The Nfl's Forgotten Players

Before the million-dollar contracts, the NFL's pioneers took the field. Today, many are scraping by financially, their pension and benefits an embarrassment to a lucrative league.

July 02, 2006|By KEN MURRAY | KEN MURRAY,SUN REPORTER

During 14 years in the NFL, Dick "Night Train" Lane was celebrated for his vicious clothesline hits, his technical skill on the defensive perimeter and his fast-paced lifestyle off it. Few players were bigger in stature - or better at their job - than the Hall of Fame defensive back with the alluring moniker who intimidated receivers from 1952 to 1965.

"Train was kind of in the show-business atmosphere," said Lenny Moore, a longtime friend and on-field foe. "He married the great [jazz singer] Dinah Washington. That had him in the spotlight. He was as popular as she was."

The lifestyle turned out to be fleeting. Beset by financial problems and poor health, Lane spent his final years in an assisted living facility in Austin, Texas. Even though he had three sons - in three cities - and two ex-wives (Washington died in 1963), his caretaker was a retired construction engineer he met on the golf course.

In the end, Lane was neither exalted nor self-supporting. He lived paycheck to paycheck from his NFL pension, barely able to get around on bum knees. He died, virtually penniless, in 2002. It was a sad end to a proud life.

The harsh lesson of Lane's riches-to-rags saga is not lost on retired players today. The NFL's pioneers are awash in mental health issues, physical disabilities and financial distress.

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of retired players in need of assistance after missing the NFL's money boat, a ship that sailed in 1993 with the merger of free agency and the salary cap. It left behind a whole generation of players who helped build the NFL from the ground up and now feel abandoned.

In an industry that created nearly $6 billion worth of revenue last year, retired players are scoffing at plans for a 10-to-20 percent increase in their pension benefits this fall. The proposal comes under terms that have yet to be made final in the NFL's new collective bargaining agreement.

For many older players, that increase could amount to as little as $40 a month per credited season, or an additional $2,400 a year for a player who lasted five seasons.

That might be too little, too late for the fast-dwindling corps of pre-1959 players facing insolvency and worse. Unofficially, there were more than 700 living pre-59ers when the landmark 1993 collective bargaining agreement was reached. Today, there are fewer than 300.

"Guys are at an age where their health is quickly deteriorating," said former Baltimore Colts running back Joe Washington. "In realistic terms, if these guys die off, we wouldn't be having this conversation."

No money for funeral

Lane was due an increase on his $800-a-month NFL pension when he died of a heart attack in January 2002 at the age of 73. Were it not for the diligence of Charles Carroll and the charity of Mike Ditka, however, Lane might have had a pauper's funeral.

Carroll was the businessman who befriended Lane and controlled his limited bank account ("Train was no money manager," he said). Upon Lane's death, Carroll said he was directed by Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association, to give Lane a good funeral.

According to Carroll, there was enough money in Lane's account for half of the $12,000 funeral expense, and the other half came out of his own pocket while he waited for the NFLPA to send the rest. Ultimately, that check arrived through the intervention of Moore, a Hall of Famer with the Colts.

Still, there was a $1,600 headstone to pay for. Ditka covered the cost with money from his annual Hall of Fame golf classic in Chicago.

Ditka, a Hall of Fame tight end turned ESPN analyst, has been waging his own campaign to help needy players. He started a trust fund four years ago and estimates it helps 20 to 25 players each year. He also said he has written letters to NFL owners soliciting donations of $100,000 a team to "solve" the problem.

"The response was embarrassing," Ditka said. "One team sent $5,000, one sent $10,000. We're trying to let guys who made the game what it is today have some dignity.

"I'm very aggravated with the players association; I'm very aggravated with Gene Upshaw. I don't think they do enough. I don't think they do anything."

Upshaw, vacationing in Europe, has declined repeated interview requests. It is a fact of labor law, however, that he is allowed to represent only active players, not retired players, as the union leader.

It's not just the league's pioneers who need help these days. Mike Siani played from 1972 to 1977 with the Oakland Raiders and from 1978 to 1980 with the Colts as a wide receiver. He seems typical of the majority of retired players.

At 56, Siani has no medical, dental or life insurance because he can't afford the premiums. He gets just $492 a month in benefits because he took his pension early, at age 45. And he has to work two jobs, one as coach of a minor league indoor football team.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.