Many former National Football League players believe that their NFL experiences will cost them years off their lives, according to a recent Times survey.
And although there is no empirical data to confirm their claims, there is medical evidence and opinion suggesting that the players may be right.
The survey questionnaire was sent to 1,000 former players whose names were taken from the 1988 National Football League Players Assn.'s Retired Members Business Directory. A sobering 66% of the 440 former players who returned the survey said that football would affect their life spans, compared to 14% who said it would not. Another 20% didn’t respond to that question or didn’t know.
Among the reasons most often given for players dying before their time were:
--Excessive weight gain, both during and after a player’s career.
So keen is the competition for a spot on the roster, so frenzied is the franchise’s desire for success, that players live by a new motto: “Bigger is better--or else.” Thus, they acknowledge widespread use of steroids and the accompanying risks--in some instances, life threatening.
“It’s like a street fight,” said Russ Bolinger, a former Ram offensive lineman who used steroids to bulk up during the latter part of his career. “If somebody brings a club, you bring a club.”
Linked with this, the players said, is the problem of post-playing career obesity. After competing for season after season at unnatural weights, a retiring player must fit his football body into the non-football world. Accustomed to cholesterol-rich diets, burdened with steroid bulk and, in many cases, physically limited by lingering football injuries, it can be a surprisingly difficult transition.
“I’m amazed I’m still alive,” said John Babinecz, 37, a former linebacker with the Dallas Cowboys, who is a pediatrician in Paoli, Pa.
--The physical trauma of the game and its long-term effects.
Players contend that the violent nature of the game lends itself to shortened life spans. Hit after hit, block after block, tackle after tackle, they reason, can’t be beneficial to the body. Nor can playing with injuries and pain, returning from surgery too soon, subjecting themselves to cortisone shots, enduring misdiagnosed ailments and competing on artificial turf.
In all, 78% of the players responding said they suffer physical disabilities related directly to football.
--The mental anguish of life after the NFL.
For many players, the real hurt takes place in the mind. According to the survey, 54% of the players admitted that they experienced emotional strain when they left the league.
That strain ranged from brief periods of despair and adjustment to serious thoughts of suicide. In some instances, players underwent trauma rather similar to what a Vietnam War veteran encountered after returning to the everyday world.
“I call it, ‘The Baby and the Bottle Syndrome,’ ” said Rick Upchurch, a wide receiver with the Denver Broncos for nine seasons. “You either cry or be satisfied. After you leave the game, you don’t have a triple-A team to go to or the CBA (Continental Basketball Assn.). When you’re out of the game, you’re out of the game.”
There apparently exists a curious love affair between a majority of the former players responding and the NFL. It transcends disturbing statistics, alarming trends and ominous warnings.
For example, the recently published “The Jobs Rated Almanac,” using information primarily from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, ranked 250 occupations according to work environment, income, outlook, stress, physical demands and security. The NFL player finished 241st overall and was listed in the bottom 10 of each category, except income.
And since 1960, 78 vested NFL players--those who played at least four seasons--have died, according to the NFL Players Assn. Of those 78 players, 73 of their ages are known. The average age at death: 38.2.
The NFL Management Council breaks down the causes of death as follows: 28 heart attacks, 14 cancer, 10 auto accidents, 5 gunshot wounds, 5 unknown causes, 2 respiratory arrests, 2 drownings, 2 aircraft accidents, 2 kidney failures, 1 ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), 1 head injury, 1 stabbing, 1 electrocution, 1 cocaine intoxication, 1 traumatic chest injury, 1 AIDS, 1 suicide.
The NFLPA lists three suicides, not one.
Yet, despite these numbers and a widespread belief by the players themselves that football shortens lives, that the game creates unrealistic and unhealthy weight demands on the body, that the sport causes high degrees of physical and emotional stress, 55% of the respondents said that they would play professional football again--even if it might reduce their life spans by 10 to 20 years.
And although 60% of the former players answering said that the NFL didn’t have either their long- and short-term interests in mind, there remains a solid majority of veterans who would gladly trade years for games, including one Dr. John Babinecz.
“I would do it again, knowing the risks, because I think I handled the risks appropriately,” he said. “I don’t know, I may have cut my life 10 years short, but it was such a good part of life, I’d do it again. But I don’t want to hear that I said that.”
Leo Carroll, a former defensive end who spent five years in the NFL with Atlanta, Green Bay, Washington and New Orleans, said:
“For the glory and the money, I’d do it over and over again. There is no drug in the world like playing in front of 80,000 emotional fans.”
But what happens when that euphoria is replaced by reality? Is the game nearing its own law of diminishing returns, where the price exacted is no longer equal to the benefits gained?
Opinion is predictably mixed. Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Assn., said: “There’s no doubt in my mind that it seems (players) are dying younger. Especially as you move up in age, you start thinking about that, wondering what impact this game has.”
Others, such as Dr. Michael Mellman, team internist for the Lakers, Dodgers, Kings and the defunct LA Express, said there is no cause for alarm.
“Is there a concern that athletes live less longer lives?” Mellman said. “There is no sense of that.”
Or as Bolinger put it: “I ain’t dying early.”
Whatever the mind set, there is evidence, corroborated by respected medical and psychological specialists, that intimates a link between football and the possibility of players living shorter lives. Today’s first of a two-part series is an examination of the physical demands of the sport.
BIG IS BEAUTIFUL
Here’s the dilemma: You weigh 255 pounds and you’re an offensive guard. You spend every waking moment you can in the weight room and still, the coach drops hints about wanting physical, overpowering players.
You’ve thought about taking steroids to increase your size, but you’re worried. What about the side effects? What happens if you get caught? The NFL has outlawed steroids and the NFLPA is also against their use.
Then you consider the flip side. What happens if you don’t take them? Is your position in jeopardy? Was it a coincidence that a rookie pushed you around in last week’s game?
You take steroids.
You’re not alone.
Steve Courson, a former Pittsburgh Steeler offensive lineman who played in two Super Bowls and is writing a book on the subject, entitled, “War in the Trenches: The Chemical Battlefield,” has said that 75% of NFL players have taken steroids to increase their size and strength. Even if Courson is wrong by, say, 25%, the numbers are still startling.
Dave Cadigan, former USC All-American lineman who was a first-round selection of the New York Jets in this year’s NFL draft, told reporters that he briefly took steroids because of the game’s competitive nature. In essence, his reasoning was this: If you can’t beat them, join them.
“I’ll do anything to be the best lineman in the NFL or the best lineman I can be,” he said. “If that’s taking steroids and, in fact they worked, I’d use them.”
One widely known agent, who asked that his name not be used, says that 18 of the 20 offensive linemen that he represents use or have used steroids.
So in the ongoing quest to build the better football machine, players have turned to artificial means. This isn’t exactly a news flash, because players say that steroids have been available for at least the last three decades. What is new, however, is that physicians just recently have begun to understand the effects of steroids.
“Ten years ago, guys were taking dosages a fraction of today’s,” said Dr. Bob Goldman, a steroids expert. “These days, a guy takes in one month more than those guys took in their entire lifetime. And the duration is another thing. They go year round. They used to at least take a break.”
The short-term results are apparent enough, Goldman said. Players are faster, stronger, hit harder and absorb more punishment.
“You have 280-pound guys moving like bats,” he said. “The velocity is staggering and the injuries are heavy duty. There are going to be significant effects on life expectancy.”
Goldman predicts more steroid-related illnesses involving the prostate, including a rise in prostatic cancer and prostatitis, which is the inflammation of the gland.
“Guys are getting prostates that are large at an early age,” he said. “If you’re 30 or 40 years old and have the prostate of an 80-year-old, what will happen when you’re 60?”
As for the effects on the heart, Goldman’s prognosis is no less gloomy.
“It’s not negotiable,” he said. “Liver cancer is a lot more dramatic, but cardiovascular problems will be much more prevalent than liver cancer. These guys are already a risk group because they’re so large and their diets are dictated by red meat. It doesn’t contribute to good health.”
Goldman isn’t alone in his analysis. Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper, author of the best-selling book, “Controlling Cholesterol,” and director of the Aerobics Center in Dallas, has worked with many athletes, including members of the Dallas Cowboys. He, too, blames steroids for increasing cholesterol levels, thus, harming the cardiovascular system.
“Talking to pro football players, it seems the majority of the guys are taking steroids,” he said. “It’s the greatest thing that will shorten their lives.”
Despite the NFL’s public stance against steroid use, players have little difficulty getting them.
Two NFL team physicians said the current system of steroid detection is virtually meaningless.
“As part of the NFL’s drug program, most of the clubs are trying to comply with what the commissioner is outlining,” said David Fischer, team doctor for the Minnesota Vikings. "(Steroid testing is) certainly not a regularly monitored situation.
“I think maybe sometimes players think we know more than we do,” he said. “I don’t know what the players are doing. I think maybe the players think we know more than what’s going on.”
Fischer said that if a team doctor confronted a player about steroid use, the player “probably would have told the team physician to mind his own business.”
Robert Kerlan, a team doctor with the Rams, said that every player at the start of every season is told of the dangers of steroid use.
“But this is a free country,” Kerlan said. “We have no control of them when they go to a gym someplace (to get steroids), or have them given by another doctor, or by black-market means. We have no control over that.”
Kerlan also said invasion-of-privacy considerations and costs prevent any comprehensive steroid testing program from being instituted.
“The only thing we can do is warn (players) of the dangers of medication, drugs and the games themselves,” he said. “We tell them about the injuries and how it can affect them.”
And even if Kerlan suspects a player of using steroids, he said he can’t force that player to submit to a blood or urine test.
“I can probably insist on (a test), but that doesn’t mean a player would necessarily let me do it,” he said. “Who’s going to tie down a linebacker and try to get blood out of him? And nobody wants that, either. We hope that the education process . . . eliminates all but the absolute intractable individual.”
Bolinger said he played seven seasons before turning to steroids for help. Younger players who used steroids were coming into the league and Bolinger said that he, too, needed some sort of edge.
“I took steroids because I wanted to take steroids,” he said, adding that he considered them a vocational necessity at the time.
“I took drugs because I wanted to take drugs. No doctor had to tell me to do that. If it meant me gaining weight, then I did it. You do whatever it takes to do what you want. The management doesn’t make you take steroids. But they never told us to get off them.”
Bolinger recanted slightly. “The doctors on the Rams knew I was taking steroids,” he said. “They said I should get off (them).”
But he didn’t.
“I put the weight on for my profession,” he said. “I needed to weigh 275 to compete. When I retired, I decided to take it off.”
To get an idea of what players such as Bolinger faced, look no further than the Rams. In 1977, the average weight for the team’s offensive linemen and tight ends was 253 pounds. In 1987, it was 261.
The 1977 Ram defensive line averaged 247 pounds. The 1987 group weighed in at an average of 266 pounds, a 19-pound differential.
“I’ll be honest, I didn’t feel good about (taking steroids),” Bolinger said. “I had to live with myself. It wasn’t something you want to tell your mom.”
Bolinger offered a solution to the steroid problem.
“That’s all they have to do with steroids: Tell the players that they can’t play Sunday if they’re on steroids.”
But Bolinger isn’t holding his breath.
Another by-product of the big-is-beautiful mentality is post-NFL obesity. Simply put, players must find ways to put the weight on and then, after leaving the sport, find ways to take it off.
It’s not easy.
David Crossan, 47, who played five seasons in the Washington Redskins offensive line, weighed 240 pounds during his NFL career. He weighs 290 now.
Since his retirement in 1970, Crossan’s weight has fluctuated from 318 to 209. On 10 occasions, Crossan said, he lost 60 pounds, only to gain it back. He now attends Weight-Watcher classes.
Crossan is an example of what happens to some former players. Once in good shape, they become physically inactive while their diets remain at pre-retirement levels. Nearly every person is faced with the same problem as the years go on but NFL players, linemen in particular, usually have a head start in body weight.
Cooper has seen the two extremes: the former player who improves his physical condition after retirement, and the former player who becomes obese.
For instance, he said, former Cowboy quarterback Roger Staubach “is in better shape at 46 than he was while playing.”
But former Green Bay Packers lineman Bob Brown, once Cooper’s patient, let his physical condition degenerate. Brown, in fact, is known as a player who ate himself out of the league.
“I’d hate to see what Bob Brown is like today,” Cooper said. “He was 40 pounds overweight with 99% body fat. I predict much shorter life spans for those people.”
There have been at least three medical studies completed during the last five years that establish a correlation between obesity and mortality. And although the research doesn’t specifically address the weight dangers of former players, it does seemingly provide a warning tailor-made for NFL veterans.
One such study, published in 1984 by the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Md., concluded in part: “Overweight persons tend to die sooner than average-weight persons, especially those who are overweight at younger ages.”
A 1983 University of Pennsylvania study showed that “high-fat diets produce obesity and a shortened life and there are significant differences in the effects of other dietary constituents at different times in the life cycle.”
And a 1986 study on the health implications of obesity said, in part: “Obesity, the excessive storage of energy in the form of fat, is clearly associated with hypertension, hypercholesteremia, diabetes, certain cancers, and other medical problems.”
Dr. Bill Kohl of Cooper’s Aerobics Center said that at least three other yet-unpublished studies will show that long-term athletes who suddenly quit their sport and assume sedentary lives are higher health risks than someone who maintains a constant exercise program.
Some players, such as former guard Joe DeLamielleure, 37, who played for the Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns, have made the adjustment. They continue to work out, remain active in leisure sports and, in many instances, have reduced their weight.
Darrell Austin, who played for the New York Jets and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, ballooned to 275--up 20 pounds--after retiring in 1981. He has since whittled his weight to 253 and wants to lose 5 more pounds.
“When I was drafted, I needed to put 15 or 20 pounds on, just to have a chance,” he said. “I went the steroid route, ate everything in sight. I think there are a lot of players who never learn to control their life styles after the game. You’re working out trying to keep a job every day of the year. Once you’re finished, you have nothing to work out for.”
Why the change for Austin?
“I didn’t want to be a statistic,” he said.
For every DeLamielleure or Austin, there seems to be a player such as Noel Jenke, 41, who spent four years in the NFL with three different teams. He weighs 245 pounds, 20 pounds more than he did as a linebacker.
“My physical condition is nowhere near what it was when I played,” he wrote on The Times’ questionnaire. “Since I have gotten out (of the NFL), I have had four knee operations. Arthritis is prevalent in my knees and hands. I have to go in for (an) operation again in near future.”
Bill Staley, a former Cincinnati Bengal and Chicago Bear, said that he can no longer run or use his left arm, and that his right shoulder is almost completely disabled. He also said that he has back problems, arthritis and bursitis. Staley is 41.
Randy Burke, 32, played for the Baltimore Colts. He said that his speech was affected by several concussions he suffered while playing in the NFL. “I can speak clearly, but ever since football, my words often get stuck together,” he wrote. “I don’t know what to expect next.”
With 78% of the respondents saying that they have football-related physical disabilities, Jenke, Staley and Burke obviously aren’t alone in their pain.
Babinecz said that he couldn’t become a surgeon because his hands were broken seven times while playing football.
Upchurch said he spent five days in bed after aggravating a neck injury--the same one that forced him to retire--while playing with his son one Christmas. “I’m talking about not being able to move,” he said.
Ed Beard, who retired in 1972 after stints with the San Francisco 49ers, New Orleans Saints and Detroit Lions, once visited his orthopedist after what turned out to be his last knee operation before quitting. The doctor examined the knee and said, “Beard, you’ve got to be kidding to be playing. We’ve got Vietnam vets coming back, drawing full disability, in better shape than you.”
This is the darker, murkier side of the NFL experience, the one the league doesn’t mention in its glossy 92-page book entitled, “The NFL & You,” which is distributed to league newcomers. Before you can comprehend their injuries, you must first know the game’s violence and personality, something not easily done.
“Unless you’ve been out on the football field and seen the amount of punishment dished out in games, in practice, you don’t understand,” said Gifford Nielsen, who played quarterback for the Houston Oilers before retiring after the 1983 season.
According to Phil Olsen, who played defensive end and tackle for the Rams from 1971 to 1974, not even the players themselves understand the long-term consequences of their NFL careers.
“I don’t think players realize the price they’re asked to pay,” Olsen said. “Players have to believe that they are some kind of a superman. I don’t think you could make it to the pros without that attitude. You have to believe that it’s not going to happen to you: ‘I’m not going to get hurt.’ ”
But they do get hurt, with many of the injuries haunting them later in life.
“People say, ‘You were paid well,’ ” said George Hill, who represents several former players in workmen’s compensation cases. “But what’s the price of a knee?”
In a workmen’s compensation case prepared in part by Ron Mix, a San Diego attorney who is also a member of the pro football Hall of Fame--tackle, Chargers 1960-69--evidence was submitted that indicated a player with a seven years’ NFL experience probably sustained a minimum of 130,000 full-speed hits. Each hit takes its toll.
"(A player) probably doesn’t feel well again until six weeks after the season,” Mix said. “The body gets totally exhausted.”
According to a soon-to-be released joint independent study done by Ball State University and Dr. Tony Bober, a Newport Beach psychotherapist, the injury rate for NFL players has increased significantly. The study will show that 28% of the players polled left the league because of a disabling injury before 1970; 42% after 1970.
So dramatic was the rise in injuries--and claims--that the only U.S.-based sports underwriting company and sports disability insurance company are just now returning to the NFL for business after about a two-year absence. That left Lloyd’s of London as the only other sports disability insurance option.
“Football is the riskiest, that’s why it’s low on the totem pole,” said Ted Dipple, president of American Sports Underwriters, Inc., based outside of Boston. Dipple’s company recommends to State Mutual of America, the insurance company, also headquartered near Boston, if an athlete should be provided a disability policy.
“We are being very careful in reentering (the business),” said Bob O’Brien, State Mutual’s vice president of groups special plans.
And although O’Brien is convinced that injury rates are headed down, he said the NFL has “got to do more.”
Dipple is taking another approach. He raised his rates. “Substantially.”
THE BIG PICTURE
No one knows for sure if playing in the NFL shortens life spans. Several players, including Mix, have circulated a longevity figure of 55 years for the average player, compared to the 1986 National Institute for Health Statistics figure of 71.3 for the average U.S. male. But as best as anyone can determine, the number has no statistical basis.
If the NFL is aware of any research concerning player longevity, it isn’t talking. Requests to examine records of Lincoln National Life Insurance, which once provided group policies for NFL teams, were denied by the league, which, along with the NFLPA, must approve such a petition. The NFLPA granted approval.
Also, interview requests with NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle and Executive Director Jack Donlan of the NFL Management Council were turned down.
For the last several years, the NFLPA has asked the league to help sponsor a comprehensive study to examine, among other elements, the extended effects of professional football. According to Doug Allen, assistant executive director of the NFLPA, the union most recently made the proposal at last year’s failed collective bargaining negotiations.
"(Donlan) made a shot from the hip that I think he regrets,” Allen said. “He said, ‘You know, it won’t save us any money. Because if we do any of that kind of stuff, if we find ways to improve players’ health, they’ll just live longer and that will cost us more money in retirement benefits.’
“I said, ‘We’ll beat you to death on that one if you don’t at least smile, Jack. Are you serious?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I’m serious.’
“And we’ve been hitting him over the head with that quote ever since.”
Donlan, through a Management Council spokesman, said he doesn’t recall the specific conversation, but if he did, he said it would have been in a joking manner.
For the most part, the former players responding to the questionnaire were convinced that professional football causes them to die before their time. Bolinger, and others like him, wouldn’t agree with the assessment.
“Ridiculous,” he said.
Maxie Baughan, 49, a former linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles, the Rams and the Washington Redskins during his 13-year career, agreed.
“The NFL was great to and for me,” he wrote. “It has been a great means to an end. A great start in life. Everyone should be so lucky.”
Still, no vested former player has yet waited until 65 to begin drawing on his retirement, though the financial benefits are considerably higher.
For example, a player with seven years of NFL experience would receive $2,409.48 each month if he were to take his deferred retirement benefit. Normal retirement benefit at 55 would be $920.00 each month. Early retirement benefit, at 45, would be just $415.84 each month.
Of those vested former players who have filed for their pensions, 243 did so at 45. In all, 352 of the 419 players eligible, 84%, took their pensions before 55.
The Times survey shows that 34% of the respondents have or will have taken their pensions at 45. Twenty-seven percent have or will have taken them at 55. Only 8% have or will have waited until 65. The remaining players retired before 1959 and are under a separate plan, were not eligible, or hadn’t decided on their retirement benefit plans.
Explanations for the high number of early retirement pensions varied. The two most common reasons:
--Players think they’re dying younger, thus they draw on their pension earlier.
--Players find it economically advantageous to use the money now. Longevity has nothing to do with it.
One returned questionnaire had neatly printed answers. Under the question that asked if football players were dying before their time, was printed, yes, and listed concussions and stress as possible reasons. It was signed by Jean Humphrey, widow of veteran quarterback Buddy Humphrey.
“I knew his thoughts on this subject and I’ve answered as he would have,” she wrote.
Less than two months ago, her husband, who suffered from a brain tumor, died. She wrote that his doctor told her the tumor might have been football-related. Humphrey was 52.
SURVEY OF FORMER NFL PLAYERS
HERE ARE THE RESULTS OF A TIMES SURVEY PERTAINING TO NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE PLAYERS AND THEIR OPINIONS ON HEALTH, LONGEVITY AND PENSION-RELATED ISSUES. 1,000 QUESTIONNAIRES WERE SENT OUT AND 440 WERE RETURNED. THE NAMES WERE TAKEN FROM ‘ THE 1988 NFL PLAYERS ASSN. RETIRED MEMBERS BUSINESS DIRECTORY .’
1. Do you believe, as the NFLPA suspects, that football players are dying before their time? If so, please list reasons why?
Yes 293 66% No 60 14% Don’t Know 87 20% Responses 440
2. If someone told you out of college that football might take 10 to 20 years off your life, would you do it again?
Yes 240 55% No 153 35% Don’t Know 42 10% Responses 435
3. If eligible for NFL pension, at what age would you (or did you) take your pension?
45 148 34% 55 119 27% 65 38 8% Pre-59er 44 10% Not Vested, Not Eligible 38 9% Don’t Know 53 12% Responses 440
4. Should the NFL co-fund a longevity study?
Yes 345 78% No 42 10% NFL Alumni 1 .02% NFLPA 4 .09% Don’t Know 48 11% Responses 440
5. Is the NFL genuinely interested in the well-being of players, long term and short term?
Yes 39 9% No 258 60% Short Term 93 21% Some Are 23 5% Don’t Know 20 5% Responses 433
6. Were your best health interests ever compromised by the team physician?
Yes 228 53% No 173 40% Don’t Know 30 7% Responses 431
7. Would you have chosen your team physician as your personal doctor?
Yes 206 48% No 185 43% Don’t Know 40 9% Responses 431
8. Do you associate directly any current physical disability with playing football?
Yes 343 78% No 96 22% Responses 439
9. How would you describe your transition from the NFL to the private sector? Emotional strain?
Yes 238 54% No 184 42% Don’t Know 18 4% Responses 440