Shared blame for aging players' plight

February 03, 2007|By RICK MAESE

This week, the city of Miami expects a $400 million boost to the economy. Forbes.com estimated the Super Bowl brand to be worth $379 million. The commercials alone cost $2.6 million a pop - total revenue of more than $150 million. And the gate tomorrow will bring in more than $30 million.

Yep, sounds like money is flowing pretty freely around the NFL this weekend, right? Don't answer that yet. First, it's important that we all understand exactly what kind of graveyard this game and this sport was built on top of.

You need to know about Wayne Hawkins. His name might sound familiar. He played with the Raiders from 1960 to 1970, a five-time AFL All-Star. He may tune in to the Super Bowl tomorrow, or he may not. Truth is, he doesn't even know who's playing.

"The last two years, he's just a different person," says Sharon Hawkins, his wife.

Vascular dementia has set in, and he's in the early stages of Alzheimer's. Hawkins can't work the remote control or a cell phone. He cries every night watching the evening news. His neurologist says it's cumulative from the damage suffered on the football field. No surprise there.

But what you need to know about Hawkins is that for his final three years in the game, he played right guard for the Raiders, while Gene Upshaw played left guard - the same Gene Upshaw who today heads the NFL Players Association.

You know all that talk we give to the bonds forged in the locker room, how teammates go hand in hand into battle together, how when you fight under the same colors, you've built a relationship for life? Forget all that.

"Wayne doesn't respect Gene, of course," Sharon says. "None of the guys do."

And now we've cut to the core of the problem. Who is at fault for the substandard pension and health benefits given to the aging players who built the NFL into what it is today?

I've spoken to several retired players over the years - a generation of men who rely on canes and walkers, who live with pain, fake joints and depression. Many agree on one thing: Upshaw, a man once their peer, has abandoned them.

"It's a shabby way to treat people," Mike Ditka, the former player and coach, said at a news conference this week in Miami. "I went back to the Hall of Fame two years ago and when I heard the poppycock from Upshaw, it was a joke. It's hypocrisy to listen to what he says."

It's simple for us to say that more needs to be done. Deciding who exactly is responsible is a bit trickier.

"The frustration is misdirected," says Jean Fugett, who played in the NFL from 1972 to 1979 and now serves as president of the retired players steering committee, an advisory board to the union. "I think the union has gone above and beyond. I think the current players have gone above and beyond. But I don't think the owners have."

Fugett rightly points out that the NFL has washed its hands of the retired players, making their ills and disabilities solely a problem for the union.

I have a copy of a letter sent to Paul Tagliabue, former NFL commissioner, in November 2005, requesting more attention to the needs of retired players. The letter is signed by former Colts Ordell Braase and Jim Mutscheller, former Bear Mike Pyle and former Eagle Pete Retzlaff. Tagliabue never responded. Instead, a curt response came from Upshaw two weeks later.

"You are not union members and we do not represent you," Upshaw wrote.

"[Y]ou, me, and all other players have absolutely no right to any pension benefits other than what we currently have," the letter continued. " ... You have no rights here. What you have is an opinion."

For a man who once shared a locker room with these players, the lack of sympathy is remarkable. But legally, he does speak some truth. He is paid a $3 million salary to negotiate on behalf of current players, not past ones.

"To the extent that the existing players want to remember the old players, God bless them," Fugett says. "They have a duty to protect themselves and to remain in business. The past players have gotten so much more than my relatives who retired from General Motors or the post office or any other place get. I don't know any other union who does this."

But you can't really compare the NFL to other businesses or the NFLPA to other unions. The economic growth in the NFL is astounding and the negligence shown to the game's founding fathers shameful.

"Forget what's legally right. Why doesn't someone ask what's morally right?" says Bruce Laird, a former Colt.

So who's right? Is it Upshaw's fault? The NFL's? The owners'?

The answer, of course, is D. All of the above. They all treat the aging generation as a burden, like a son who doesn't have time, energy or money to care properly for an aging parent.

"Anyone who says Gene Upshaw and the NFL Players Association don't care about the retired players is not responsible," Upshaw said at his news conference Thursday.

If that's the case, he needs to show it. It's Upshaw's responsibility to impress upon the current players and the NFL that this is everyone's problem.

"These guys today who play football are not the makers of the game," Ditka says. "They are the keepers of the game."

And players like Hawkins are the foundation of this game.

Hawkins didn't miss a single game for eight seasons, and today he receives a monthly pension check for $150. There was one time, Week 9 of the 1963 season, when Hawkins was knocked completely unconscious. He left the stadium in an ambulance, and they had to cut his uniform off. He was unresponsive for 14 hours. And then he played the next Sunday.

In 1964, he was knocked cold in three different games. Sure, it hurt at the time, but the pain is more evident today.

A few weeks ago, Hawkins lost his AFL championship ring. He fell to his knees in tears. His family filed a police report, and they've been visiting area pawn shops. No luck, so far.

Hopefully soon, though.

"We just need some help," Sharon Hawkins says. "We can't do this alone."

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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