Washington, who has worked as an insurance salesman and a data-entry clerk after retiring from the NFL in 1992, has been unable to hold a job since 1996. He draws disability payments to help support his family and is seeing his worst fears slide before his eyes. "Not being able to run around and play with my daughter," he says, giving one example. "I tried coaching [as a volunteer at the high school level], but my body couldn't take it; I can't stay on my feet that long. What kind of an example am I setting for kids if I'm walking around with a cane? I don't go to a lot of NFL functions. I would like to hang out with those guys, but I don't want them to see me like this."
None of this comes in the tone of a complaint. Washington wishes only that when he played he had known more about what he was doing to his body and had taken better care of it. He wishes that he had not allowed himself to be shot up with painkillers and cortisone so he could play hurt. Like the other former players who have been down that tortuous road, he assumes his share of the blame. "It was my choice to do what I did," he says. "I guess I didn't expect to be in this kind of shape."
Nor did Harry Carson, for 13 years a crushing, headfirst inside linebacker of the New York Giants. Carson's injury is to a human organ that is still little understood. By his own count he suffered at least 15 concussions while playing pro football, from 1976 to '88, and he is afflicted by what Yaras-Davis, of the NFLPA, believes is one of the most common and troublesome maladies among former players: postconcussion syndrome, which is marked by headaches, forgetfulness, blurred vision and difficulty tracking mentally.
Former Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman and former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young, each of whom has suffered repeated bell-ringers on the field, are the players most closely associated with concussions. Carson, however, was one of the first former players to go public with the debilitating aftershocks of concussions, in an attempt to broaden understanding of the problem. Carson had his share of other injuries, but none quite as stunning as the concussion he suffered in 1985 when he crashed head-on into his favorite opponent, Redskins fullback John Riggins. "It was pretty much my power against his power," Carson says. "I remember hitting John and going back to the huddle...everything faded to black. I was literally out on my feet."
Carson would find that such blows had long-term effects. In 1991, three years after he retired, he wrote in his journal, "I don't think as clearly as I used to. Nor is my speech, diction, selection of vocabulary as good as it used to be, and I don't know why." As a TV broadcaster with the MSG Network in New York City, he would occasionally misspeak. "I would mispronounce words and lose my train of thought," he says. "Things would happen, and I'd think I was going crazy. I'd go to the store to get something and forget what."
Like Yaras-Davis, Carson believes the syndrome is far more common than is generally thought. "One problem is that a lot of players who suffer from it have no clue what they're dealing with," says Carson, who still appears on a weekly show, Giants GamePlan, for MSG. "I've talked to players I've played with and against. Once I went public with this concussion thing, they were looking at me as being sort of brain-damaged, drooling and all this stuff. But it is an injury just like one to your knee or hip."
What Ails Curt Marsh is far less elusive. The 41-year-old former offensive lineman for the Raiders could serve as a poster boy for crippled veterans who ache in all the usual NFL places: neck, back, knees, hips, ankles. Bone by bone, Marsh's body is gradually being replaced. He has had more than 20 operations, including one in '96 to replace his left hip, which had developed AVN, and he expects soon to undergo surgery to replace his right hip, which also has been damaged by AVN.
Like Stanfill, Marsh allowed team doctors to shoot him up repeatedly with painkillers and cortisone. By the time he retired, after seven years in the league, Marsh had a scoped knee, bulging disks and a right ankle that had been destroyed when the Raiders' team physician, Robert Rosenfeld, who died in 1994, apparently misdiagnosed and mistreated a broken talus bone. By 1994, after the 13th operation on it, the ankle was a hopeless ruin, and doctors cut off Marsh's leg eight inches below the knee.
Marsh is not shy about being an amputee. While attending a 1998 hearing of the California Senate's Industrial Relations Committee in Sacramento, Marsh, all 350 pounds of him, heard one agitated senator, Ross Johnson of Irvine, excoriate pro athletes who had taken advantage of the state's generous workers' compensation laws by filing their claims there, even if they lived in other states and had played only road games in California. Johnson, backing a bill that would have limited workers' comp payments for pro athletes, declared that he was "outraged" that "professional athletes, who earn huge sums of money, wind up abusing a system that was created for the benefit of average working men and women."
Moments later Marsh, in a move as memorable as any he ever made with the Raiders, pounced on Johnson, saying he was "offended" to see athletes being treated "as if they were a piece of meat" because they were well paid for their labors. "And that makes [what happens to them] O.K.? That really bothers me. We have families that go through the pain. We have...."