NFL Finally Is Lending a Hand to Its Pioneers

Times Staff Writer

With a stroke of an accountant's pen, National Football League owners announced at their meetings in Hawaii last month that they were granting pensions to players who put in five years before 1959. Those players previously were denied pensions.

Gene Upshaw, director of the NFL Players Assn., said that the union deserved the credit for pushing the owners.

Since it was suddenly unanimous that this was a worthy cause whose time was overdue, a question arose: What took everyone so long?

"Our only concern was for our guys to get a pension," said Jack Maitland, a former Pittsburgh Steeler and now director of Pro Legends, the money-making arm of the NFL Alumni, from his office in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

"It really came as a shock, a very pleasant shock. I think it's something the league should have done a long time ago. It's the end of a 20-year dream for us. We could not be more delighted."

If any one organization can claim credit, it's the NFL Alumni, which was formed in 1966 to fight for a pension for the players who played before 1959.

The first thing the organization did was sue the NFL but that didn't work. After that, the alumni turned to consciousness-raising and appeals to conscience, which took time but ultimately worked.

This year, for the first time, the NFL Players Assn. intended to list pensions for the pre-'59ers among its demands in its collective bargaining package.

But the owners discovered a surplus in the money earmarked for the current pension plan. So they seized the moral high ground, taking their excess and financing the separate plan for the pre-'59ers.

"They (the players) had it on the docket," Maitland said. "I don't know how high a priority it was. On behalf of the NFL Alumni, the only statement I'd like to say is that we appreciate anything (Upshaw) did to maybe goose this thing along."

That everyone owed the pre-'59ers was obvious. The league has been publishing histories about the old days, in effect merchandising the pre-'59ers, for years. Several pre-'59ers were known to be having financial problems. Hall of Famers Bronko Nagurski and Clyde (Bulldog) Turner were the most prominently mentioned.

The league and the alumni set up a joint program for players in dire need, who could receive the difference between what they were earning, in salary and/or pension, and $12,000. The program is confidential, but Nagurski and Turner are said to have refused to apply, out of pride.

"Bronko lives in International Falls, Minn.," said Ed Sprinkle, the once-dreaded Chicago Bears defensive end who is a rental fleet manager in Elgin, Ill. "He ran a gas station up there for years. I don't think he ever suffered as far as missing any meals goes but he sure never made any big money.

"He doesn't get around much now. He's had problems with his eyesight.

"Bulldog had a ranch down in Texas and had a rough time. They had a drought. He was the same type guy, very proud. He didn't want to go on dire need. I think both of them stayed out of the program.

"Things had gone so bad that Bulldog had just about lost the desire to live or do anything. He told me the bank had foreclosed on his mortgage.

"He's got 12 or 13 years (of service) so he'll be getting $720 to $780 a month from this. That's a lot of money to people like this. He'd told me he was living on Social Security, $440 a month. You add $720, and he should just about be able to make it."

The pre-'59ers will get $60 a month for every year of service before 1959. That is less than the current pension pays modern players, but the people who fought so long say it'll do.

"It's a nice stipend for a lot of them," Maitland said. "More important than the money is the dignity that has been restored. They feel like, 'We were the first four decades of football. We pioneered the sport. We laid the groundwork for the game as it is today.' "

Among the new beneficiaries is Sprinkle, who earns a good living but is delighted anyway.

"I'm gonna make 'em suffer," Sprinkle said, laughing. "I'm gonna live till I'm 90."

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