Pre-1977 NFL Players Fight For Better Pension

By John Lopez
Updated: November 7, 2006

HOUSTON — It was the NFL’s greatest generation, a battered and bloodied assortment of football pioneers from blue-collar cities, Midwest farmhouses, bayou swamplands and every other corner of America.

The mantra these players forged: Play hard. Make no excuses. Tape it up and get back out there.

Their football souls were like coarse-grit sandpaper. They were proud and tough. And they always played hurt.

Today, many former NFL players fighting for better pension benefits and representation on the Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle Retirement and Disability Plan board are swallowing their pride. They are because they hurt in an assortment of ways.

They feel cheated and victimized by an NFL pension plan that pales in comparison to similar plans in the NBA and Major League Baseball for players of their generation.

No matter the NFL’s stance, to see what this generation of players did for the league, compared to what they get from the league, it is clear they are being cheated and discarded.

The sorry pension benefit plan for pre-1977 players is, as former Oakland Raiders great Howie Long said last year, “the deep, dark secret nobody wants to talk about.”

Gone and forgotten

That prideful unspoken mantra, making no excuses, for years kept older-generation players from complaining about the treatment they received since their glory days ended.

But as bodies continue to fall apart and medical bills stack higher, with numerous players succumbing to dementia, hip and knee replacement operations and other life-altering conditions, the league’s greatest generation wonders why it has been forgotten.

“We’ve been (left out) on every hand,” said Deacon Jones, an eight-time Pro Bowl player in 14 NFL seasons for the Los Angeles Rams, San Diego Chargers and Washington Redskins. “I don’t know why we are the victims all the time. We didn’t do anything but play hard, play hurt and do whatever was asked of us.

“Every event I go to, I see some guys’ bodies fading away. By the time something’s done, these guys will be gone. It’s like they’re waiting for our generation to die out, so they don’t have to answer these questions anymore.”

Former Oilers quarterback Dan Pastorini, 57, who had a sterling 13-year NFL career, earns just $1,202.32 a month in pension benefits.

Having been afforded no health insurance by the NFL in retirement, Pastorini must meet an annual $5,000 deductible because of pre-existing conditions that include back, neck and knee problems.

NFL Hall of Fame safety Paul Krause, who played 16 NFL seasons (1964-1979) for the Redskins and Minnesota Vikings, gets $300 a month in pension. Hall of Famer Leroy Kelly, a 10-year star running back for the Cleveland Browns (1964-1973) gets $800 a month.

Hall of Famer Joe DeLamielleure, who played 185 consecutive games during his 13 NFL seasons with the Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns, receives $800 a month. None has received NFL health insurance benefits.

The NFL built its $6 billion a year industry on the likes of Ollie Matson, Dick Butkus, Ted Hendricks and some 1,400 other pre-1977 players whose heroics are featured in grainy NFL Films productions. It was 1977 when the NFL was found to be violating antitrust laws, and benefits improved.

For those whose careers began before 1977, bits and pieces of their bodies are strewn from New York to Los Angeles to Houston. The NFL Players Association says it won’t forget the foundation its predecessors laid.

Words mean little

In its mission statement, the NFLPA says, “We pay homage to our predecessors for their courage, sacrifice and vision.”

But hundreds of former players believe that is where the paying stops. Just words.

“It’s like you walk away in shame,” Pastorini said. “I played the game as hard as I could. I was on the picket lines for the players association. Maybe I didn’t agree with everything, but I was there for the players and the future players.

“It’s really amazing how (executive director) Gene Upshaw and the players association turned their backs on the rest of us. In my opinion, Upshaw has been bought off. And if it wasn’t for us, he wouldn’t have that job he has.”

Through NFLPA director of communications Carl Francis, Upshaw chose not to respond to questions about the NFL pension plan for pre-1977 players.

“We’ve addressed it so many times. We’ll just let it take its course through the collective bargaining agreement,” Francis said. “We’re addressing the issues in our own ways.”

In the past, Upshaw, who earns $3 million a year as NFLPA chief and recently received a five-year extension to his contract, has said he does care about former players. But he also has called those calling for better benefits, “misinformed” and “ungrateful.”

Hendricks, primarily a pass-rushing linebacker who intercepted an astonishing 26 passes in his 14-year career, said former players have confronted Upshaw at Hall of Fame meetings.

“He told us he doesn’t represent us,” Hendricks said. “He talked about how much money he was going to make the next few years. It was like he was pushing our faces in the mud and rubbing it around.”

For modern-day NFL players, Upshaw has indeed worked wonders. Benefits are improved in large part because of 401(k) plans, annuities and better benefits that came as a result of recent collective bargaining agreement deals.

But their benefits still fall short of other leagues. A player retiring after 1998 with 10 years of experience would be eligible for an annual pension of roughly $51,000 at age 55. MLB players with 10 years of service would retire with $175,000 per year in benefits starting at age 62.

Getting mixed messages

But when the NFLPA upped pension benefits for pre-1977 players after a recent CBA agreement, Upshaw hailed the increase as unprecedented. Players were unimpressed with those benefits, many going from $100 a month to $200 a month for vested players.

“Yeah, he’s got some window dressing he can put out there, but when you look at it, it’s pathetic,” said former Colts and Chargers (1972-1983) defensive back Bruce Laird. “Everybody is happy for what the union has done for the active players. They’ve done some wonderful things. If I played in 1995 and saw Gene Upshaw, I’d kiss his (backside).

“But for us? We’re not sitting here with a cup in our hand asking for money. We want to be represented in the union. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t tell us you don’t represent us and then say you do when you give us a raise that means nothing.”

Inevitably, the majority of pre-1977 players voice most of their frustrations with Upshaw. They speak of not having a voice and getting conflicting, often contentious messages from him.

And Upshaw has told retired players the NFLPA does not represent them.

Labor law dictates that Upshaw must represent only active, dues-paying members of the union. But Upshaw, a Hall of Fame offensive lineman from the same generation of pre-1977 players, also has taken bows for funneling funds to former players.

Yet according to Laird, Upshaw also has told retired players, “You didn’t hire me, and you can’t fire me.”

Another contradiction: When asked about gaining representation on the NFL’s Retirement Board, a six-member committee that rules on benefit protests and disability claims, retired players have been told they indeed do have representation on the board. Their purported voice? Gene Upshaw.

“That’s a joke,” Laird said.

The conflicting messages seem endless, like the emotional and physical pain former players are feeling.

Poor performance

Without question, the Retirement Board’s record for being sympathetic to retired players’ claims has been less than impressive. Of 3,500 players represented, barely 130 (0.37 percent) have earned full disability, according to a 2005 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette study in the wake of Steelers great Mike Webster’s death.

With no representative on the board, former players feel abandoned by the game and deceived by Upshaw.

“It’s an impossibility to have ourselves heard,” Pastorini said. “There are a lot of disturbing stories out there. Great players are falling to pieces.

“Upshaw makes me sick. He was a teammate of mine (at Oakland in 1980), and I didn’t like him as a teammate. I like him less now.”

Recently, many players have tried to tackle the issue themselves, so to speak. Former Packers great Jerry Kramer has founded the Gridiron Greats Relief Fund, initiating a series of memorabilia auctions at in hopes of helping destitute and needy former players.

Mike Ditka, a Hall of Famer and legendary Chicago Bears player and coach, has become among the most active advocates for financial relief.

Ditka also established a fund, but when Ditka penned letters soliciting each NFL team for a $100,000 donation in order to begin allowing former players “dignity,” the response was embarrassing. One team sent a $5,000 check. Another sent $10,000. That’s it.

Not nearly enough

Hendricks and Jones, too, are involved in fundraising efforts, attending dozens of charitable efforts every year, autographing memorabilia for auctions and hosting golf tournaments every November.

But considering financial demands, what players are doing for themselves makes a minuscule impact.

Matson, perhaps the league’s first true superstar tailback and a Hall of Famer, has lived in a full-time nursing facility in Los Angeles the past two years, suffering from symptoms of dementia and other ailments. He receives $1,200 a month from the NFL pension plan, although Matson’s investments post-NFL have kept the family from financial straits.

“These were the guys who put the NFL on the map and made it the game it is today,” said Bruce Matson, Ollie’s son and a Houston dentist and cosmetic surgeon. “What dad gets from the NFL, you couldn’t even buy groceries with in L.A.”

And while the past scrapes together money for groceries and prescriptions, the NFL sits atop a mountain of gold. Franchises are valued at an average of nearly $820 million apiece, according to Forbes magazine. The league’s television and multimedia deal will bring the NFL $24 billion over the next eight years.

Remember football’s greatest generation? The NFL apparently stands for Not For Long.