'This is about watching loved ones die'
As warnings go, this one was as heartbreaking as it was ominous. At a news conference organized by the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund — a group whose very existence shames the NFL Players Association — Garrett Webster spoke of his father's death.
Mike Webster played 17 seasons in the pros, most of them for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and is considered by many to be the game's greatest center. In 1997, he delivered an alarmingly confused speech at his Hall of Fame induction. Five years ago, at the age of 50, he died: broke and alone, addicted to painkillers and suffering from dementia believed to be the result of the repeated concussions he endured as a player. In his last days, Iron Mike Webster — who started 150 consecutive games for the Steelers — would curl up in a ball and cry. As it ended, he couldn't even find the bathroom. His son remembers him urinating in an oven.
"This isn't just about the players," said Garrett Webster. "This is about families watching their loved ones die."
In 2005, a federal judge ruled that the NFL still owed his estate more than $1 million in disability payments. The league appealed the ruling and lost.
Historically, the NFL hasn't made it easy for players who, like Webster, were injured in the line of duty. But then, management and ownership have been doing what management and ownership usually do. That is, what they're allowed to do. The real question: Why have the NFL Players Association and its boss, Gene Upshaw, have been so quiet for so many years. Why has it taken a slew of exposes and an organization like Gridiron Greats — basically a renegade group, fed up with the faux union — to focus attention on issues like post-concussion syndrome, disability, and a $1.1 billion pension fund that seems inaccessible to retired players in the direst of circumstances?
That's what brought Garrett Webster, among others, to Washington, D.C. They were testifying before a Congressional subcommittee. "The system does not work," said former Bears coach Mike Ditka, a standard-bearer for the Gridiron Greats.
Subcommittee members heard some horror stories, many of them already familiar to casual readers of the sports pages. There will be more stories like Mike and Garrett Webster's unless the system is fixed.
What it takes to be in the NFL is often antithetical to what is required for a healthy life. Unlike any other team sport, football destroys players physically and neurologically. As Upshaw should know, ballplayers can't be counted on to protect themselves. Football players get bigger, stronger and faster. But they remain, now as then, cursed with courage.
Consider the case of Upshaw's former teammate, Jim Otto. One might argue, especially if one likes the Raiders, that Otto is really the greatest center ever. He retired in 1974, Webster's rookie year, after playing in 308 consecutive games, a figure that includes preseason and playoff contests. The similarities between Otto and Webster are striking, beginning with a frightening tolerance for pain. They both hail from Wisconsin. They each went a little over six-feet, 255 pounds in the prime of their careers. Ranking the game's best 100 players, The Sporting News put Otto at 78 and Webster at 75.
Otto has a clear lead, however, in surgeries. "My father has had well over 50 orthopedic procedures," said his son, Jim Otto Jr.
The son, known as Jimmy, had more pressing matters than the Congressional hearings. His father was in a Utah hospital with an infection where his right knee had been. The artificial joint — "it's at least the sixth replacement on that knee," said Jimmy — had been removed and replaced with a "spacer" to deal with the immediate problem.
"The biggest concern right now is that the infection doesn't take his life," said Jimmy.
By now, Jimmy Otto is accustomed to the ritual. This is the fifth such infection his father has had since 1997. It seems an inexorable cycle: incision, prosthesis, infection. He has lost so much skin, there's no longer enough to stitch him back together. "My father is paying the price for being the best at what he did," said Jimmy.
The son was a football player, too, a pretty good one at Utah State. But he gave up the game after breaking his shoulder. "It wasn't a hard decision," said Jimmy. "I was looking forward to the rest of my life."
He recalls watching team doctors drain the fluid from his old man's knees. But, then, football kept on draining his dad, even after retirement. In his autobiography, The Pain of Glory, Otto writes of his disillusionment with the benefits system and being denied disability in an arbitration hearing: "I discovered how the NFL rewards gladiators who've left their body parts on the field. By crapping on them."
Jimmy, with four kids of his own, sounds more contemplative than his dad. He's a pastor, currently on sabbatical from his graduate studies in divinity. He understands that this infection could kill his father. He knows, too, that the eventual death, whenever it comes, probably won't be easier for him than it was for Garrett Webster.
"My dad's end," said Jimmy, "is going to be difficult."
But he also knows that despite the surgeries, all the pain and ruin brought on by football, Jim Otto was able to raise his family and make a good living.
Other guys — Mike Webster was one — need more help. Not everyone who played the game is as blessed as Jim Otto.