For McCrary, football took a painful toll

At 36, former Ravens star battles wrecked knees, strong medications

Sun Profile

May 02, 2007|By John Eisenberg | John Eisenberg,SUN REPORTER

His knees ache with pain so intense that he says he is unable to stand for more than a few minutes.

"I look silly at cocktail parties. I'm the only one sitting down," said former Ravens defensive end Michael Mc- Crary.

He is 36 years old.

He has taken a blizzard of medications for chronic pain and depression, casually rattling off the names as if they were afternoon snacks.

"I've been on Percocet, Percodan, OxyContin, oxycodone, three different psychiatric medicines," he said. "I had a fentanyl patch; that's like heroin. I'm on methadone now.

"You know when people said it was crazy, all that stuff that Anna Nicole [Smith] was taking? Man, that's the same stuff I take."

McCrary, a member of the Ravens' Ring of Honor, has a 3-year-old daughter and is less than five years removed from the NFL's playing fields. At a glance, he is still physically imposing.

But he needs two knee replacements.

"When people think of broken-down football players, they imagine old guys, not people like me," he said. "But I'm pretty messed up."

Few who entered the National Football League after last weekend's draft want to hear about the physical damage that playing their game can cause, said Mc- Crary, who played for Baltimore from 1997 to 2002 and for the Seattle Seahawks from 1993 to 1996.

A cautionary tale

"You think you're bulletproof when you're their age and making so much money," he said. "When I was young, I looked at old guys with knee problems and just laughed. They warned me, `You'll see.' Boy, were they right."

His plight is a cautionary tale about the inherent dangers of playing the country's No. 1 spectator sport.

"It's becoming more and more common to see these situations with younger [former] players," said Dr. Bill Howard, founder of the Union Memorial Hospital Sports Medicine clinic.

One explanation for the trend is that today's pro football players are so much larger, Howard said, so collisions are more violent. And while padding is improved, many players' knees remain uncovered.

Players battle through debilitating injuries and extend their careers, Howard said, because so much more money is at stake. And doctors can keep them going, thanks to more sophisticated diagnostic equipment and less invasive surgical techniques.

"If they can play another two years and make $1.8 million a year, they're going to do it. I don't blame them," Howard said. "These guys are not being held against their will and forced to play. They go, `Hey doc, can you fix me up? I want to get back out there.' And we can."

Keith Sims, 39, a Pro Bowl- caliber defensive lineman for the Miami Dolphins and Washington Redskins from 1990 to 2000, can't stand for more than 30 minutes because of leg injuries. Former New England Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson, 34, recently cited multiple concussions as the reason he suffers from memory loss, depression and an addiction to amphetamines. Former Pittsburgh Steelers lineman Terry Long died last year at age 45 from brain inflammation that resulted, in part, from repeated head injuries.

McCrary's is a classic case. Known for being an undersized but relentless pass rusher, Mc- Crary made two Pro Bowl appearances and won a Super Bowl ring with the Ravens, and his hard work paid off handsomely, as he earned more than $16 million in signing bonuses alone.

Now married and living in Baltimore County, he made enough money to give him a start in his new career as a real estate developer, but in a recent interview, he referred to his football riches as "a deal with the devil."

Sitting in his office overlooking the Inner Harbor, he shook his head sadly and said, "This is no way to live. It's a really tough situation for me. My knees hurt all the time. Now my back and legs are hurting from overcompensating for the knees. That's only going to get worse. And my family's main concern is all the medicine I'm taking. How is that going to affect my liver and kidneys?

"I just want to be able to play with my daughter. But right now, I'm on so much medication that I can't focus on her. Isn't that sick? I have to really concentrate to try to be able to focus on my daughter."

The Seahawks drafted McCrary out of Wake Forest University in the seventh round of the 1993 draft. Scouts admired his drive and intensity but thought he was too small; he weighed 240 pounds in an era when 300-plus pounds had become a routine playing weight for linemen.

McCrary beat the odds, using his quickness to outmaneuver larger linemen. He became a starter in Seattle and signed with the Ravens as a free agent in 1997. He was at his peak in the late '90s, a fierce presence who rattled quarterbacks and controlled his side of the field. He was so dominant that the Ravens signed him to a five-year contract extension with a $12.25 million signing bonus in 1999.

By then, he had already undergone four knee surgeries since joining the Ravens. Operating against double teams by 300- pounders, he used his knees to explode off the line and generate leverage.

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