Few players walk away physically unscathed after a career in professional football.
From Greg Baty and his crooked pinky finger to Gene Atkins and his well-documented struggles with dementia, the 1994 Miami Dolphins are no different.
Today, with most players from the '94 team in their mid-40s and at least 10 years removed from the game, they are struggling with a long list of health conditions, including obesity and high blood pressure, chronic pain and the residual effects of countless surgeries.
"Everyone who plays the game, other than certain positions, you are going to deal with pain for the rest of your life," said Craig Veasey, a defensive tackle on the '94 Dolphins.
Former players face ailments and a grim future of health issues without National Football League-paid health insurance, which expires five years after retirement. And those who seek disability benefits often find the deck stacked against them, with the league holding the deciding cards.
More disturbing for players is the number of former teammates from seasons before or after 1994 who never made it past their 45th birthdays.
While no one from the '94 team is known to have died, nine men who played for the Dolphins at some point in the 1990s have, most from cardiovascular problems that may have been exacerbated by weight-related issues.
"That's kind of the other dirty little secret," former tight end Baty said. "Guys are dying young, and I don't think it's brain trauma, necessarily."
Still, head injuries and concussions are front and center in the debate over players' health and the long-term effects of the game. That has never been more evident than this year; the list of former players who have joined concussion lawsuits against the NFL has reached more than 3,500.
That includes 16 members of the 1994 Dolphins, 25 percent of the 62 players who suited up. Some of those who haven't joined the lawsuits still admit to struggling with recurring headaches and memory loss.
The lawsuits, which have been consolidated into one master complaint, claim the league concealed information about the long-term effects of football-related head trauma. Helmet manufacturer Riddell also was named in the suit, which has been likened to the landmark litigation that resulted in a $206 billion settlement on behalf of 46 states against tobacco companies.
The case has profound implications for the nation's most popular sports league, a $9 billion annual industry with its 32 franchises worth an average of $1 billion.
In its official response to the lawsuits, the NFL cited various health programs it offers retired players, including joint replacement, neurological evaluations and spine treatment, as well as assisted living partnerships. But many don't qualify for benefits.
While the NFL's latest collective bargaining agreement yielded improvements for retired players, it falls short of meeting the needs of many. In a recent letter to a retired players' advocacy blog, Bob Kuechenberg, a Dolphin from 1970-84, called the pension plan a "shameful travesty."
Three seasons are required for an NFL pension, and with the average career lasting less than four years, many players don't qualify for the benefits, which don't kick in until age 55. Long-term insurance care also becomes an issue later in football retirement. By contrast, in Major League Baseball, one day on an active roster qualifies a player for lifetime health care.
Interviews with 33 players from the '94 Dolphins revealed a wide range of experiences with the physical toll of the game.
Veasey went in for back surgery last year and contracted bacterial meningitis.
"My doctor told me he has seen 80-year-old people with better spines than mine," Veasey said.
Running back Terry Kirby has a steel rod in his leg. Guard Keith Sims had lap-band surgery after his weight got out of control in retirement.
Linebacker Jesse Solomon is unable to work and describes his health as "terrible." Tackle Ron Heller had both shoulders and knees replaced, but now says, "My life is great."
Then there is Gene Atkins.
Over time, those big hits take a big toll
No one on the 1994 Dolphins hit harder than free safety Gene Atkins or took more pride in knocking opponents senseless. Mean Gene, they called him.
The price of that aggressivity became dramatically evident in a 2007 episode of HBO's "Real Sports." Asked to recite the first six months of the year in order, Atkins was unable to do so.
"I looked up to Gene Atkins, as a leader and a man," said Robert E. Wilson, a fullback on the '94 team. "I saw him on television and they were trying to talk to him, and he was a shell of the man he once was."
Teammates are left to wonder about their own headaches and lapses of memory. But the rush of former players signing on to the concussion lawsuits breeds skepticism.
The list of plaintiffs includes stars who played every position, including Garo Yepremian, kicker for the 1972 perfect-season Dolphins, and Jim Arnold, punter for the team during much of 1994.
"I don't know. I was never diagnosed with a concussion. My personal feeling is that the pendulum has swung way too far and [they're] kind of using concussions as a whipping boy or excuse," said Baty, who has three sons playing football. But he acknowledges: "There are clearly people — ex-NFL players — who have had a terrible problem with multiple concussions leading to all kinds of very traumatic things."
Atkins' problems began soon after the Dolphins released him and he retired in 1996. He was arrested on charges of masterminding a 1998 firebombing of a former business partner but was later acquitted. In 2006, he received three years of probation after a plea agreement in a domestic battery case.
In an article in the Journal of Consumer and Commercial Law, Atkins' attorney, Jeffrey Dahl, wrote that the former defensive back doesn't remember much of his football career, and that Atkins had to quit a job hanging signs at a Target store due to physical limitations and cognitive impairment. Atkins declined to be interviewed for this story.
In a 2004 petition for football-related disability benefits under the NFL's player retirement plan, Atkins described constant pain in his head, neck and right shoulder, as well as mood swings and depression.
"I suffer from depression, and probably have for several years, but was in denial. I have not sought any medical attention, because of my lack of insurance coverage. I have not been able to work, therefore I am not covered by any insurance," Atkins wrote in his application.
Atkins has been determined to be disabled by more than one physician, including a psychiatrist selected by the NFL. After his initial claim for benefits was rejected, Atkins appealed and was able to gain some financial assistance.
That won't undo the damage from too many hits on the field.
Some of the early scientific evidence of that came from studies on the brain of Pro Bowl linebacker John Grimsley, who played for the Dolphins in 1991-93 and died of an accidental gunshot wound in 2008 at age 45. Grimsley's brain was the first from a deceased athlete examined by the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University.
BU researchers found evidence of severe brain damage in Grimsley comparable to an elderly "punch-drunk" boxer. The center reported similar findings in several other deceased football players, including Mike Webster, Terry Long, Justin Strzelczyk and Andre Waters.
The conclusion was that each player, had they lived, would have developed debilitating dementia.
The NFL has in recent years enacted rules against blows to the head and neck area and to protect players in defenseless circumstances.
"There is no doubt I suffered, we suffered, a lot of concussions," said Bernie Kosar, the Dolphins' backup quarterback in 1994. "Hits to the head and roughing the quarterbacks was a lot different than today.
"Toward the end of my career, I had smelling salts in my belt for when you got drilled and light-headed," he said.
Kosar said he now gets ringing in his ears and headaches, but that his memory is "fantastic.''
The hits that make the highlight reels are easy to point to. But there is research suggesting the repetition of knocks to the head produces brain damage that may lead to dementia.
Baty is among the doubters, and he conveyed that to the team conducting research in Boston.
"I called them and said, 'Look, you guys are trying to kill the game of football,'" Baty said. "My personal feeling is that there are some people who are susceptible to concussions."
The initial autopsy of former Dolphins linebacker Junior Seau, who committed suicide in May, found no evidence of football-related head trauma. His brain will undergo more advanced evaluation at the National Institutes of Health.
The NFL this month pledged $30 million to the NIH for research on degenerative brain diseases and other health issues. Meanwhile, the league has petitioned for dismissal of the concussion lawsuits, calling the issue a labor dispute that should be resolved by collective bargaining.
Carrying Too much weight becomes an issue
Baty sees other troubling factors in the physical problems of retired players, underscored by some of the deaths of Dolphins from teams in 1990s.
"It's different things, playing at unnatural body weights," Baty said. "You stop exercising and all of a sudden you are a 300-pound guy and you should be a 210-pound guy."
A study released earlier this year by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that NFL players have a lower overall rate of death compared with men in the general U.S. population of a similar age and racial mix.
However, defensive linemen had a 42 percent higher risk of death from heart disease, the study found. High body fat was cited as the primary factor.
The majority of the former Dolphins' deaths were due to cardiovascular problems, most recently defensive lineman Shawn Lee, 44, who died in March 2011.
Lee, who struggled with his weight and diabetes after his career, played for the Dolphins in the early '90s and was a former teammate of many of the players on the '94 team. Lee also was on the San Diego Chargers team that defeated Miami in the playoffs that season. Eight members of that Chargers team have died.
Lee was the fifth Dolphin from the 1990s to die within 18 months, following linemen Harry Galbreath, 45, and Norman Hand, 37, in 2010.
"Harry gained too much weight,'' said Mark Higgs, a Dolphins running back from 1990-94. "With the Dolphins he was about 265. Then he got up to about 400 pounds and had a stroke and died. That was tough because Harry was only a year older than me."
Punter Reggie Roby died of a heart condition at 43, defensive lineman T.J. Turner of a stroke at 46, defensive tackle Alfred Oglesby of a heart attack at 42. Jarvis Williams succumbed to an acute asthma attack at 45.
The others were Grimsley and David Griggs, who was killed in an auto accident in 1995.
The deaths were a wake-up call to former teammates, particularly linemen with weight issues. Keith Sims took drastic action and had lap-band surgery, which enabled him to lose almost 100 pounds.
"I ballooned up to almost 400 pounds after I retired. I don't know if it was depression, lack of exercise, nutrition," said Sims, president of the Dolphins Alumni. "That post-career transition can manifest itself in many different ways, whether going broke or getting divorced or gaining weight or depression. There are a lot of things that former players deal with."
Playing through injuries is very common
The primary concern when they were playing was simply to stay on the field.
Baty's crooked right finger is the result of shunning surgery in order to avoid missing playing time.
"Now it's kind of a conversation piece," he said. "I don't think about it and it doesn't bother me too much."
Brant Boyer, a rookie in 1994, parlayed tenacity on special teams into a 10-year career. Even coming off a broken foot and with herniated discs in his neck, the linebacker thought he could coax another season or two out of his body. A visit to a neurosurgeon painted a vivid picture about why he kept failing team physicals.
"If I kept playing, he said, 'When your neck goes, you're in a wheelchair the rest of your life.'"
Kirby was still productive in his 10th NFL season until fracturing his right tibia and fibula on a kickoff return while playing for the Oakland Raiders in 2002.
A steel rod was inserted in his leg. Kirby didn't play another game in the NFL, though he didn't give up hope right away.
"I kept training, had a couple tryouts here and there. It didn't work out," he said.
Lack of reasonable Health care a concern
Tim Bowens was one of the most durable Dolphins, a stalwart defensive tackle who missed only five games in his first 10 seasons before recurring back problems limited him to two games in 2004. He retired the following season.
"I'm not walking on a cane or anything like that," Bowens said. "But some days are good and some days are bad. Like going up and down stairs: That feels like a mile walk."
His 16-year-old son is playing football in high school. Bowens has mixed feelings about that due to the physical toll of the game. He also harbors resentment about the NFL's treatment of players who paved the way for the prosperity the league enjoys today.
"I don't think they get enough respect for getting this league started, and they're definitely not getting the health insurance and the due that they deserve," Bowens said.
Dahl, in his law journal article, said that the legal deck is stacked against former players seeking disability benefits, as claims are left to the discretion of the NFL Retirement Board.
The NFL's latest collective bargaining agreement did increase disability benefits for retired players who qualify. A new Neuro-Cognitive Disability Benefit was added for ex-pros with permanent cognitive impairment, but it applies only to vested alumni younger than 55 who played at least one season after 1994.
Sean Hill, a defensive back in '94, said one reason he is involved in the concussion litigation is to bring about improvement in health care for former players.
Kirby, a director and personal trainer at the Ultimate Sports Institute in Weston, puts the onus on retired players to be proactive about their health. Staying active is vital, he said.
"The overweight thing, I think, is inexcusable, especially when you were a professional athlete and you trained for a living, to turn around and let yourself go. You can control it," said Kirby, whose clients include former quarterback Dan Marino. "Most guys do nothing."
Kirby still moves surprisingly well at 42 for a 230-pounder with a steel rod in his leg. In April, he completed his first half-marathon in just over two hours at Key Biscayne.
Marino, 51 and the men's life ambassador for the American Association of Retired Persons, had his 11th knee surgery in May after tearing cartilage in his right knee while throwing the football with his kids on the beach.
"My whole issue has been all the knee injuries, the Achilles, the pin in my ankle. That's one of the main reasons why I stopped playing," said Marino, who has turned health concerns for men over 50 into business interests with his VitaCore supplements to promote heart and joint health. "I can play golf. As long as I work out enough and try to keep the weight off, I'm usually pretty good."
Football's pull is still strong, year after year
Last year the NFL moved the spot of kickoffs up to the 35-yard-line to increase touchbacks and cut down on high-speed, injury-causing collisions. There has been discussion about eliminating kickoffs altogether.
"I hope they don't do that," Boyer said. "I think it's a major part of the game that fans enjoy seeing. I think there's a lot of things that could be done to make the game better, make it a little safer for those guys on kickoffs."
Boyer, just beginning his first paid coaching job as special teams assistant with the Indianapolis Colts, built an enviable life after football. An avid outdoorsman, the Utah native is part owner of a hunting guide service in Colorado.
But he started to long for the wilds of the NFL. Now Boyer teaches players how to utilize techniques to make plays while minimizing the chance of injury.
For all that football took out of them, a number of the '94 players like Boyer drifted back to the game as coaches or broadcasters. They wouldn't have it any other way.
"I would have done it for free, man," Boyer said.
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