in need.
They discovered heartbreaking stories from retired stars including:
-- Willie Wood, the hall of fame safety;
-- Wilber Marshall, the three time Pro Bowl linebacker;
-- Conrad Dobler, the three time Pro Bowl lineman;
-- And Herb Adderley, an All-Big Ten star at Michigan state and star cornerback for the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys.
Gridiron Greats also came upon many lesser-known players with stories like Brent’s.
Players like Mike Mosley, a Buffalo Bills receiver for three years in the early ‘80s.
Mike suffered knee, neck and back injuries that forced him to retire early and left him permanently disabled.
Initially, the NFL disability committee granted him benefits. But in September 2004, a doctor hired by ten NFL ruled that he could do sedentary work, and all his benefits were cut.
Mike lost his home, his car, and his savings. His life has been torn apart.
Another example is Brian DeMarco, a lineman for the Jacksonville Jaguars from 1995-1998.
Like Mike, Brian was forced into an early retirement by injury. He was unable to navigate the disability system’s red tape – even though his back was broken in 17 places.
Brian and his family were left homeless. He told the Denver Post – [the NFL] “is a multibillion-dollar business, and guys are giving their quality of life up for this sport. Just a little respect and dignity is all we want.”
These stories illustrate a point that the statistics confirm: According to one press report, almost two-thirds of former players suffer an injury serious enough to require surgery – and almost half of all players retire due to injury.
But among the more than one thousand disability claims filed by former NFL players, less than 35% received initial approval.
Brent Boyd was among the former players who testified before the Commerce Committee in September.
They told us how they feel abandoned and forgotten, lost in endless doctors' visits and red tape.
Daryl Johnston, who played 11 years as a running back for the Cowboys, testified that he retired with 5 years remaining on his contract after suffering a herniated disk.
The Players’ Association sent him for an evaluation with one of their doctors – not his own. He was not permitted to bring his x-rays or MRI results. Like so many others, his claim was denied.
After the hearing last September and countless news stories, the NFL and Players' Association have taken some steps to right this wrong.
Where before their approval process seemed little more than ad hoc, they now apply standards used by the Social Security Administration to determine disability.
They have also implemented “The 88 Plan,” which provides funds for a residential care facility or in-home care. These steps are a start.
But Brent Boyd and so many others like him still suffer the pain of their injuries and still struggle to pay their bills on far less disability assistance than they deserve.
In the coming weeks, I will work with the NFL and Players' Association and other retirees to ensure that progress is being made.
If needed, we will call for more hearings.
As the bright lights shine on Super Bowl 42 this Sunday, I want Brent and his injured brothers to know that they are not fighting in the shadows.
They deserve a spotlight too.
RenoBruce R. Thompson
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