NFL disability issue to be aired

Times Staff Writer

Brent Boyd was a 23-year-old rookie scrambling to stick with the Minnesota Vikings when he suffered his first concussion as a professional football player. Nearly three decades later, the preseason-game collision that left Boyd temporarily blind in one eye continues to haunt.

"I couldn't tell you how many [concussions] I had," said Boyd, who was born in Downey, graduated with honors from UCLA and spent six years as an NFL offensive lineman. "We didn't count them. They were a nuisance, like hitting your funny bone."

The 50-year-old Reno resident now relies on twice-weekly physical therapy sessions to counter headaches, depression, fatigue and dizziness caused by what his doctors diagnosed as post-concussion syndrome.

Today, Boyd will testify before a congressional subcommittee about the dulling impact that football-related injuries have had on the quality of his life since he left the NFL in 1986.

The hearing is the latest development in an increasingly high-profile battle that pits aging football players against their former league and union.

"I am going to walk them through my journey," said Boyd, who lost a wife, his home and, for a while, his sense of dignity after leaving football. "I'll take them by the hand, hopefully, and tell them step by step what happened to me."

Those who know Boyd -- including some influential legislators in Nevada who were key to having him be heard on Capitol Hill -- see his story as troubling.

"Brent had a lot of us scratching our heads," said attorney Barry Axelrod, a fellow UCLA alumnus who counts Boyd as a friend and former client. "He had been an overachiever, a hard-charging honor student, a clearly intelligent guy."

But after the NFL, Axelrod said, Boyd appeared to be "a lazy, no-account guy who couldn't hold down a job."

Boyd's testimony will focus on an unsuccessful effort to get the NFL's medical disability plan to acknowledge that his health problems were caused by football injuries.

A disability review conducted by the Social Security Administration determined that Boyd was totally and permanently disabled, and that his deteriorating health was linked to concussions. The NFL plan, which relied upon its own medical examinations, also determined that Boyd was totally and permanently disabled but found no clear link to football.

As a result, Boyd receives a $1,500 monthly NFL disability check, not the $8,500 that a football-related disability would have generated.

Boyd's frustration and anger grew during the process because, he said, two league-appointed doctors had checked the box on a medical form that indicated his health problems were caused by football.

"It was unequivocal," said Axelrod, who represented Boyd during the process.

The NFL plan sent Boyd to a third doctor, who determined that it was impossible to verify that his health problems were football-related. Boyd filed a lawsuit, but the courts determined that the genesis of his health problems was "far from clear," and that the NFL plan was within its rights to reject the claim.

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Thousands of players have signed NFL contracts over the decades, but only 284 retirees will receive disability payments this year, totaling $19 million. Former players interviewed for this article allege that the number of football-related disability awards is low because the system is dysfunctional.

"Football is an inherently dangerous game, but NFL players don't have the rights normally given to others, like the UPS driver, a policeman, a coal miner, or anyone who's injured on the job," said Pete Cusick, who played for the New England Patriots during the 1970s until knee injuries forced him to retire. "The NFL and the union are hiding behind the antitrust exemption that the NFL enjoys. The result is a nightmare for many former players."

Today, the subcommittee also will hear from three other former players -- including former Chicago Bears tight end and head coach Mike Ditka, who has been outspoken on the need for reform -- and representatives from the NFL and the NFL Players Assn.

An attorney who represented the estate of now-deceased Hall of Fame center Mike Webster in a lawsuit filed against the NFL medical plan also is scheduled to appear. In December, an appellate court upheld a ruling that awarded Webster's estate more than $1.5 million in disability benefits linked to brain damage that Webster blamed on the constant pounding he endured as a player.

Rep. Linda T. Sanchez (D-Lakewood), chairwoman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law, described the one-day hearing as a "fact-finding" exercise.

"The purpose of this hearing is to shed some light on how the disability benefit process works for retired players, and to determine whether or not the system is unfairly stacked against them," Sanchez said. "The descriptions of how difficult it is to apply [for benefits], and how many years it takes to get benefits, seems to me to be a little excessive."

In a related development, the NFL and players' union last week said that the process of determining which retirees get medical disability payments will be streamlined. The jointly administered plan also said that retirees who qualify for Social Security disability benefits automatically will qualify for NFL disability checks.

On July 24, several retired NFL players will meet with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA Executive Director Gene Upshaw to discuss retiree benefits. Jerry Kramer, who founded the Gridiron Greats fund and has been an outspoken advocate of down-and-out players, is among those who have been invited to attend.

Some players began advocating for better retiree benefits years ago. But the effort couldn't get traction -- until old-timers discovered the Internet.

Now, hundreds of former players are using online message groups to keep in touch and help publicize what long had been a fraternal fight between current and past NFL players.

"We want to get our story off the sports page and onto the front page," acknowledged Jennifer Smith, executive director of the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund, a nonprofit that helps athletes in dire need.

Even as the congressional subcommittee meets, former players will gather this morning at the National Press Club to challenge a union allegation that only a small group of dissidents is driving the controversy over retiree benefits.

NFLPA spokesman Carl Francis said the union will be represented today by attorney Doug Ell. The NFL will have Dennis Curran, senior vice president and general counsel.

"It's really tough for us to discuss issues publicly that for so long you've tried to address in a respectful sort of way for the player," Francis said. "But we'll be happy to discuss the process for filing a disability claim ... and explain the purpose of the process and the different categories and levels that are needed to be approved."

In recent years, the union has voluntarily improved pension benefits for retired players and funded charitable operations that assist athletes in need.

Boyd acknowledged receiving some of that help to cover some of his medical bills. But he remains "ticked off that billionaire team owners are passing the costs of our medical care off onto Social Security and Medicare."

Boyd recalls the frustration he felt before being diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome.

"Here I was, a former honors student at UCLA who was trying to sell beer for Anheuser Busch and getting fired," Boyd said. "I was selling restaurant and grocery supplies and getting fired. I didn't seem to have any energy, had no focus. I'd make appointments and forget to keep them."

Boyd, who since has remarried, probably never will stop trying to get the word out about football's physical price.

"Young players aren't going to understand the long-term possibilities," he said.

"Young guys think they have to be strapped to a gurney before they'll admit they're hurt. They'll think, 'It's just a concussion.' "

greg.johnson@latimes.com

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