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Chiefs’ Turley plans to donate to retiree fund

Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO -- Kansas City Chiefs offensive lineman Kyle Turley, a nine-year NFL veteran, said Tuesday he has agreed to donate his paycheck for the Dec. 23 game against the Detroit Lions to an organization that is helping aging football retirees who are in dire medical and financial need.

With the donation -- which amounts to about $25,000 after taxes -- to the nonprofit Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund, Turley becomes one of the first active professional football players to openly criticize the leadership of the NFL Players Assn. for what he sees as the union’s failure to provide adequate assistance to NFL veterans who are struggling.

“I have to come out against these neglects even if it means my opportunity to play football next year ends because I get blackballed,” Turley said before the start of a news conference here. “What I’ve seen with these retired players infuriates me.”

Turley hopes that his donation will prompt other active players to turn over their game paychecks on Dec. 23, a day being dubbed “Gridiron Guardian Sunday.”

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He said that he has written a letter explaining the issues that will be distributed to every team’s locker room before Sunday’s games. He also has spoken with about 20 other players who have said they too would donate their game check that day, although Turley declined to name them.

Turley himself will earn $720,000 this year while playing offensive tackle for the Chiefs, meaning his pretax contribution will amount to about $42,000.

“It’s not the money that’s important,” Turley said in an interview. “It’s about building awareness among today’s younger players about a problem that exists.”

Tuesday’s news conference was held at a Chicago steakhouse owned by former Bears player and coach Mike Ditka, who has been an outspoken critic of the NFL and the NFL Players Assn., alleging that they have failed to help retired players in dire need. In September, the Hall of Fame tight end used an appearance before a U.S. Senate subcommittee to publicly chide the league and union.

After practice Monday in Kansas City, Turley flew to Chicago to appear alongside Ditka -- who was coach in New Orleans in 1998 when the Saints drafted Turley as the ninth player picked overall -- and former Bears running back Gale Sayers.

Sayers applauded Turley’s plan to prod today’s players to remember yesterday’s players.

“If he can do it, and if other young players can do it, then why can’t the owners?” Sayers asked.

Sayers, though, suggested that the league and retired players must do a better job of educating young players about the league’s history: “If they don’t know the history of the game, then they’re lost and they’re in trouble.”

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Aging NFL veterans and their supporters have increasingly been pushing their benefits fight with the league and union leadership into the public arena. Congressional panels have held three hearings in the last year. During one Senate subcommittee hearing in September, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Players Assn. Executive Director Gene Upshaw testified in defense of the league’s pension and medical disability plan.

Turley, who served as a union representative for two years, said his plan to donate his game check and speak out got a warm reception from the handful of players he talked to in recent weeks. He expects that other players will follow suit after learning more about the health and financial issues facing some old-timers.

“It’s about younger players taking responsibility for guys who came before them and made it possible for them to earn the money that’s available today,” Turley said. “Many of them don’t care right now, because they don’t know about the problem.”

Jennifer Smith, executive director of the Gridiron Greats organization, said she expected many players to follow suit -- but that many probably would do so anonymously. The nonprofit group will make public how many donations have been made and how much money is being raised.

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Turley, though, said “people will be surprised” by the number of players who step forward to accept his challenge and do so publicly: “I think there’s a good chance that this thing will snowball.”

During his career, Turley has built a reputation in the NFL as a take-no-prisoners player. Raiders linebacker Bill Romanowski once said of him: “He tries to kill you every play. Literally.”

Turley, 32, became a fan favorite in New Orleans in 2001 after ripping the helmet off then-New York Jets safety Damien Robinson and flinging it downfield. Turley was fined and ordered to enroll in anger-management sessions.

Turley said he acted only after Robinson had savagely twisted the helmet of then-Saints’ quarterback Aaron Brooks.

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Turley, who recently moved with his wife, Stacy, to Nashville from West Hollywood, was composed but not contrite after the helmet incident.

After the game, he was quoted as saying, “It was a very emotional outburst on my part that I need to be a little more mature about. But I cannot apologize for defending my quarterback and trying to, basically, from my point of view, save his life. The guy was seriously trying to break his neck.”

Turley, who went to high school in Moreno Valley and played football at San Diego State, has been hampered by injuries in recent years, including a back injury while with the St. Louis Rams that required surgery and forced a yearlong layoff.

Turley said he didn’t know -- or much care -- how Upshaw would react to his public criticism. “Gene just seems to be hoping that these [old players] simply fade away,” Turley said.

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NFL Players Assn. spokesman Carl Francis, reached after the news conference, said there would be no immediate comment because the union was dealing with the death of Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor, who was shot Monday in his home.

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said, “We commend Kyle Turley for his generosity. We hope other players will follow his lead and join the NFL club and others in providing additional funding for the alliance that is addressing the medical needs of retired NFL players.”

In an interesting twist, Turley and Upshaw are represented in contract negotiations by agent Tom Condon. Turley said he had not discussed his paycheck plan with Condon, who also serves as a union appointee to the six-person board that oversees football’s disability claims process.

Turley acknowledged during the news conference that Condon probably will have “a few issues with this” but expects his longtime friendship with the powerful sports business agent to continue.

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“Tom and I were friends before we were business associates,” he told reporters.

Turley said the issue of retirees in need was on his mind at the start of his career when union and league officials explained various charitable efforts open to players.

“I wondered why we weren’t doing something for these guys back then,” he said, explaining how he had heard story after story from older players -- including Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas -- who ran into problems in retirement when they tried to get disability payments for football-related injuries.

Turley also cited his own experience, when his application three years ago for disability benefits after major back surgery was abruptly denied -- despite what he characterized as solid medical evidence from respected doctors and surgeons.

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The news conference made it clear the battle is far from over.

Ditka, for one, reconfirmed his determination to assist retirees in need even if it alienates league and union leaders.

“If people want a fight, I’ll give ‘em one,” he said. “And if Upshaw wants a fight, I’ll give him one.”

greg.johnson@latimes.com

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