Forgotten Forefathers (Part One)

By Gus Garcia-Roberts
Updated: January 20, 2008

Leroy Kelly

Leroy Kelly

CLEVELAND — In 1966, 24-year-old Leroy Kelly reported to Browns training camp saddled with one of the more daunting tasks in sports history: replacing Jim Brown.

That off-season, the legendary running back announced unexpectedly that he was retiring at age 30. Kelly was now charged with making fans forget that, come fall, the greatest Brown ever would be filming a movie in England with Ernest Borgnine, instead of thundering across the pasture of Municipal Stadium.

Where Brown smashed through tacklers with his bovine head, the rangy Kelly twirled and juked, leaving defenders flailing. He didn’t make Cleveland fans forget Jim Brown that year, but he did make the Pro Bowl, as well as the next five — twice leading the league in rushing.

His defender-shirking gifts kept him injury-free for 10 seasons, during which he missed only four games. But by 1974, he was slowing down. Kelly was unceremoniously released by the Browns, and then the Oakland Raiders. He joined the World Football League, a fly-by-night operation that folded mid-season.

Out of football options, Kelly moved home to Philadelphia. At the height of his career, he was making $80,000 a season. So he invested in a nightclub in a crumbling neighborhood, then a couple of Burger Kings. “They folded,” he says matter-of-factly.

Like so many players before and after, Kelly was learning that life after football isn’t as easy as playing the game.

Now 65, Kelly is still impossible to catch, unless you’re dangling an appearance fee. He’s a regular on the celebrity event circuit, a series of golf tournaments, card shows, and cubed cheese platters. They have him flying endlessly, from UMass football ceremonies to a golf tourney in Walden, Ohio, where he’ll tee off with Dikembe Mutombo.

It’s not that Kelly — stockier, but still fit — wouldn’t rather spend his twilight years at home with wife Bettie in Willingboro, New Jersey. It’s that he’s become dependent on the modest fees, eking out a living at a few hundred bucks a pop.

“They give the Hall of Famers a few dollars,” says Kelly, who was enshrined in 1994. “It’s a hustle for us, really.”

Those fees are really all that’s left from his years in the NFL. His league pension — $162 a month — barely buys a week’s worth of groceries. And if age or failing health ever forces him from the celebrity circuit, he’s not sure how he’ll survive. “I’m getting old, and it’s getting rougher and rougher.”

Still, as former pros go, Kelly is living something of a charmed retirement.

It wasn’t long ago that professional athletes had to earn a living just like everyone else. Johnny Brewer, a Browns tight end in the ’60s, recalls the days when players begged change from coaches for a pop, and were paid nothing for training camp except room and board.

“I used to ask, where else can you get college graduates to work tirelessly for six or seven weeks for no more than three hots and a flop?” says Brewer.

During the ’60s and ’70s, the average NFL salary ran between $12,000 and $20,000, little more than teachers made at the time. Almost every player had an off-season job in construction, insurance sales, or waiting tables. Some even worked second jobs during the season.

In the ’80s, salaries began to creep toward six figures, but with an average career length of just four years, rarely did players save enough to last more than a few years into retirement.

Meanwhile, the damage done to their bodies would last them to their graves. In a survey of those who played during the ’90s, two out of three reported permanent injuries.

While it’s the career-ending horrors that receive endless replays on SportsCenter, it’s the combined effect of thousands of all-in-a-day’s-work hits that cripple most players deep into retirement. Yet while the NFL Players Association estimates that half of all players are forced from the game by debilitating injury, only 317 of its 8,000 present and former players qualify to draw from the union’s stringently guarded disability fund.

Combine these two facts, and crisis is inevitable. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to look at the disability and say, ‘Wow, what in the hell is going on here?’” says Chicago legend Mike Ditka.

The situation has left a string of broken heroes in football’s wake. Indomitable Pittsburgh center Mike Webster — who anchored the Steelers’ offensive line in the ’70s and ’80s — spent his retirement penniless and suffering from dementia, sleeping in a pickup truck and tasering himself in the back to quell terrible pain. In 2002, he died of a heart attack at 50.

The great Earl Campbell, an explosive running back for Houston who led the league in rushing three times, now hobbles on a walker at age 52.

Brian DeMarco, a graduate of Admiral King High School in Lorain, was an offensive lineman for Jacksonville and Cincinnati for five seasons before injuries pushed him out of the league in ’99. He now moves like an elderly man at age 35, with rods and screws littering his back. He’s gone days without eating to pay for staggering medical bills.

Yet stunningly, all three were rejected multiple times for payments from the union’s disability fund.

Those left hobbled, for the most part, don’t blame the game. The kamikaze competition — with its grisly hits, heedless coaching, and cortisone shots that mask pain so an injured player can retake the field — was something they bargained for since high school. But they do indict the league — now a $7-billion-a-year monster — and their own union, the NFLPA, for abandoning those who built the sport.

“The bottom line is, I don’t work for them. They don’t hire me, and they can’t fire me. They can complain about me all day long. They can have their opinion. But the active players have the vote. That’s who pays my salary.”

When union director Gene Upshaw said this about former players to The Charlotte Observer last year, he sounded less like a union chief than a 1930s coal mine operator. The NFLPA quickly claimed he was misquoted and has been trying to defuse his words ever since. But it seemed to only confirm what’s been obvious through years of inaction — the plight of former players is not on Upshaw’s agenda.

The 6-foot-5 guard spent 15 years in the NFL, at one point playing more than 200 consecutive games for the Oakland Raiders. In 1983, he took over the weakest union in professional sports. Though current players have seen massive salary growth, Upshaw’s detractors consider him the last man who should be running a labor organization.

“Football is the sickest industry in the world, because of that one man — one rich bully — and his flunkies,” seethes former Browns guard Joe DeLamielleure.

The union was built in 1968 when NFL players, represented by former Browns cornerback Bernie Parrish, forced the league’s first collective-bargaining agreement. But when players from the recently merged American Football League agreed to weak terms, NFL players were forced to do the same.

The union has been beaten up by management and inner dissension ever since.

Every major sport has struggled with labor strife, but while baseball and basketball players watched their contracts and perks soar, the NFLPA seemed alone in its inability to perform at the bargaining table. Fledgling strikes in 1970 and ’74 crumbled almost as soon as they started. In a test of wills, uncowed owners were better prepared to lose revenue than players were to lose game checks.

An ’82 strike once again proved the union’s frailty. Whole teams agreed to weak terms, while others remained on picket lines. The union was held in such low regard that at one point less than half its members were paying their dues.

Upshaw became director a year later. To DeLamielleure, it was a perfect example of a cunning politician exploiting a weak organization. “The league was full of three-year players,” he says. “Those guys aren’t concerned with how the union’s run . . . He was in the right place at the right time to gain power, cashed in, and screwed everybody else.”

Indeed, Upshaw’s first appointees to the board were his own agent, Tom Condon — who negotiated directors’ contracts — and Atlanta Falcons broadcaster Jeff Van Note, who received his paycheck from management. And the reorganized union’s first attempt at a power grab marked its greatest failure yet: the scab season of 1987.

It was an attempt to force owners to accept free agency, but it ended with owners recruiting scabs. Veterans crossed the picket lines as well. “That was devastating,” says Paul Staudohar, a California State professor and co-author of Labor Relations in Professional Sports. “The strike, in effect, collapsed.”

Two years later, the NFLPA gave up on striking and decertified — hoping instead to win its battles in court. Upshaw’s beleaguered organization wouldn’t become an official union again until ’93.

Since a new contract was reached that year, the players’ standing has improved. Thanks to unparalleled TV contracts that have helped flush the NFL with $7 billion a year in revenue, the average player now makes $1.5 million annually.

Yet in terms of basic rights, the deal still pales in comparison to those in even far less lucrative sports, like hockey. Contracts remain unguaranteed, making football the only major sport where a player’s salary can be killed with the stroke of a pen. And while the pension plan has dramatically improved, it’s on a tiered system — the kind of accord usually agreed to by weak unions in dying industries, not an entertainment juggernaut.

NEXT: More on “Forgotten Forefathers”.