Revealing Football’s Inner Beast

By Phil Sheridan
Updated: June 8, 2009

PHILADELPHIA — They are the men the NFL would like us to forget, the limping and debilitated and destitute legions we cheered on Sunday afternoons. Truth be told, they are the men we’d like to forget, too.

The NFL and its media partners market and celebrate the violence of football. The thing about those bone-rattling hits is that they really do rattle bones, really do tear flesh and leave permanent damage.

It is bad for business if fans know too much about the toll the game takes, linger too long on the long-term impact of all that impact.

And fans don’t want to dwell on that, either, for the same reason consumers like their meat clean and neatly wrapped in plastic with no sign of its source. It would be hard to enjoy those high-speed collisions if we had to think too much about the price being paid by the men in the pads and helmets.

So the story of Sam Rayburn in Sunday’s Inquirer is more than a tale of one young man making poor decisions in an effort to cope with the pain left over when the football career ended. When Rayburn tells my colleague Mike Jensen that the path he was on led to “jail or death,” he was not being melodramatic.

Ask Lisa McHale, the widow of another former Eagle. Tom McHale’s story, told in the Daily News late last month, read like one possible sequel to Rayburn’s tale. McHale was 45 when he died of a drug overdose. Rayburn was 27 when he was charged with forging prescriptions to obtain the painkillers he’d become addicted to using.

In another, seemingly unrelated story last week, longtime Eagles right tackle Jon Runyan talked about the pain he is in already and how he knows it will get worse. And still, at 35, Runyan is hoping to return from knee surgery and play again this year.

And then there is Brian Westbrook, who had another operation Friday in an effort to play football for the Eagles this fall – this one on his ankle. Westbrook had his first major knee surgery when he was in high school. It is frightening to think what he’ll feel like when he’s in his 40s or 50s.

It so happens that I covered all these players during their time with the Eagles. McHale and Rayburn passed through briefly, played in the trenches, and weren’t given much thought once they moved on.

Runyan established himself as a prominent presence on the field and in the media. Westbrook is one of the best players in franchise history, arguably the most talented Eagles running back since Steve Van Buren.

They all choose the game. Runyan wants to play. Rayburn says he would do it all again. The game’s allure is strong not in spite of the risk to the body but largely because of it.

And that is where things get iffy, for the NFL and its players’ union, for the media and for fans.

The NFL Players Association last week settled a lawsuit filed by a group of former players. The $26.25 million settlement could be the first tangible step toward reconciling the union with former players who felt betrayed by the late union chief Gene Upshaw.

New NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith has reached out to the aggrieved retired players, who have lobbied for better pensions and disability pay that reflects the damage done by the game. The retired players believe, correctly, that the multimillion-dollar salaries and billion-dollar franchises were built on their blood and sweat.

The current players care about their own salaries and pension plans. The owners care about increasing revenue from new stadiums and marketing deals.

Meanwhile, Hall of Famers get less than $200 a month and need help getting out of bed and going to the bathroom. Men who played in the Super Bowl in 2005, as Rayburn did, have to deal with the agony inflicted by the game on their own.

Here are the words of another former Eagle I covered:

“I wake up in pain every day. The way I played the game, I sacrificed my body on every play. I wasn’t thinking about the future. There are days I can’t even walk, and I know a lot of guys feel the same way.”

Andre Waters said that just six months before he took his own life. He was 44.

We celebrated the reckless abandon of Waters. We admired Runyan’s iron-man string of NFL starts, knowing he played hurt. We will surely praise Westbrook if he can rehab and return to play at a high level after all he has been through. We take the sacrifice of journeymen like Rayburn and McHale for granted.

When they’re gone from the field, we forget all about them. And that’s just fine with the NFL and its players’ association, because they do the same.