When Mike Martin wakes up in his house north of Cincinnati, he first takes off the mask that pumps oxygen to ward off sleep apnea. He swings his feet to the floor and stretches them, then stands. Martin feels stiff on his walk to the bathroom. His left Achilles, surgically repaired in 1988, causes him to limp slightly; since the operation his left calf is smaller than his right. His right hip, replaced last January, shortly after he turned 50, takes a while to loosen up and feel right, so he favors his right side too on the short walk. He flexes his neck, always sore when he wakes, and spends 15 or 20 minutes stretching. A wide receiver for the Bengals from 1983 to '89, Martin had problems with his hamstrings during his NFL career, so he pays particular attention to those. When the weather is bad or suddenly turns, the early-onset arthritis in the three fingers he dislocated while playing flares up, so he flexes his hands quite a bit.
The headaches come later in the day. Often that would be while coaching at Taft High in Cincinnati's inner city. The headaches wouldn't go away until he slept that night.
"I'm just stiff all the time," Martin says. "I guess it's the wear and tear of playing on the [artificial] turf all those years. I don't have the mobility I used to. But once I get going, I can move around pretty well."
Martin was lightning-quick as a player—he led the NFL in punt returns in 1984, with a Devin Hester--like average of 15.7 yards—but his young charges at Taft have to do as he says, not as he does, because he can't "do" anymore. Even after he has loosened up, Martin can't demonstrate how to avoid bumps at the line of scrimmage or the nuances of getting in and out of cuts.
But he doesn't complain. In fact, for 10 years Martin spent his days teaching teenage boys how to play the game that has left him sore and battered, with aches that will get only worse. "I knew going into this business there'd be consequences," he says, "and now I'm dealing with 'em."
Exactly what are the long-term effects of professional football on a man's mental and physical health? Headlines over the last few years have conditioned many people to think that for retired NFL players the extreme is the norm. Former Bears safety Dave Duerson killed himself last February at age 50, a tragedy his family believes was the result of repeated brain trauma from years of football collisions. That echoed the suicide of another safety, 44-year-old Andre Waters, in November 2006. Run-stuffing Hall of Fame linebacker Harry Carson, retired for 23 years, still has days of debilitating postconcussion syndrome. Hall of Fame running back Earl Campbell, 56, is so battered from his eight NFL seasons that he sometimes needs a golf cart or a wheelchair to get around. But these are the high-profile cases. What of the typical retired player who should still be young enough to enjoy his post-NFL life? How does he feel decades after his playing days are over? How much of a toll did football take?
To get a clearer picture of the sport's impact on a large group of players and to assess their quality of life today, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED examined an NFL team from a quarter century ago, the 1986 Bengals. That team was good but not great, finishing second in the AFC Central with a 10--6 record, with one future Hall of Famer (tackle Anthony Muñoz), a couple of stars who would become familiar media personalities (quarterback Boomer Esiason, wide receiver Cris Collinsworth) and dozens of the workmanlike players who make up most NFL rosters. SI interviewed 39 of the 46 living players from Cincinnati's opening day squad as listed in the NFL Encyclopedia. The youngest of these former players turns 47 this week; the oldest is 62. Three declined to participate, and four others did not respond to multiple interview requests over a six-month period, including running back Stanley Wilson, who since 1999 has been serving a 22-year sentence for burglary. Two of the 48 on the opening day roster have died: cornerback Lewis Billups, who was killed in an auto accident in 1994, and safety Bobby Kemp, who shot himself in the chest in 1998 (page 82).
What did SI find? First, that the range of what these Bengals experience a quarter century later runs from almost perfectly healthy to borderline disabled. There is no template. Center Bruce Kozerski, 49, is sharp and nimble enough, despite eight football-related surgeries, to teach high school calculus and coach football in Covington, Ky.; his team just won the Kentucky Class 2A state title. Wide receiver Eddie Brown, 48, hasn't been able to turn his head freely from side to side since neck surgery in 1992, a year after he retired. Fellow receiver Steve Kreider, 53, a portfolio manager for an international investment firm based in New York City, says he feels "just like any 50-year-old man in the United States—maybe better." Collinsworth, 52, now an Emmy-winning sportscaster, uses the elliptical machine more than the treadmill when he works out because of one creaky knee but otherwise is well. Linebacker Reggie Williams, 57, has had 24 surgeries on his right knee alone and, like many former teammates, fears he's only at the beginning of a steep physical and mental decline. "I know the clock is ticking," says Williams. "I'm playing the stalling game like everyone."
Most players, like Martin, live with some pain and physical limitations—and worry what the future might hold—yet still treasure their time in the NFL. Of the 39 former Bengals, 37 said they'd suit up all over again, even knowing the game's residual impact. "My wife will ask, 'Why are you limping today?' " says Ken Anderson, 62, who was Esiason's backup in '86, his 16th and final NFL season. "And I'll say, 'I didn't know I was.' I think our pain tolerance may be a little higher than most."
The results of the SI poll of the '86 Bengals, conducted between May and October: