SI Vault
William Nack
May 07, 2001
As they limp into the sunset, retired NFL players struggle with the game's grim legacy: a lifetime of disability and pain
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May 07, 2001

The Wrecking Yard

As they limp into the sunset, retired NFL players struggle with the game's grim legacy: a lifetime of disability and pain

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"A lot of ex-players with terribly arthritic spines say, 'But I never had a back injury!' " Andrews says. "That doesn't matter. There's no way to heal those cartilage lesions. They heal with scar tissue and are never as good again. What you end up with is a bunch of ex-NFL players, in their 40s and 50s, who shouldn't have arthritis but have degenerated knees and need total replacement done at an early age."

This, then, is not about a few casualties wandering off the playing field into retirement, their bells rung and still chiming in their heads, but rather about a whole society of broken men hounded through their lives by pain and injury, and all the psychological problems that often attend them.

Johnny Unitas once owned the most dangerous right arm in the NFL. Today he barely has use of the hand attached to it. Unitas, who is considered by many to be the greatest field general to play the game, is still paying for a hit he took more than three decades ago as a Baltimore Colt. That day in 1968, Unitas was drawing back his arm to throw a pass when a Dallas Cowboy mashed the inside of his elbow. Unitas came back to play again—the arm seemed fine up through his retirement in 1974—but by the mid-1990s he was having problems with the nerves that controlled his hand and fingers. He lost strength and feeling in the hand and became unable to rotate the thumb back and grasp objects. The symptoms only got worse. Now Unitas cannot close the hand that made Raymond Berry famous.

Unitas's two knee replacements work perfectly well—cartilage and ligaments in the right knee were torn in a collision with two Bears in 1963, while the left wore out from years of favoring the right—but when he plays golf, which is about all the exercise he can get with those new knees, he has to use his left hand to close the fingers of his gloved right hand around the grip, then strap the hand fast to the shaft with a Velcro strip. He goes through this tedium on every shot. "I do it putting, too," says Johnny U, who's 68.

Forty years ago Unitas was the toughest and smartest quarterback in the game, calling the plays and running the show in a way that inspired both fear and awe among teammates and opponents alike. Mentally, he always seemed a step ahead of everyone else. If a situation looked ripe for a pass, Unitas would throw a pass. If it called for a pass and his opponents, trying to outguess him, set up for a run, he'd throw. Unitas perfected the two-minute drill, and no one since—not Montana, not Elway—has run it better.

Setting an NFL record that seems as unassailable as Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, Unitas threw a touchdown pass in 47 consecutive games between 1956 and 1960. In the years since, only Dan Marino has come anywhere close to that mark, throwing scoring passes in 30 straight games from 1985 to '87.

Unitas has demanded disability compensation from the league but says he has been turned down for various reasons, among them that he didn't apply by age 55—though his right hand didn't fail him until he was 60—and that the league pays him a pension of $4,000 a month. The NFL adds that, in its opinion, Unitas is not "totally and permanently disabled."

Meanwhile, of that magical hand that spun footballs like strands of gold, Unitas says, "I have no strength in the fingers. I can't use a hammer or saw around the house. I can't button buttons. I can't use zippers. Very difficult to tie shoes. I can't brush my teeth with it, because I can't hold a brush. I can't hold a fork with the right hand. I can't pick this phone up.... You give me a full cup of coffee, and I can't hold it. I can't comb my hair."

Bill Stanfill never thought it would come to this. Never conceived, through all his years as a rampaging defensive end for the Miami Dolphins, that he would be reduced to what he is now. Never imagined that at 54, he would be navigating his house in Georgia with a metal walker—step-shuffle, step-shuffle—as he recovered from hip-replacement surgery. Or still feeling the consequences of that near-fatal injury he suffered when, during a preseason game against the Bengals in 1975, he cracked heads with teammate Vern Den Herder and almost severed his spinal cord between vertebrae C-4 and C-3.

It was like nothing he had ever felt. "I'd had stingers, but this was entirely different," Stanfill recalls. "I just numbed up. Could not move my arms or feel myself breathing." Stanfill had subluxed the joint in his cervical spine; that is, a disk and the surrounding bone had slipped nearly far enough to damage the cord. Stanfill would never be the same player again, and by the end of the next year he would be out of football. Two decades later, in the mid-'90s, the disks began herniating, and he has had four vertebrae fused in his cervical spine.

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