Former NFL star Dave Pear is sorry he ever played football
Dave Pear went to the Pro Bowl and won a Super Bowl but can barely walk
Pear, 56, was initially denied disability benefits by NFL and now gets just $40,000
Pear is, in basic terms, a train wreck -- a football-inflicted train wreck
Dave Pear has a message for you.
"Don't let your kids play football," he says. "Never."
It is an odd thing, hearing these sort of words from a man like David Louis Pear, University of Washington standout, Pro Bowl defensive lineman for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Super Bowl champion with the Oakland Raiders. His five-year NFL career was one thousands of high school and college athletes would envy -- charging out of a darkened stadium tunnel, 70,000 fans screaming for you, loving you, praising you, idolizing you.
"You wanna know the truth?" says Pear.
The question lingers -- the 56-year-old ex-athlete preparing to unload one more skull-splitting hit.
"I wish I never played football. I wish that more than anything. Every single day, I want to take back those years of my life ..."
The words are not subtle. They spit from Pear's mouth, with a blistering contempt normally reserved for drunk drivers. We are speaking via phone. I am in New York, sipping a hot chocolate, leaning back in a chair. My two young children are asleep. A Pretenders song, "2000 Miles," plays in the background. No worries, no complexities. Pear is sitting at his home in Seattle. His neck hurts. His hips hurt. His knees hurt. His feet hurt. When he wakes up in the morning, pain shoots through his body. When he goes to sleep at night, pain shoots through his body. What does Pear do to stay active?
"My life is simple," he says. "It's hard to get out of bed, but eventually I do. I try and do a little walking on the treadmill. I take naps. I go to physical therapy once per week. I read my Bible."
He is, in basic terms, a train wreck -- a football-inflicted train wreck. Pear walks with a cane and, often, simply doesn't walk at all. He suffers from vertigo and memory loss. Over the past 18 years, he has undergone eight surgeries, beginning with a Posterior Cervical Laminectomy on his neck in 1981, and including disc removal and rod fusion in his back (1987), arthroplasty in his left hip (2008) and, earlier this year, four screws removed from his lower back. Though he chalks up his physical ailments to snap after snap of punishment, he pinpoints the biggest problems back to 1979 and '80, his final two NFL seasons. While playing for Oakland, Pear suffered a herniated disc in his neck that never improved. Despite the unbearable agony, he says the Raiders urged him to keep playing.
Be a man! Be tough! "Those last two years in Oakland were very, very difficult times," he says. "I was in pain 24 hours per day, and my employers failed to acknowledge my injury. Sure, I won a Super Bowl ring. But was it worth giving up my health for a piece of jewelry? No way. Those diamonds have lost their luster."
Throughout North America, many of Pear's retired football brethren hear his words and scream, Amen! Conrad Dobler, the legendary Cardinals offensive lineman, is about to go through his 32nd knee surgery. Wally Chambers, the Chicago Bears' three-time Pro Bowl defensive end, spends much of his time in a wheelchair. Earl Campbell, the powder blue bowling ball, struggles to walk and underwent surgery to remove three large bone spurs. The list is both heartbreaking and never-ending -- one NFL player after another after another, debilitated either mentally, physically, or both. I'm currently working on a book that has led me to interview more than 150 former players. I'd say 60 percent experience blistering pain from a sport they last played two decades ago.
"And the NFL," Pear says, "doesn't care."
Hence, he is fighting back. Two years ago, Pear started a blog, davepear.com, with the intent of supporting hobbled NFL veterans and calling out the league's laughable disability policy. Pear says he first applied for disability benefits in 1983, and was denied. He applied again in 1995, under a new provision that stated players would be compensated should they properly prove their injuries were permanently debilitating. A league-appointed physician examined Pear and filed a report stating that a man who once bench pressed 500 pounds could no longer sit, stand or bend for prolonged time periods.
To Pear's shock and dismay, benefits were again denied.
Finally, in 2009, Pear's request was accepted, and he now receives a whopping $40,000 annually. "Am I financially stable?" he asks with a laugh. "Let's put it this way. By the time I was 27 I had two children and medical bills that would reach $500,000. I can't work, my wife, Heidi, has had to hold two and sometimes three different jobs at the same time. And why? Because the NFL hasn't allowed me and my family to receiver proper benefits."
Pear pauses. He worries that he sounds like a typical whiner -- some ex-jock who didn't appreciate making it big. "This isn't even about me," he says. "It really isn't. There are guys so much worse off than me, it's criminal. We dreamed our whole lives to play professional football, and our dreams came true. And then they turn into nightmares."
Pear is blunt, like a rusty dental knife. He considered Gene Upshaw, the former NFL Players Association executive director, to be a criminal. "He was Ken Lay," he says of the deceased Enron CEO. "Same thing -- took all the veterans he supposedly represented for a ride." He holds out hope that Upshaw's replacement, DeMaurice Smith, might make things right. "I'm keeping an open mind," he says. "I hope Mr. Smith looks at the retired players and sees the wreckage.
"We need help," he says.
A long, painful sigh.
"We need help."
Jeff Pearlman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.