Batman Forever: If Someone Had The Ball, Wood Was Going To Find Him

By Gary Shelton
Updated: June 6, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG — Once, he ran like a predator at feeding time. There was no place on a football field a running back could escape. If someone had the ball, the Batman was going to find him.

Richard Wood moves more slowly these days. His is the shuffle of a man trying to sneak past the pain before it can find him again. He hates the cane in his hand, but it beats the accursed walker that he has put aside.

Once, he was fit and strong, young enough to believe that time could not harm him. He was a linebacker, a tough man’s position in a tough man’s sport, and playing hurt was better than not playing at all.

These days, there is an ugly scar running from Wood’s sternum to his groin. Flip him over, and there is another striping his back. Between the scars, there is a metal rod holding his spine together.

Such is the picture of an NFL player long after the cheering stops.

And the shame of it is, no one seems willing to see.

Wood, a former Bucs defender, has become yet another example of a player the NFL has left behind. For a decade, Wood absorbed blocks, tackled runners and ignored pain to play professional football.

Yet, after the punishment mounted to the point where Wood needed an eight-hour surgery in March, he was denied benefits by the NFL disability board. Wood is in litigation.

Across the nation, the stories have become more common. Former Colts tight end John Mackey has Alzheimer’s disease. Former Packers safety Willie Wood suffers from dementia and is in an assisted living facility.

Former Bears linebacker Wilber Marshall has had several surgeries and needs more. Former Dolphins running back Mercury Morris suffers from severe headaches after having his spine fused. Former Cardinals offensive lineman Conrad Dobler has had 11 surgeries and needs more. And on and on.

Such former stars as Mike Ditka, Deacon Jones and Jerry Kramer have become the voices in the plea for help for those who played at a time when salaries were smaller.

There are those who blame the league for not paying more attention. There are those who blame the players’ association for not contributing more money to the retirement fund. There are those who blame the disability board, which seems unyielding in the face of a claim.

In every city, with every franchise, there seems to be a face to the struggle. In Tampa Bay, that face is the familiar, smiling face of the player called Batman.

“I don’t want to sound bitter, because I’m not, ” Wood said last Thursday, his 54th birthday. “I’m positive about this. I think something good is going to happen, not just for me but for a lot of players.

“There are a lot of players worse off than I am. Look at Mike Webster (former Steelers center who died in 2002 at 50). Look at Ron Hall (former Bucs tight end who died two weeks ago at age 43). Look at Andre Waters (former Eagle who suffered multiple concussions and committed suicide at 44). Look at all of these soldiers in Iraq.”

It would be understandable if there were a little anger in Wood’s voice. Twice, his application for benefits was denied. Don Anderson, his attorney, said the first time was because of a statute of limitations. The second, Anderson said, was because of the description of disability.

Wood remembers a different message.

“They told me that my injury didn’t have anything to do with playing football, ” he said. “I couldn’t believe it. I almost fell over.”

To Wood, there is no question the constant punishment of playing in the NFL took its toll. During the first six years of the Bucs’ history, as the defense grew into one of the best in the league, Wood averaged 136 tackles. His 855 tackles are still sixth on the Bucs’ all-time list.

“Batman is Superman, ” former teammate David Lewis once said.

As a player, Wood’s best salary was $120, 000 in his final season. In 10 years, Wood says he made “about $780, 000.”

There were times when he can remember playing with his back aching. He remembers putting a red heating pad on it before a game, and he can remember “a handful” of games when he had to take painkillers afterward.

“I thought it was just normal pain from playing, ” Wood said. “I never looked at an X-ray. I just wanted to play. I had work to do. I thought I was healthy.”

A couple of years after he retired, the pain worsened. He became a high school coach in Tampa, later an assistant with NFL Europe’s Frankfurt Galaxy. There were days, he admits, he was in agony.

“It got to a point where I couldn’t sit to do my work, ” he said. “I couldn’t lay down to sleep. I would end up sleeping most nights on the floor.”

Finally, Wood decided to have the surgery. It was not without risk. He still remembers the chill as his doctor said, “Richard, you might die.”

Said Wood: “If I didn’t have it, I was going to end up in a wheelchair.”

Two months after the surgery, on May 9, Wood, a three-time All-American at USC, was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame. Yeah, it was a big day. Monday is another one. That’s when he begins his official rehab.

“I’m blessed, ” he said. “I’m lucky to be here. I’m lucky my wife had health insurance, or we could have lost everything.

“It’s important that the NFL takes care of its older players. We have to address it. It’s been on a back burner too long.”

By now, the NFL has to hear the voices. By now, the NFLPA has to see. There are too many familiar faces who pushed their bodies to play while hurt. Now that the wear has begun to show, there are too many of them struggling for help. Yet, for all the money in the NFL, there is precious little for the pathfinders.

Hard profession. Harsh reality. Still, Wood has no regrets.

“I would do it again if I could, ” he said. “I loved the sport. I loved playing the game. I was enamored by football, and I was honored to have played it.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if the league cared as much?