Forgotten Forefathers (Part Two)

By Gus Garcia-Roberts
Updated: January 21, 2008

Former NFL stars Mike Ditka (left) and Harry Carson.

Former NFL stars Mike Ditka (left) and Harry Carson.

CLEVELAND — If Browns’ Hall of Famer Leroy Kelly retired after a 10-year career today, he’d make around $50,000 a year. (If he had the skill and foresight to play baseball instead, that figure would be $180,000 annually.) But pension payments are calculated based on your retirement date, meaning the further back you go, the more laughable your stipend.

“The changes in pension look fantastic to Joe Public,” says fellow Hall of Famer Joe DeLamielleure, “but those are for guys who played from ’93 on. If you played before that, your pension still sucks.”

Johnny Brewer can testify to that. His 10-year career in the ’60s has resulted in a pension of just $204.54 a month. Like Leroy Kelly, Brewer had no choice but to opt for an early pension, reducing his payments by thousands a month. “I had to do it,” Brewer says. “I was living in a mobile home with my wife and three kids.”

It was a common move among former players, who were told by union reps to start collecting their pensions at age 45, since the average lifespan of a football player was only 55.

“We signed it not knowing we’d be cut out of the raises in the pensions,” says Kelly. “We were told by the Players Association, ‘Take it, ’cause you’re not going to live that long.’”

Another Hall of Famer, Mike Ditka recalls getting the same advice, though he’s never wanted for money. “You would take it as soon as you could, because you’re probably not going to live long enough otherwise.”

Worse yet was the union’s disability plan. Though injury forces half of all members into retirement — while an additional quarter suffer from bone, joint, or concussive conditions, ailments that get nastier with age — the union has somehow approved only 317 disability payments. To Gene Upshaw, it seems that no one is truly hurt bad enough to collect from his treasury.

Conrad Dobler, a ’70s offensive lineman once considered the dirtiest man in football, is now paying in retirement for his treachery on the field. After 13 operations on one leg, the 57-year-old moves with the aid of a walker these days, but has nonetheless been denied disability five times.

Willie Wood, a Hall of Fame safety for Green Bay during the ’60s, is wheelchair-bound and lives in a nursing home. He’s also been denied.

Dave Pear, a defensive tackle for three teams in the ’70s, has a brain so rattled by concussions that he can’t always form words, and is saddled with a $1,000-a-month medical bill for the 38 pills he takes each day. Yet the NFLPA won’t grant him disability payments either.

“The attitude really is delay, deny, and hope that they die,” says Ditka.

“It’s important to realize that these players get broken as a result of entertaining us,” adds professor Staudohar. “We like to look back at the Roman Colosseum and say, ‘Isn’t that terrible. They put these people on a stage to fight each other, and every so often, one dies.’ Well, the truth is, we’re not far off.”

The union has given little explanation for its miserly disability allotments. Confronted with the names of ailing players who have been denied, NFLPA spokesman Carl Francis refuses to acknowledge any wider pattern. “That shows you’re trying to spin this in a negative way,” he says. “You can get examples to prove anything.”

Asked why football’s pension and disability plans are so much weaker than baseball’s, he simply scoffs. “That’s apples and oranges. I don’t want to compare the two.”

But Francis becomes most aggressive when it’s suggested that former players should share in the wealth of the league they built. “I don’t want to talk about a debt owed,” he says. And with that, the interview is over.

When you ask Johnny Brewer about what hurts, his response is all-encompassing: “Everything but my left earlobe,” he slurs. “I’ve had two back operations, three knee operations, an ankle operation. I’ve got a hyper-extended elbow that feels like a giant toothache on my arm, so I can’t brush my own teeth or comb my hair. And I sound like a drunk because that’s the onset of Lou Gehrig’s disease . . . You don’t play every game for 10 years without ending up like me. You just don’t. I hurt all over, and have for a long time.”

While Brewer could have qualified for welfare, pride kept him from applying. “My government doesn’t owe me anything,” he says. “I never did accept a handout, and I still don’t want one. But I feel like, with all the money that’s in the coffers of the NFLPA, we’re getting the short end of the stick, to say the least.”

Despite failing health, Brewer is forced to continue working as an insurance salesman. His 69-year-old wife still works as a director of a daycare program. “I wish I could let her quit, but we’d have to go back to the mobile home,” he says. “I’m not proud of the situation I’m in.”

Now, a former teammate is coming to his aid.

Bernie Parrish, a cornerback for Cleveland and Houston from ’59 through ’66, was solid as a player, making the Pro Bowl twice. But he was better known around the league as an unapologetic antagonist. He led a strike in 1968 and helped negotiate the league’s first collective-bargaining agreement.

Parrish was equally successful after football, running a hotel construction business in St. Louis and San Antonio. When he retired for the second time to Gainesville, Florida, 10 years ago, the plan was to golf, nap, and play with the grandchildren. But Parrish was never a realistic candidate for true retirement.

Parrish, it seems, has something of a jones for conflict. He once filed a class-action suit against the beverage industry on behalf of alcoholics. He’s also written two best-selling books — They Call It a Game and The National Felony League — that blasted skinflint owners and audaciously claimed that games were rigged. The preface to They Call It a Game even lists his most hated enemies.

Now he’s approaching the plight of former players with the same revolutionary zeal, bringing a see-you-in-hell glee to the fight for better pensions and disability coverage. His newest enemy is Gene Upshaw, the man who leads the union Parrish was once so instrumental in starting.

Parrish doesn’t play much golf these days. His time is consumed by the telephone — speaking to lawyers, reporters, and former players. “My kids love it,” he says. “It means Dad’s still got blood in his veins. With my wife, it’s a bit of a strain. But we won’t get into that.”

He’s joined by Herb Adderley, the 67-year-old former Green Bay cornerback, in a class-action suit over licensing revenues. They claim retired players are owed proceeds from such things as likenesses of historical teams used in video games. Even if a specific player’s image isn’t used, they argue, each member of the union during that era is entitled to a share.

In Adderley, Parrish has found a kindred spirit — an old man who’s spitting mad. Adderley’s pension is $126.85 per month, and with no disability help, he’s struggled to pay for multiple hip-replacement surgeries. He’s so disgusted with the NFL that he no longer wears his Super Bowl rings or attends Hall of Fame ceremonies in Canton.

“I couldn’t turn my back on 3,500 retired NFL brothers who have been mistreated, abused, by the NFL Players Association and Players Inc.,” Adderley told The New York Times.

Two similar suits by Parrish have already been dismissed. The latest could suffer the same fate. But if nothing else, he hopes litigation will raise publicity and force the NFLPA to disclose its revenue. “It’s Parrish v. National Football League Players Association,” he says, relishing even the title of the suit. “We’re going to find out who owns what.”

He argues that, with a $1 billion pension fund, the union has more than enough money to help former players. It’s just a matter of motivation — and nothing motivates like bad publicity.

In December, Parrish received his greatest boost when Congress held hearings on the union’s close-fisted disability fund. Most incredulous was Congresswoman Maxine Waters, whose husband, Sidney Williams, played for the Browns in the ’60s. “In one of the most dangerous sports in the history of mankind, only 300 players are receiving disability payments?” she asked.

The hearing was also Ditka’s official coming-out party for the cause. “Don’t make proud men beg,” he said on Capitol Hill. “Just let them live out their lives with a little bit of respect.”

That’s what most pains Ditka: the hobbled athlete’s shame of being unable to care for himself and family. And that anguish is spreading — not just among former players. Those who currently pay Upshaw’s $6.7 million salary are beginning to notice as well.

Led by Chiefs tackle Kyle Turley and Vikings center Matt Birk, some two dozen players donated all or part of their December 23 game checks to the Gridiron Greats Fund, a disability fund created in response to the union’s inaction.

Giants linebacker Kawika Mitchell, who donated his check of almost $47,000, understands why current players have come so late to the issue. “A lot of young guys have no idea, because the NFL doesn’t make us aware of the problem. And those who find out still aren’t too concerned about it. Everything now is geared to this new generation. When you first make the league, you’re just so concerned with staying here.”

It is, confesses former Brown Bob Golic, a self-centeredness that comes with being young and celebrated by 70,000 people every Sunday afternoon.

“I’m embarrassed to say this, but when I was a young adult at the top of my game, I used to think, ‘Those old guys, they had their time,’” says Golic, now an Akron radio host. “As a young player, when everything’s in front of you, you don’t think about the fact that someday that’s gonna be you.”

Upshaw hasn’t helped his cause. He’s taken a dismissive approach to critics, calling Ditka “dumb” and Parrish “lower than a snake’s belly,” and threatening to wring DeLamielleure’s neck.

But while his “I don’t work for them” sound bites have the ring of an 1890s industrialist, Upshaw is technically correct. “Legally, he has no responsibility to the retired players,” says Roger Abrams, Northeastern University professor and specialist in sports and labor law. “Upshaw is doing his job for the people that pay him.”

Yet one rarely wins a public debate by invoking technicalities to ignore the injured and aging. And the scads of bad publicity seem to be having their effect.

After denying responsibility to retired players and threatening DeLamielleure, Upshaw doesn’t make many public statements these days. Neither does spokesman Francis, who instead refers Scene to the NFLPA’s website, which pledges a better medical fund for retirees.

In July, the union pledged $7 million to the medical fund. But its reputation has fallen so far that its word is not widely trusted.

“They ‘pledged’ it,” says professor Staudohar. “Take that word with a grain of salt. Anyway, the feeling from various spectators was, when you’re talking about things like joint surgery, cardiovascular work, you’re talking about a big-time expense. $7 million didn’t seem sufficient.”

So in late October, the NFLPA pledged some more — $10 million this time, earmarked specifically for joint-replacement surgery, cardiovascular screening, and assisted living.

Parrish is unimpressed. “It’s nothing but PR bullshit; they haven’t spent a dime,” he says. “The dollar amount means nothing. They owe whatever it costs to pay the bills for disabilities incurred while working for the NFL, period.”

Parrish is hoping that his class-action suit reaches trial this year. Even if it’s dismissed, it won’t be the last time the union hears from the Tabasco-veined retiree. Parrish is now gunning for Upshaw’s job, which will come up for election in 2009.

Parrish pledges to take a $6 million pay cut in the union chief’s salary, throwing the remainder into a “dire needs” fund.

Troy Vincent, a 36-year-old cornerback, is considered Upshaw’s heir apparent. To reporters, Vincent’s been non-committal on the issue of improving the pension and disability fund, and his very association with the current chief spooks former players.

“If he’s hanging out with Upshaw,” says DeLamielleure simply, “I wouldn’t trust him.”

It’s hard to imagine current players voting for a candidate like Parrish — whose priorities clearly lie with the game’s forefathers. But he does have the support of at least one member in New York.

“I’d vote for him, for sure,” says Kawika Mitchell. “We need somebody like that in charge.”