Tackling life after the game

After financial, family struggles, an ex-Buffalo Bill finds hope

October 14, 2006|By Rona Marech | Rona Marech,Sun reporter

HAGERSTOWN -- Inside the Hagerstown Rescue Mission, up the stairs, into the dormitory, next to a bed with a thin tan coverlet, atop a dark locker -- this is where Donnie Green keeps his memorabilia. He has three tiny plastic helmets, one for each of the National Football League teams he played on: the Buffalo Bills, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Detroit Lions.

Behind those -- he has to groan and stretch to reach it -- is a blue, loose-leaf binder filled with photographs and articles. He turns the pages matter of factly, betraying little. Here he is in his No. 74 Bills jersey, staring out seriously, his fists clenched. Here he is coolly sitting on the bench, helmet pushed back. Here he is at Purdue University, a bright-eyed first-year student with a broad smile. He is watching a game in a fedora, his hands lifted over his head, victorious.

He pulls out a fan letter. "It sure is a pleasure to write to one of the greatest players who always gave 110 percent," it reads.

Green played for the NFL for seven years in the 1970s, most famously as part of the Bills' formidable offensive line that helped O.J. Simpson run a record-breaking 2,000 yards in a season. He and his fellow linemen were dubbed the Electric Company because they "turned the Juice loose."

But that was long ago, before Green's gait slowed and his brawn softened. Before family troubles. Before drugs.

In 2003, financial and emotional woes sent Green from his home in Annapolis to this Western Maryland shelter where men can find temporary housing or join a longer-term, religion-based recovery program. He arrived with little but some suitcases of old clothes. It didn't take long for him to find God -- truly find him and not just in a wishy-washy way, he says. Three years later, he's hopeful. He gets paid to work as a night watchman at the Rescue Mission. He's more peaceful.

And yet he's still here, a lumbering, gentle presence carrying a Bible and talking religion and trying, still, to figure out what to do next.

"I just take it from day to day," he said. "I'm really thankful God gave me another chance."

Green's predicament, some former players bitterly complain, is all too common. Men who played in the NFL prior to the 1980s were paid a pittance compared with current players, and until 1993, they retired without substantial pensions, health insurance or other now-standard benefits. Many suffer from ailments stemming from old injuries and years of play. And they're often too proud or embarrassed -- especially after all the athletic success and reverential treatment -- to seek help when their luck turns. Recent pension increases and changes in care coverage for retired players are inadequate, many who were in the business say.

They often know the saddest stories: Jackie Wallace, who played with the Colts among other teams, was found living under a New Orleans overpass; Mike Webster, once a Pittsburgh Steeler, was frequently unemployed and homeless in the years before his death.

"It goes on and on. There are hundreds of players who are hurting," said Bruce Laird, another former Colt who recently founded The Baltimore Football Club to assist ex-players. "We are working with the union to try to make them understand that these are the players who made the game, and they need help."

Joe DeLamielleure, a Hall of Famer who played right guard alongside Green on the Bills, calls it a "disgrace." "Why does the most lucrative business in the world have the worst pensions?" he said. "You know where Donnie is living? ... And Donnie Green isn't a dumb man, not an ignorant man. He's not a man who's lazy. He's a good man. For him to have to do this is absurd in my book."

At his peak in the NFL, Green said he never made more than $65,000. At 58, his monthly pension payments are a little more than $400.

It was only seven years of pro football, to be sure, but that was what Green had devoted his life to from the time he was a 219-pound eighth-grader in southeastern Virginia. High school coaches were already checking out the mountainous teenager, and he ended up playing football and basketball at Crestwood High School in Chesapeake before heading off to Purdue University on a football scholarship. He left school when he was drafted by Buffalo in 1971.

"God put something in me, to do the best I could," Green said. "I wanted to be the best offensive tackle on the planet."

On a snowy evening in 1973, Simpson -- running behind the Electric Company -- made history by rushing past the New York Jets defense and finishing the season with 2,003 yards.

Afterward, Simpson introduced each of his linesmen by name. Green, who has a gold capped tooth in the middle of his mouth, offers his molasses smile at the memory. "I was in the zone, really. I thought no one could stop me," he said. "I just kind of knew I was bad."

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