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The NFL’s Forgotten Heroes
Few players were bigger in stature — or better at their job — than the Hall of Fame defensive back with the alluring moniker who intimidated receivers from1952 to 1965.
“Train was kind of in the show-business atmosphere,” said Lenny Moore, a longtime friend and on-field foe. “He married the great [jazz singer] Dinah Washington. That had him in the spotlight. He was as popular as she was.”
The lifestyle turned out to be fleeting. Beset by financial problems and poor health, Lane spent his final years in an assisted living facility in Austin, Texas.
Even though he had three sons – in three cities – and two ex-wives (Washington died in 1963), his caretaker was a retired construction engineer he met on the golf course.
In the end, Lane was neither exalted nor self-supporting. He lived paycheck to paycheck from his NFL pension, barely able to get around on bum knees. He died, virtually penniless, in 2002. It was a sad end to a proud life.
The harsh lesson of Lane’s riches-to-rags saga is not lost on retired players today. The NFL’s pioneers are awash in mental health issues, physical disabilities and financial distress.
There are dozens, if not hundreds, of retired players in need of assistance after missing the NFL’s money boat, a ship that sailed in 1993 with the merger of free agency and the salary cap.
It left behind a whole generation of players who helped build the NFL from the ground up and now feel abandoned.
In an industry that created nearly $6 billion worth of revenue last year, retired players are scoffing at plans for a 10-to-20 percent increase in their pension benefits this fall.
The proposal comes under terms that have yet to be made final in the NFL’s new collective bargaining agreement.
For many older players, that increase could amount to as little as $40 a month per credited season, or an additional $2,400 a year for a player who lasted five seasons.
That might be too little, too late for the fast-dwindling corps of pre-1959 players facing insolvency and worse.
Unofficially, there were more than 700 living pre-59ers when the landmark 1993 collective bargaining agreement was reached. Today, there are fewer than 300.
“Guys are at an age where their health is quickly deteriorating,” said former Baltimore Colts running back Joe Washington. “In realistic terms, if these guys die off, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
No money for funeral Lane was due an increase on his $800-a-month NFL pension when he died of a heart attack in January 2002 at the age of 73.
Were it not for the diligence of Charles Carroll and the charity of Mike Ditka, however, Lane might have had a pauper’s funeral.
Carroll was the businessman who befriended Lane and controlled his limited bank account (“Train was no money manager,” he said).
Upon Lane’s death, Carroll said he was directed by Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association, to give Lane a good funeral.
According to Carroll, there was enough money in Lane’s account for half of the $12,000 funeral expense, and the other half came out of his own pocket while he waited for the NFLPA to send the rest.
Ultimately, that check arrived through the intervention of Moore, a Hall of Famer with the Colts.
Still, there was a $1,600 headstone to pay for. Ditka covered the cost with money from his annual Hall of Fame golf classic in Chicago.
Ditka, a Hall of Fame tight end turned ESPN analyst, has been waging his own campaign to help needy players. He started a trust fund four years ago and estimates it helps 20 to 25 players each year.
He also said he has written letters to NFL owners soliciting donations of $100,000 a team to “solve” the problem.
“The response was embarrassing,” Ditka said. “One team sent $5,000, one sent $10,000. We’re trying to let guys who made the game what it is today have some dignity.
“I’m very aggravated with the players association; I’m very aggravated with Gene Upshaw. I don’t think they do enough. I don’t think they do anything.”
Upshaw, vacationing in Europe, has declined repeated interview requests. It is a fact of labor law, however, that he is allowed to represent only active players, not retired players, as the union leader.
It’s not just the league’s pioneers who need help these days. Mike Siani played from 1972 to 1977 with the Oakland Raiders and from 1978 to 1980 with the Colts as a wide receiver. He seems typical of the majority of retired players.
At 56, Siani has no medical, dental or life insurance because he can’t afford the premiums. He gets just $492 a month in benefits because he took his pension early, at age 45. And he has to work two jobs, one as coach of a minor league indoor football team.
“People think, ‘Wow, you played in the NFL, you must be a millionaire,’” Siani said. “They don’t realize when I started playing in ’72, I made $22,000 as a first-round draft choice.”
He agrees with Ditka that Upshaw – his former teammate on the Raiders – and the NFLPA haven’t done enough for retired players.
“As all the former players do, I think that maybe Gene is saying, ‘Just go away, don’t rock my boat, I’ve got a good gig going and I want it to last.’ I’m very disappointed with what he hasn’t done for us,” Siani said.
Upshaw has been under fire since January, when he told The Charlotte Observer he doesn’t represent retired players – a point the union acknowledged as far back as 1974 – and labeled those players attacking him as ungrateful.
The comments galvanized pockets of retired players across the country and fostered an atmosphere of mistrust toward the union. Some retired players believe there is more money available for pension increases than Upshaw says.
Baltimore’s chapter of 65 retired players has stood at the forefront in the fight. The chapter established a blog, a Google link and an e-mail system to inform all retired players.
Irked by the management of retired player funds a year ago, former Colts safety Bruce Laird, 56, has drawn a line in the sand.
“We do not trust Gene Upshaw or the NFLPA,” he said, “because quite frankly they don’t work for us.”
What Laird hopes to do is improve dialogue between current players and retired players, dialogue that is virtually nonexistent. It is clear, however, that Upshaw still has support within the retired player ranks.
Upshaw critics, fans Hall of Fame tackle Ron Mix, now an attorney in San Diego, wants to see benefits increased across the board, especially for a group of 325 retired players who took an ill-advised Social Security adjustment (more money up front, a lot less on the back end).
Nevertheless, Mix is quick to credit Upshaw with improving the retired players’ lot.
“A lot of criticism directed at [Upshaw] is not merited,” Mix said. “It was his administration that sensitized the current players to pension increases [for older players].”
“There is absolutely no legal obligation by the league or the players association to go back in time and increase pensions. [But] it’s been done a couple times.”
In 2002, the NFLPA doubled the benefits of players who played before 1968 from $100 to $200 a month per credited season – at a cost of $110 million from current player benefits.
According to NFL spokesman Greg Aiello, the league pays out nearly $5 million a month in pension benefits.
Ravens kicker Matt Stover, a player representative for most of his 16 NFL seasons, visited a Baltimore chapter meeting of retired players last month to answer questions and explain the process.
He promised the 10-to-20 percent increase once the new collective bargaining agreement is ratified in late summer or early fall.
“I want to make sure that the NFL retired players will always be considered in all negotiations. They have been since I’ve been here,” Stover said. “My heart, as an active player, is to take care of them as much as we can.
“Can those guys be made whole? Oh, my goodness, we don’t have billions of dollars for that. There’s just no way.”
How much money the union can allocate to retired players from funds in the Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan is a point of debate.
So far, Upshaw has declined to share specific actuarial information with them.
Ray Bille, who spent 37 years as a retirement plan consultant for three national firms, believes the NFLPA could do more to help.
Although he does not have access to NFLPA financial documents, Bille has spoken with a number of retired players, worked out his own calculations and come to the conclusion they could get as much as $100 more a month, not just the $40 that the union has proposed.
“I have no motivation to discredit Upshaw. I didn’t play in the NFL and I have no relation to him one way or another,” said Bille, now retired. “I feel he’s not being totally aboveboard in the way he’s communicating the opportunity to the retired players.”
Bille also described the NFL’s pension plan as “quite a bit weaker” than Major League Baseball’s, in part because of a variable annuity element in baseball that the NFLPA bargained away in 1970 when executive director Ed Garvey was pursuing free agency.
Major League Baseball provides $175,000 a year for life for a fully vested pension based on 10 years’ experience. A player with five years gets half that amount.
“Where football is today, I think [current players] do have something to do for the old-timers,” Bille said. “The NFL is so much more successful than any other sport, including baseball.”
“I feel strongly players averaging $1.5 million have somewhat of an obligation to the older guys, because it wouldn’t be close to that if not for the base laid by these older players in the ’60s and ’70s.”