NFL groups step up in support of former pros

Proposals on table to assist alumni

May 23, 2007|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun reporter

After a long and contentious debate over how the NFL cares for former players, commissioner Roger Goodell has thrown the league's collective muscle into an initiative to help those in need.

At an owners meeting in Nashville, Tenn., yesterday, Goodell announced that the league and its related entities - the NFL Players Association, the NFLPA Retired Players Association, the NFL Alumni, NFL Charities and the Pro Football Hall of Fame - will work together to coordinate medical support services for former players.

"All of us in the NFL want to help former players that now find themselves in need of medical care through no fault of their own," Goodell said in a statement. "Several NFL-related groups have been working independently over the years to provide medical assistance, but now we will work together to identify and help players more effectively in a common effort."

Harold Henderson, the league's executive vice president of labor relations, will oversee the new alliance. Among the ideas being explored are:

Improving identification of players who need help, and making the system more efficient.

Making arrangements with facilities in different areas of the country where former players can get quality care at reasonable cost.

Working with outside service groups to provide players with education and guidance on obtaining medical care that would expand access to care for retired players.

Ensuring availability of affordable assisted-living facilities for former players.

Last July, the NFL announced the creation of the Number 88 Plan, named after Colts' Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey, who suffers from frontal temporal lobe dementia. Retired players with dementia are entitled to received up to $88,000 per year for institutional care or up to $50,000 per year for in-home nursing care.

That fund already has provided relief for Sylvia Mackey, John's wife. She recently received unspecified reimbursement for care and medical bills retroactive to February.

But help hasn't reached Hall of Fame running back John Henry Johnson, who also suffers from dementia. Kathy Moppin, Johnson's daughter, said yesterday she still hasn't been approved, three months after the NFL began accepting applications.

"I feel I'm having to jump through hoops," she said.

Johnson, 77, played 12 years in the NFL, playing for the San Francisco 49ers, Detroit Lions and Pittsburgh Steelers.

Now, however, Johnson has frequent memory lapses, often can't walk and sometimes can't remember his name. He needs Coumadin for blood clots in his lungs and gets around with assistance of a walker.

"He knows who I am," Moppin said. "But I call him John Henry so he knows who he is. Sometimes he forgets who he is."

After Johnson's wife died in 2002, he moved from Cleveland to live with his daughter in Fremont, Calif.

"When I picked him up from Cleveland, his doctor said, `Your father has dementia due to playing football. Don't let anybody tell you he has Alzheimer's,'" Moppin said.

The NFL's response to players in need came after repeated pleas from several sources. Sylvia Mackey wrote an impassioned letter to former commissioner Paul Tagliabue that ultimately led to the 88 Plan.

Mackey said she will receive an award in New York on May 31 at the Alzheimer's Association's Forget-Me-Not Gala. She will share the award with Dr. Eleanor Perfetto, whose husband, former player Ralph Wenzel, has dementia and moved into an assisted-living community.

Bruce Laird, a former safety with the Baltimore Colts and president of the team's alumni organization, said the efforts of his group helped pave the way to yesterday's announcement.

"We made this happen," he said. "Absolutely, it sounds wonderful. It sounds like Roger Goodell heard us loud and clear."

Distribution of funds for medical needs will be managed by representatives of the participating groups, the NFL said.

The release said former players "who want to support these efforts will have the opportunity to contribute ... in fund-raising efforts, including golf tournaments and online auctions."

The league also announced yesterday new standards for managing concussions. Those include neuropsychological baseline tests for all players this season. Once a baseline is established, it will be used for comparative purposes.

The NFL also will require every player to wear a chin strap properly, as per the manufacturer's recommendation.

And finally, the league will establish a "whistle blower" system that will allow anyone to anonymously report any incident in which a doctor is pressured to return a player from a concussion, or in which a player with a concussion is pressured to play.

Last February, The New York Times and The Boston Globe reported that New England Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson had sustained a number of concussions after he felt pressured into participating in a practice in 2002 when he was not fully recovered from a prior concussion.

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