I HEARD a crowd roar. It occurred to me that I'd drifted into the unlikeliest sort of ghost story. Everyone was rooting for the ghosts! It was almost impossible not to. Creeping along the sideline on a walker, bent at a 45-degree angle, was the alltime great Oilers running back, Earl Campbell. Confused by foggy memory, neck locking up from damaged vertebrae, advancing on an artificial left hip was Hall of Fame Dallas Cowboys safety Mel Renfro. Dialing his wife because he couldn't remember where he'd parked the car was former All-Pro Carolina Panthers linebacker Kevin Greene. Out of a Maryland homeless shelter, trying to squeeze by on his $400-a-month NFL pension was O.J. Simpson's former blocker, Bills tackle Donnie Green. Enough. There were just too many of the hobbling and homeless, the broke and disoriented, to identify them all.
How had it come to this? I drew nearer. The ghosts were eager to explain.
For three decades, from Pop Warner to retirement, they'd been groomed to spit at the pain, which was ever-increasing as the colliding bodies grew larger and faster, and they'd soldiered on in silence for years after they'd faded away. But then came the day when the consequence of all those head-ons, all that pounding on all that green pavement called artificial turf, demanded its reckoning. The mornings when they awoke and realized they could barely get up ... or didn't even want to. The multiple knee and hip replacements, each one carving a year of recovery time out of their lives; the depression, vertigo, Alzheimer's and thoughts of suicide, which some doctors linked to the multiple concussions they'd suffered; the spiraling medical costs and the realization that neither their pension nor their disability plan—if they even qualified for it—could possibly keep pace, had combined to overwhelm them.
Yes, many of their predecessors had carried such torments to their graves, but that was before $1,280 CAT scans and $2,280 brain MRIs, before the Internet had provided former players a forum to compare plights and emerge from their isolation, before the advent of unfettered free agency and guaranteed shared revenue in the 1990s had made the current players and their benefits plan far richer ... and the disparities between the old and new warriors so striking. The ghosts sat there on Sundays, watching all that glitter, pomp and money, listening to old comrades who'd escaped with their glibness and good health trade quips on the screen.
My heart went out to them. I'd whooped over their collisions; probably you had too. Maybe they were our ghosts. But my fascination kept turning to their unflinching prey.
Why were they stalking him instead of their old employers, the wealthy heirs and barons of commerce who had owned their teams and their sport? Why Gene Upshaw, their union's executive director for 25 years, their league's All-Pro guard in the 1960s and '70s with the Oakland Raiders—one of them? He was the character I'd never seen in any horror tale. The haunted one who refused to be spooked.
IT WAS 37 years ago that he'd started wrapping himself. He'd begun, in the fourth year of his Hall of Fame career, with a pair of work gloves and elbow pads, overlaying them with a single roll of half-inch tape from his fingers nearly to his jersey sleeves. Then he'd upped it to two rolls per arm, then three. He'd begun slicing the cardboard tubes that the tape came in, fitting one half over each arm for more protection before starting the wrapping, then adding a fourth roll of tape, two inches wide, over all that. I remembered him leading those leftside sweeps alongside his fellow All-Pro and best pal, tackle Art Shell, running over defenders without breaking stride, his beard and Afro jammed inside that silver helmet, those two long white clubs swinging from those stevedore shoulders, dangling frayed padding and tape. "Sometimes I think it's still on him," a friend of his, Neil Grasso, muses. "He never took it off."
He'd needed it, all through the trench wars with all those multimillionaire owners in the '70s and '80s, when he rose to NFL Players Association president. Needed it when negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement nearly came to blows. Needed it when Cowboys president Tex Schramm, at a meeting over the dangers of artificial surfaces, thundered, "If we tell you to play on concrete, you'll play on it!" Needed it when Schramm cried, "You're the cattle, we're the ranchers. And we can always get new cattle!"
He was an old Raider, used to being one of the bad guys, and an offensive lineman, conditioned to withstand punishment. So that's what he did when the haunting began two years ago, ignoring the retired players' shrieks. He and Harold Henderson, the league's executive vice president of labor relations, conferred and agreed: The loud and bitter ones' numbers were relatively small; some of the ailing old-timers, like Renfro, blasted no one. It would all blow over.
Mistake. The noisy ones' numbers and media skills grew. They'd tapped a vein, the anguish of everyone who has spent hours getting refusals and runarounds from medical insurance companies and HMOs. They targeted Upshaw. As unspookable as Union Daddy seemed, he had to be jumpier than Corporate Granddaddy, the NFL. The battle grew fierce and finally—just as it would in the third or fourth quarter during Upshaw's playing days—his perfect pregame wrap job began to lose its adhesion. Loose ends began to dangle that the ghosts could snag and use to unravel him.