Seeking Basic Benefits With Dignity (Part One)

By Ed Miller
Updated: August 31, 2008

VIRGINIA — The football body is broken. The old player’s right hand grips a cane. His right shoulder is bisected by a surgical scar. His left hip is ceramic, his left knee titanium. His right knee and his back ache constantly, but he wants no more surgeries.

Roger Anderson stands in the doorway of his Portsmouth home, chest heaving. It has taken him several minutes to answer the doorbell, as he warned a visitor it would.

“I push around a lot slower, but I do it,” he says. “Every step I take, I’m in a lot of pain.”

It is mid-June, a blazing afternoon. A form sits on a living room table, inside a purple folder with the words “Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Retirement Plan” on the cover. Anderson has begun filling it out in longhand.

“Am not able to work. I have trouble walking, making use of a cane to move around, but I can.”

Anderson, 65, is applying for disability from the NFL. He played offensive and defensive tackle for the New York Giants for four years in the 1960s, before moving on to the Canadian Football League, the World Football League, and finally, the semipro Norfolk Neptunes.

To qualify for even the lowest-paying form of disability, he must show the aches he experiences today are related to the games he played in his 20s.

It is no easy task. There are medical and financial records to gather, doctor s to visit. Some players hire lawyers just to shepherd them through the process. Anderson is tackling it by himself.

History suggests his chances are not good. Football takes its toll.

A 144-page Congressional Research Service report titled “Former NFL players: Disabilities, Benefits and Related Issues” opens with a classic understatement summarizing both the allure and the cost of the game:

“Professional Football is a very popular sport, and the physical nature of the game of football is part of its appeal, but at the same time, playing the game can exact a physical and mental toll on players. Violent collisions, as well as other aspects of the sport, can and do cause injuries.”

The NFL is indeed as popular as ever. Annual revenue approached $8 billion last year. In a 2005 Harris Poll, fans chose football as their favorite sport, outpolling baseball, basketball and auto racing combined.

Injuries in the NFL occur at a rate eight times higher than any other major pro sport, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Yet, of the nearly 8,000 eligible retired players, 224 were receiving long-term disability benefits as of October, the NFL Player s Association reported to Congress. It’s a small percentage for any industry, “much less one as physically demanding as professional football,” U.S. Rep. Linda Sanchez of California said at a hearing last summer.

The NFL’s disability system is broken, its many critics say. It’s a subject that sparks outrage among some retired players, who charge both the league and the players union with colluding to deny payments to former players.

“Delay, deny and hope they die,” said Brent Boyd, a former Minnesota Vikings player who has testified before both houses of Congress.

“The disability system is so completely busted and so wrong, it doesn’t need a tweak here or there; you’ve got to blow it up,” said Bruce Laird, a former Baltimore Colts safety who started an organization called Fourth and Goal to push for changes to the pension and disability systems and to assist retired players who are in need.

Boyd and his UCLA teammate Kenny Easley, a former NFL star from Chesapeake, started an organization called Dignity After Football, to lobby for the rights of retired players. At least a half-dozen other, similar organizations have cropped up.

To Sanchez, the crux of the matter is simple:

“Is the NFL, a multibillion-dollar organization, fairly treating the employees who built it?”

Former greats like Mike Ditka and Gale Sayers don’t think so and said as much before Congress. When celebrities like Ditka and Sayers testify, people pay attention. They also take notice when a Hall of Famer like former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster winds up homeless and dies at 50 after struggling with dementia.

Still, many of the players in need were never famous, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada pointed out in a speech three days before last season’s Super Bowl.

“Many were faceless figures behind helmets, lost to history but for yellowed photographs and dusty highlight reels,” Reid said. “They helped build the league, but they never earned much from their on-field days.”

Players like Roger Anderson. “I don’t want no pity party,” he says. “I’m a proud guy.”

Even leaning on a cane, Anderson remains an imposing figure. He stands about 6-foot-4 and is still thick in the shoulders and arms, with a granite handshake. On this hot afternoon, he’s wearing cargo pants, sneakers and a tank top. His graying but still-dark hair is parted neatly. His eyes are framed by horn -rimmed glasses.

He is a well-read man who likes jazz festivals and art shows, but with the price of gas and his many medications, he hasn’t gotten out much lately. His ancestry is African American and Cherokee Indian. In his prime, he was quick and powerful at 270 pounds, long before players trained with weights.

“I just had that natural country-boy strength,” he said. “I was just out there like a big oak tree, that’s all.”

He was pure country, born in Bedford, the youngest of seven children and the only boy. Orphaned at 7, he and three sisters were sent to live with one grandmother in Oxford, N.C. Three other sisters went to Lynchburg to live with another.

Doted on by his sisters, Anderson was shy. He withdrew into sports and books, reading about his football heroes like Lou “The Toe” Groza, Gino Marchetti and Jim Parker. He wanted to be a kicker like Groza but outgrew the position.

He played football at Virginia Union, where both his parents had graduated, and was drafted by the Giants in 1964.

A late-round pick from a small college, he learned early to keep his mouth shut and play, even when hurt. Miss a game with an injury and you might lose your job. Dare sign with an agent and you might be traded.

Players had little leverage or bargaining power. And by today’s standards, medical care was crude.

“Back then if you were lying on the ground and they had to send a trainer out for you, your butt was either unconscious or dead,” said Ed Beard of Chesapeake, who played in the NFL from 1965 to 1972. “If you could walk, your butt was going to go out there and play, and a lot of guys are paying the price for that today.”

Players were smaller then, but the game was dirtier. Asked if he remembers any specific plays that were particularly painful, Anderson laughed.

“I remember them all,” he said.

His aching knees? The result of chop blocks, or blocks below the knees, legal in those days.

The ruined shoulder? It makes Anderson recall Hall of Fame tackle Bob Brown, the toughest player he ever went against. Brown, 280 pounds, loved to club an opponent’s shoulders with his forearm.

Bouts of forgetfulness? Anderson’s signature pass rush move was to ram his opponent with his head. Helmets then were thin and flimsy by modern standards.

One of Anderson’s most painful injuries was a hematoma that kept his arm locked at a 45-degree angle. To straighten it, a trainer rigged a weight to a rope.

He underwent no surgeries during his playing days. Those were reserved for star players, he said. Reserves like Anderson?

“You were just another piece of meat, thrown away after they used you,” he said.

Anderson’s NFL salary peaked at $27,000, good money in the late 1960s but not the set-for-life money players make today. Like most players, he maintained one home in the city in which he played and another in his hometown.

“You made more than the average person, but after taxes and all your expenses, you couldn’t really put anything away,” said Roger Brown of Portsmouth, who played from 1960 to 1969.

Most worked second jobs during the offseason.

After football, Anderson coached at I.C. Norcom High and Norfolk State. He also worked as a corrections officer in a state juvenile prison until hip replacement surgery forced him to leave in the early 1990s, he said. He became a licensed massage therapist. He drove for Hampton Roads Transit until about five years ago.

A widower, Anderson lives alone and gets by on an NFL pension and Social Security disability, mostly. The medications he takes don’t do much for his pain, he said. He gets more relief from working out – riding an exercise bike, doing some light weight lifting and sitting in a Jacuzzi.

“My dad’s in pretty bad shape, but there are some former players that are far worse,” Anderson’s son, Keith, said. “The biggest thing is you see people my dad’s age who worked normal, 9 to 5 jobs and they are still very active. You see some former players like my dad who are in their 50s and 60s and they move like they are 80-year-old guys.”

NEXT: More on both sides of the NFL disabilities debate.