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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For most NFL players, especially linemen, weight training is as much a part of the daily regimen as stretching exercises—and the weight room works its own form of wickedness. Hoisting iron, players rupture the patella tendons in their knees, put enormous strain on their lower backs and cause ligament injuries to the lumbar spine. They even damage their shoulders by doing something the joint was not designed to do: bench-pressing huge weights.

Joe Jacoby, a former Washington Redskins offensive lineman, was a habitu� of the Skins' weight room, squat lifting his afternoons away. He dare not lift weights anymore, for fear it will accelerate the deterioration of his ankles, knees, wrists, elbows and back. Jacoby still feels the echoes of years spent snatching iron and leaning his sequoia body into snot-blowing defensive linemen who drove shuddering forces down his spine and onto his lower joints.

At 6'7", 305 pounds, Jacoby was a giant among the Hogs, a 13-year veteran who retired in 1993, the year he collapsed in his bathroom at home and could not get up. "My lower back went out," he says. "I dropped to my knees on the floor. The pain was that sharp. I crawled out of the bathroom to the bed." Like Stanfill, imbued with the ethic to play in pain, Jacoby played again later that year. Then, against the Kansas City Chiefs, his back went out again. He ended up spending three days in a hospital.

"I never wanted to go out that way," says Jacoby, 41. "I wanted to keep playing, even though I was hurting. I felt like I was letting down the team. You've been brought up that way since high school. It's ingrained in you. I had a wife. I had a family. A business I was starting. But I kept hearing those little things in the back of my mind: You're letting your team down?' He was in traction, shot up with cortisone, when the thought finally struck him: I can't keep doing this. I have a life to live after this.

Jacoby had blown out his left knee earlier in his career, when his leg got wrenched in a pileup during a field goal attempt. "The kneecap was way over on the side of the knee," he recalls. "I still hear the crunching and popping." Another old wound—vintage for linemen, who are forever getting their fingers caught and dislocated in face masks and shoulder pads—is the busted knuckle on Jacoby's wedding-band finger, as gnarled as a tree root. He has won many wagers in bars, claiming he can get the ring over that knuckle. His wife, Irene, had the band made with a clasp, so he can take it off like a bracelet.

Jacoby owns an auto dealership in Warrenton, Va. He and Irene had the sinks in the kitchen and master bathroom of their house installed higher than normal, "so he doesn't have to bend down," she says. He often walks about sockless in loafers. "It's too painful for him to bend over and put on socks or lace up shoes," Irene says.

Jacoby walks stiffly on his damaged ankles, but he endures the discomforts with stoic grace. He still remembers vividly the pounding he took year after year, through 170 games, including four Super Bowls—a career that left him unable to do any exercise other than walking. "Some days the back gets unbearable," he says. "It's really deep in the lower back and goes down to my left buttock and hamstring. Sometimes it gets so bad it hurts my nuts. There's pain down my left leg now. My left foot has been numb for two months. The bone's pressing on the nerve. Too many years of abuse, using the back to block."

Like so many other hobbled former players, Jacoby says he would do it all again if he had the chance. He knew what he was getting into. "Football players know the risk and the consequences," he says. "They know they will pay for it later in life. If they don't, they are misleading themselves."

As much as Jacoby has gone through, he looks fortunate when compared with Chris Washington. Only 39, Washington seems old beyond his years. He was an NFL linebacker for seven seasons, most of them with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and he has had 21 operations. He suffers from severe arthritis in both knees—he has had six surgeries on the right, five on the left—and his right thigh and calf are atrophying. He endures his days with help from a pharmacopia in a kitchen cabinet: one pill for sleep, two for pain (including double-strength codeine) and two to reduce inflammation.

Washington was a zealous weightlifter, but now his home looks like a Gold's Gym after closing, with everything racked and idle: the stationary bike, the treadmill, the stair-climber and tons of barbells. He won't use any of them for fear of inflaming his diseased joints. Not only is he virtually crippled by ailing knees, but he also suffers hand tremors from pinched nerves; he shakes too much to fasten a necklace around his wife's neck. Although he has upper arms like ham shanks, he experiences periodic loss of strength in the right one and has back spasms as well. Washington carries his 10-month-old daughter, Taylor, in a Snugli, but not simply for convenience. He fears he will be seized by a shooting pain in his back or arm or suffer the sudden collapse of a knee and drop her—or, worse, fall on her.

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