Forgotten Forefathers 

NFL players like Leroy Kelly are left crippled and broke — and abandoned by their own union.

In 1966, 24-year-old Leroy Kelly reported to Browns training camp saddled with one of the more daunting tasks in sports history: replacing Jim Brown.

That off-season, the legendary running back announced unexpectedly that he was retiring at age 30. Kelly was now charged with making fans forget that, come fall, the greatest Brown ever would be filming a movie in England with Ernest Borgnine, instead of thundering across the pasture of Municipal Stadium.

Where Brown smashed through tacklers with his bovine head, the rangy Kelly twirled and juked, leaving defenders flailing. He didn't make Cleveland fans forget Jim Brown that year, but he did make the Pro Bowl, as well as the next five — twice leading the league in rushing.

His defender-shirking gifts kept him injury-free for 10 seasons, during which he missed only four games. But by 1974, he was slowing down. Kelly was unceremoniously released by the Browns, and then the Oakland Raiders. He joined the World Football League, a fly-by-night operation that folded mid-season.

Out of football options, Kelly moved home to Philadelphia. At the height of his career, he was making $80,000 a season. So he invested in a nightclub in a crumbling neighborhood, then a couple of Burger Kings. "They folded," he says matter-of-factly.

Like so many players before and after, Kelly was learning that life after football isn't as easy as playing the game.

Now 65, Kelly is still impossible to catch, unless you're dangling an appearance fee. He's a regular on the celebrity event circuit, a series of golf tournaments, card shows, and cubed cheese platters. They have him flying endlessly, from UMass football ceremonies to a golf tourney in Walden, Ohio, where he'll tee off with Dikembe Mutombo.

It's not that Kelly — stockier, but still fit — wouldn't rather spend his twilight years at home with wife Bettie in Willingboro, New Jersey. It's that he's become dependent on the modest fees, eking out a living at a few hundred bucks a pop.

"They give the Hall of Famers a few dollars," says Kelly, who was enshrined in 1994. "It's a hustle for us, really."

Those fees are really all that's left from his years in the NFL. His league pension — $162 a month — barely buys a week's worth of groceries. And if age or failing health ever forces him from the celebrity circuit, he's not sure how he'll survive. "I'm getting old, and it's getting rougher and rougher."

Still, as former pros go, Kelly is living something of a charmed retirement.

It wasn't long ago that professional athletes had to earn a living just like everyone else. Johnny Brewer, a Browns tight end in the '60s, recalls the days when players begged change from coaches for a pop, and were paid nothing for training camp except room and board.

"I used to ask, where else can you get college graduates to work tirelessly for six or seven weeks for no more than three hots and a flop?" says Brewer.

During the '60s and '70s, the average NFL salary ran between $12,000 and $20,000, little more than teachers made at the time. Almost every player had an off-season job in construction, insurance sales, or waiting tables. Some even worked second jobs during the season.

In the '80s, salaries began to creep toward six figures, but with an average career length of just four years, rarely did players save enough to last more than a few years into retirement.

Meanwhile, the damage done to their bodies would last them to their graves. In a survey of those who played during the '90s, two out of three reported permanent injuries.

While it's the career-ending horrors that receive endless replays on SportsCenter, it's the combined effect of thousands of all-in-a-day's-work hits that cripple most players deep into retirement. Yet while the NFL Players Association estimates that half of all players are forced from the game by debilitating injury, only 317 of its 8,000 present and former players qualify to draw from the union's stringently guarded disability fund.

Combine these two facts, and crisis is inevitable. "You don't have to be a rocket scientist to look at the disability and say, 'Wow, what in the hell is going on here?'" says Chicago legend Mike Ditka.

The situation has left a string of broken heroes in football's wake. Indomitable Pittsburgh center Mike Webster — who anchored the Steelers' offensive line in the '70s and '80s — spent his retirement penniless and suffering from dementia, sleeping in a pickup truck and tasering himself in the back to quell terrible pain. In 2002, he died of a heart attack at 50.

The great Earl Campbell, an explosive running back for Houston who led the league in rushing three times, now hobbles on a walker at age 52.

Brian DeMarco, a graduate of Admiral King High School in Lorain, was an offensive lineman for Jacksonville and Cincinnati for five seasons before injuries pushed him out of the league in '99. He now moves like an elderly man at age 35, with rods and screws littering his back. He's gone days without eating to pay for staggering medical bills.

Yet stunningly, all three were rejected multiple times for payments from the union's disability fund.

Those left hobbled, for the most part, don't blame the game. The kamikaze competition — with its grisly hits, heedless coaching, and cortisone shots that mask pain so an injured player can retake the field — was something they bargained for since high school. But they do indict the league — now a $7-billion-a-year monster — and their own union, the NFLPA, for abandoning those who built the sport.

"The bottom line is, I don't work for them. They don't hire me, and they can't fire me. They can complain about me all day long. They can have their opinion. But the active players have the vote. That's who pays my salary."

When union director Gene Upshaw said this about former players to The Charlotte Observer last year, he sounded less like a union chief than a 1930s coal mine operator. The NFLPA quickly claimed he was misquoted and has been trying to defuse his words ever since. But it seemed to only confirm what's been obvious through years of inaction — the plight of former players is not on Upshaw's agenda.

The 6-foot-5 guard spent 15 years in the NFL, at one point playing more than 200 consecutive games for the Oakland Raiders. In 1983, he took over the weakest union in professional sports. Though current players have seen massive salary growth, Upshaw's detractors consider him the last man who should be running a labor organization.

"Football is the sickest industry in the world, because of that one man — one rich bully — and his flunkies," seethes former Browns guard Joe DeLamielleure.

The union was built in 1968 when NFL players, represented by former Browns cornerback Bernie Parrish, forced the league's first collective-bargaining agreement. But when players from the recently merged American Football League agreed to weak terms, NFL players were forced to do the same.

The union has been beaten up by management and inner dissension ever since.

Every major sport has struggled with labor strife, but while baseball and basketball players watched their contracts and perks soar, the NFLPA seemed alone in its inability to perform at the bargaining table. Fledgling strikes in 1970 and '74 crumbled almost as soon as they started. In a test of wills, uncowed owners were better prepared to lose revenue than players were to lose game checks.

An '82 strike once again proved the union's frailty. Whole teams agreed to weak terms, while others remained on picket lines. The union was held in such low regard that at one point less than half its members were paying their dues.

Upshaw became director a year later. To DeLamielleure, it was a perfect example of a cunning politician exploiting a weak organization. "The league was full of three-year players," he says. "Those guys aren't concerned with how the union's run . . . He was in the right place at the right time to gain power, cashed in, and screwed everybody else."

Indeed, Upshaw's first appointees to the board were his own agent, Tom Condon — who negotiated directors' contracts — and Atlanta Falcons broadcaster Jeff Van Note, who received his paycheck from management. And the reorganized union's first attempt at a power grab marked its greatest failure yet: the scab season of 1987.

It was an attempt to force owners to accept free agency, but it ended with owners recruiting scabs. Veterans crossed the picket lines as well. "That was devastating," says Paul Staudohar, a California State professor and co-author of Labor Relations in Professional Sports. "The strike, in effect, collapsed."

Two years later, the NFLPA gave up on striking and decertified — hoping instead to win its battles in court. Upshaw's beleaguered organization wouldn't become an official union again until '93.

Since a new contract was reached that year, the players' standing has improved. Thanks to unparalleled TV contracts that have helped flush the NFL with $7 billion a year in revenue, the average player now makes $1.5 million annually.

Yet in terms of basic rights, the deal still pales in comparison to those in even far less lucrative sports, like hockey. Contracts remain unguaranteed, making football the only major sport where a player's salary can be killed with the stroke of a pen. And while the pension plan has dramatically improved, it's on a tiered system — the kind of accord usually agreed to by weak unions in dying industries, not an entertainment juggernaut.

If Leroy Kelly retired after a 10-year career today, he'd make around $50,000 a year. (If he had the skill and foresight to play baseball instead, that figure would be $180,000 annually.) But pension payments are calculated based on your retirement date, meaning the further back you go, the more laughable your stipend.

"The changes in pension look fantastic to Joe Public," says DeLamielleure, "but those are for guys who played from '93 on. If you played before that, your pension still sucks."

Johnny Brewer can testify to that. His 10-year career in the '60s has resulted in a pension of just $204.54 a month. Like Leroy Kelly, Brewer had no choice but to opt for an early pension, reducing his payments by thousands a month. "I had to do it," Brewer says. "I was living in a mobile home with my wife and three kids."

It was a common move among former players, who were told by union reps to start collecting their pensions at age 45, since the average lifespan of a football player was only 55.

"We signed it not knowing we'd be cut out of the raises in the pensions," says Kelly. "We were told by the Players Association, 'Take it, 'cause you're not going to live that long.'"

Ditka recalls getting the same advice, though he's never wanted for money. "You would take it as soon as you could, because you're probably not going to live long enough otherwise."

Worse yet was the union's disability plan. Though injury forces half of all members into retirement — while an additional quarter suffer from bone, joint, or concussive conditions, ailments that get nastier with age — the union has somehow approved only 317 disability payments. To Gene Upshaw, it seems that no one is truly hurt bad enough to collect from his treasury.

Conrad Dobler, a '70s offensive lineman once considered the dirtiest man in football, is now paying in retirement for his treachery on the field. After 13 operations on one leg, the 57-year-old moves with the aid of a walker these days, but has nonetheless been denied disability five times.

Willie Wood, a Hall of Fame safety for Green Bay during the '60s, is wheelchair-bound and lives in a nursing home. He's also been denied.

Dave Pear, a defensive tackle for three teams in the '70s, has a brain so rattled by concussions that he can't always form words, and is saddled with a $1,000-a-month medical bill for the 38 pills he takes each day. Yet the NFLPA won't grant him disability payments either.

"The attitude really is delay, deny, and hope that they die," says Ditka.

"It's important to realize that these players get broken as a result of entertaining us," adds professor Staudohar. "We like to look back at the Roman Colosseum and say, 'Isn't that terrible. They put these people on a stage to fight each other, and every so often, one dies.' Well, the truth is, we're not far off."

The union has given little explanation for its miserly disability allotments. Confronted with the names of ailing players who have been denied, NFLPA spokesman Carl Francis refuses to acknowledge any wider pattern. "That shows you're trying to spin this in a negative way," he says. "You can get examples to prove anything."

Asked why football's pension and disability plans are so much weaker than baseball's, he simply scoffs. "That's apples and oranges. I don't want to compare the two."

But Francis becomes most aggressive when it's suggested that former players should share in the wealth of the league they built. "I don't want to talk about a debt owed," he says. And with that, the interview is over.

When you ask Johnny Brewer about what hurts, his response is all-encompassing: "Everything but my left earlobe," he slurs. "I've had two back operations, three knee operations, an ankle operation. I've got a hyper-extended elbow that feels like a giant toothache on my arm, so I can't brush my own teeth or comb my hair. And I sound like a drunk because that's the onset of Lou Gehrig's disease . . . You don't play every game for 10 years without ending up like me. You just don't. I hurt all over, and have for a long time."

While Brewer could have qualified for welfare, pride kept him from applying. "My government doesn't owe me anything," he says. "I never did accept a handout, and I still don't want one. But I feel like, with all the money that's in the coffers of the NFLPA, we're getting the short end of the stick, to say the least."

Despite failing health, Brewer is forced to continue working as an insurance salesman. His 69-year-old wife still works as a director of a daycare program. "I wish I could let her quit, but we'd have to go back to the mobile home," he says. "I'm not proud of the situation I'm in."

Now, a former teammate is coming to his aid.

Bernie Parrish, a cornerback for Cleveland and Houston from '59 through '66, was solid as a player, making the Pro Bowl twice. But he was better known around the league as an unapologetic antagonist. He led a strike in 1968 and helped negotiate the league's first collective-bargaining agreement.

Parrish was equally successful after football, running a hotel construction business in St. Louis and San Antonio. When he retired for the second time to Gainesville, Florida, 10 years ago, the plan was to golf, nap, and play with the grandchildren. But Parrish was never a realistic candidate for true retirement.

Parrish, it seems, has something of a jones for conflict. He once filed a class-action suit against the beverage industry on behalf of alcoholics. He's also written two best-selling books — They Call It a Game and The National Felony League — that blasted skinflint owners and audaciously claimed that games were rigged. The preface to They Call It a Game even lists his most hated enemies.

Now he's approaching the plight of former players with the same revolutionary zeal, bringing a see-you-in-hell glee to the fight for better pensions and disability coverage. His newest enemy is Gene Upshaw, the man who leads the union Parrish was once so instrumental in starting.

Parrish doesn't play much golf these days. His time is consumed by the telephone — speaking to lawyers, reporters, and former players. "My kids love it," he says. "It means Dad's still got blood in his veins. With my wife, it's a bit of a strain. But we won't get into that."

He's joined by Herb Adderley, the 67-year-old former Green Bay cornerback, in a class-action suit over licensing revenues. They claim retired players are owed proceeds from such things as likenesses of historical teams used in video games. Even if a specific player's image isn't used, they argue, each member of the union during that era is entitled to a share.

In Adderley, Parrish has found a kindred spirit — an old man who's spitting mad. Adderley's pension is $126.85 per month, and with no disability help, he's struggled to pay for multiple hip-replacement surgeries. He's so disgusted with the NFL that he no longer wears his Super Bowl rings or attends Hall of Fame ceremonies in Canton.

"I couldn't turn my back on 3,500 retired NFL brothers who have been mistreated, abused, by the NFL Players Association and Players Inc.," Adderley told The New York Times.

Two similar suits by Parrish have already been dismissed. The latest could suffer the same fate. But if nothing else, he hopes litigation will raise publicity and force the NFLPA to disclose its revenue. "It's Parrish v. National Football League Players Association," he says, relishing even the title of the suit. "We're going to find out who owns what."

He argues that, with a $1 billion pension fund, the union has more than enough money to help former players. It's just a matter of motivation — and nothing motivates like bad publicity.

In December, Parrish received his greatest boost when Congress held hearings on the union's close-fisted disability fund. Most incredulous was Congresswoman Maxine Waters, whose husband, Sidney Williams, played for the Browns in the '60s. "In one of the most dangerous sports in the history of mankind, only 300 players are receiving disability payments?" she asked.

The hearing was also Ditka's official coming-out party for the cause. "Don't make proud men beg," he said on Capitol Hill. "Just let them live out their lives with a little bit of respect."

That's what most pains Ditka: the hobbled athlete's shame of being unable to care for himself and family. And that anguish is spreading — not just among former players. Those who currently pay Upshaw's $6.7 million salary are beginning to notice as well.

Led by Chiefs tackle Kyle Turley and Vikings center Matt Birk, some two dozen players donated all or part of their December 23 game checks to the Gridiron Greats Fund, a disability fund created in response to the union's inaction.

Giants linebacker Kawika Mitchell, who donated his check of almost $47,000, understands why current players have come so late to the issue. "A lot of young guys have no idea, because the NFL doesn't make us aware of the problem. And those who find out still aren't too concerned about it. Everything now is geared to this new generation. When you first make the league, you're just so concerned with staying here."

It is, confesses former Brown Bob Golic, a self-centeredness that comes with being young and celebrated by 70,000 people every Sunday afternoon.

"I'm embarrassed to say this, but when I was a young adult at the top of my game, I used to think, 'Those old guys, they had their time,'" says Golic, now an Akron radio host. "As a young player, when everything's in front of you, you don't think about the fact that someday that's gonna be you."

Upshaw hasn't helped his cause. He's taken a dismissive approach to critics, calling Ditka "dumb" and Parrish "lower than a snake's belly," and threatening to wring DeLamielleure's neck.

But while his "I don't work for them" sound bites have the ring of an 1890s industrialist, Upshaw is technically correct. "Legally, he has no responsibility to the retired players," says Roger Abrams, Northeastern University professor and specialist in sports and labor law. "Upshaw is doing his job for the people that pay him."

Yet one rarely wins a public debate by invoking technicalities to ignore the injured and aging. And the scads of bad publicity seem to be having their effect.

After denying responsibility to retired players and threatening DeLamielleure, Upshaw doesn't make many public statements these days. Neither does spokesman Francis, who instead refers Scene to the NFLPA's website, which pledges a better medical fund for retirees.

In July, the union pledged $7 million to the medical fund. But its reputation has fallen so far that its word is not widely trusted.

"They 'pledged' it," says professor Staudohar. "Take that word with a grain of salt. Anyway, the feeling from various spectators was, when you're talking about things like joint surgery, cardiovascular work, you're talking about a big-time expense. $7 million didn't seem sufficient."

So in late October, the NFLPA pledged some more — $10 million this time, earmarked specifically for joint-replacement surgery, cardiovascular screening, and assisted living.

Parrish is unimpressed. "It's nothing but PR bullshit; they haven't spent a dime," he says. "The dollar amount means nothing. They owe whatever it costs to pay the bills for disabilities incurred while working for the NFL, period."

Parrish is hoping that his class-action suit reaches trial this year. Even if it's dismissed, it won't be the last time the union hears from the Tabasco-veined retiree. Parrish is now gunning for Upshaw's job, which will come up for election in 2009.

Parrish pledges to take a $6 million pay cut in the union chief's salary, throwing the remainder into a "dire needs" fund.

Troy Vincent, a 36-year-old cornerback, is considered Upshaw's heir apparent. To reporters, Vincent's been non-committal on the issue of improving the pension and disability fund, and his very association with the current chief spooks former players.

"If he's hanging out with Upshaw," says DeLamielleure simply, "I wouldn't trust him."

It's hard to imagine current players voting for a candidate like Parrish — whose priorities clearly lie with the game's forefathers. But he does have the support of at least one member in New York.

"I'd vote for him, for sure," says Kawika Mitchell. "We need somebody like that in charge."

More by Gus Garcia-Roberts


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