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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When I came to my first NFL camp, it was like I was a tall, cold can of beer. They popped the top, and all that energy and desire and ability poured out. I gave of myself with the same passion that I had in high school and college. When I was empty, when I had no more to give, they just crumpled me up and threw me on the garbage heap. Then they grabbed another new can and popped him open, and he flowed out until he was empty.
—CURT MARSH, NFL lineman 1981-86

They are the wincing, hobbling wounded: the men who played professional football, a notoriously joint-shearing, disk-popping, nerve-numbing exercise that has grown only more dangerous since Curt Marsh last crashed into a defensive lineman as a Los Angeles Raider.

"If you go to a retired players' convention, there are older retirees who walk around like Maryland crabs," says Miki Yaras-Davis, director of benefits for the NFL Players Association. "It's an orthopedic surgeon's dream. I'm surprised the doctors aren't standing outside the door handing out their cards. Hardly one [former player] you see doesn't need a hip replacement. Everybody comes out of pro football with some injury. It's only the degree that separates them."

A 1990 Ball State study, commissioned by the NFLPA and covering the previous 50 years of league history, revealed that among 870 former players responding to a survey, 65% had suffered a "major injury" while playing—that is, an injury that either required surgery or forced them to miss at least eight games. The study also reported that the percentage of players incurring such injuries had increased alarmingly: from 42% before 1959 to 72% in the 1980s, after many stadiums had switched from grass to artificial turf. Two of every three former players disclosed that their football injuries had limited their ability to participate in sports and other recreation in retirement, and more than half of them also had a curtailed ability to do physical labor. Of those who played during the '70s and '80s, nearly half (50% and 48%, respectively) reported that they had retired because of injury—up from 30% in the years before 1959.

There's little doubt, based on a follow-up survey in 1994 and on considerable anecdotal evidence, that injuries in the NFL are becoming more serious and frequent as the colliding bodies grow bigger and stronger. The 300-pound-plus Sira-goosed lineman, a rarity 40 years ago, is today as common as the soccer-style kicker. James Andrews, a leading orthopedic surgeon who has been operating on pro football players for almost 30 years, sees a correlation between the worsening of injuries and the size and power of the modern player. In fact, Andrews, who works out of the HealthSouth Medical Center in Birmingham, is witnessing the rise of a phenomenon that was almost unheard of only 15 years ago.

"The incidence of serious, noncontact knee injuries is much higher than it used to be," he says. Artificial turf is only part of the problem. "These athletes are bigger, stronger and running faster, and they're tearing up knees from cutting, changing direction on a dime," Andrews says. "In fact, the incidence of anterior cruciate ligament injuries is higher from noncontact than contact. I've seen guys get significant injuries just falling on the football. It's like a big tree falling."

Indeed, among the most notable casualties of noncontact incidents are two gifted running backs: Jamal Anderson and Ki-Jana Carter. Anderson, of the Atlanta Falcons, missed all but two games in 1999 after tearing the ACL in his right knee during a Monday Night Football game on artificial turf; his foot got snagged in the rug, and Anderson went one way as his popping knee went another. Carter, the top pick in the 1995 draft, tore his left ACL in his rookie year by simply "twisting" the knee, says Andrews. The former Penn State star was cut by the Cincinnati Bengals last June and hasn't been picked up by another team.

As for the New Age tyrannosaurs battling in the trenches, they have become so large and powerful that injuries have risen alarmingly in their hand-to-hand combat. "They are exerting forces strong enough to dislocate their elbows and shoulders forward and backward," Andrews says. "With the blocking techniques we're seeing, there's an increased incidence of offensive linemen's shoulders being dislocated."

Some players have quit rather than court more pain. A teary-eyed John Elway, claiming he still had a passion for the game at age 38, retired two years ago because his body could no longer take the punishment. Minnesota Vikings running back Robert Smith, 28, an unrestricted free agent at the height of his game, astounded the NFL in February by retiring without explanation, turning his back on what was expected to be a lively bidding war, with offers likely to exceed $30 million for five years. Smith had already had three knee surgeries, and while his agent, Neil Cornrich, denied that the on-the-job pounding played any part in the running back's decision to leave the game, Smith had implied as much to reporters. (Another running back, Curtis Enis, retired last week at 24 because of a degenerative condition in his left knee. Enis, the No. 5 pick in the 1998 draft, tore a ligament in that knee during his rookie season, with the Chicago Bears.)

No matter how young they are when they retire, a great many NFL players face a visit in middle age from that most pernicious of postfootball afflictions, degenerative arthritis. An athlete who suffers an injury to a major weight-bearing joint, such as the hip or knee, is five to seven times more likely to develop degenerative arthritis than an average member of the population. Repeated pounding and jarring of the joints—even in the absence of injury-all but guarantee that former players will be caught in the ganglia of serious and chronic pain. The 1994 NFLPA-Ball State survey said that arthritis is the most commonly reported health problem among retired players, affecting 47% of respondents.

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