His knees ache with pain so intense that he says he is unable to stand for more than a few minutes.

"I look silly at cocktail parties. I'm the only one sitting down," said former Ravens defensive end Michael Mc- Crary.He is 36 years old.

He has taken a blizzard of medications for chronic pain and depression, casually rattling off the names as if they were afternoon snacks.

"I've been on Percocet, Percodan, OxyContin, oxycodone, three different psychiatric medicines," he said. "I had a fentanyl patch; that's like heroin. I'm on methadone now.

"You know when people said it was crazy, all that stuff that Anna Nicole [Smith] was taking? Man, that's the same stuff I take."

McCrary, a member of the Ravens' Ring of Honor, has a 3-year-old daughter and is less than five years removed from the NFL's playing fields. At a glance, he is still physically imposing.

But he needs two knee replacements.

"When people think of broken-down football players, they imagine old guys, not people like me," he said. "But I'm pretty messed up."

Few who entered the National Football League after last weekend's draft want to hear about the physical damage that playing their game can cause, said Mc- Crary, who played for Baltimore from 1997 to 2002 and for the Seattle Seahawks from 1993 to 1996.

A cautionary tale

"You think you're bulletproof when you're their age and making so much money," he said. "When I was young, I looked at old guys with knee problems and just laughed. They warned me, `You'll see.' Boy, were they right."

His plight is a cautionary tale about the inherent dangers of playing the country's No. 1 spectator sport.

"It's becoming more and more common to see these situations with younger [former] players," said Dr. Bill Howard, founder of the Union Memorial Hospital Sports Medicine clinic.

One explanation for the trend is that today's pro football players are so much larger, Howard said, so collisions are more violent. And while padding is improved, many players' knees remain uncovered.

Players battle through debilitating injuries and extend their careers, Howard said, because so much more money is at stake. And doctors can keep them going, thanks to more sophisticated diagnostic equipment and less invasive surgical techniques.

"If they can play another two years and make $1.8 million a year, they're going to do it. I don't blame them," Howard said. "These guys are not being held against their will and forced to play. They go, `Hey doc, can you fix me up? I want to get back out there.' And we can."

Keith Sims, 39, a Pro Bowl- caliber defensive lineman for the Miami Dolphins and Washington Redskins from 1990 to 2000, can't stand for more than 30 minutes because of leg injuries. Former New England Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson, 34, recently cited multiple concussions as the reason he suffers from memory loss, depression and an addiction to amphetamines. Former Pittsburgh Steelers lineman Terry Long died last year at age 45 from brain inflammation that resulted, in part, from repeated head injuries.

McCrary's is a classic case. Known for being an undersized but relentless pass rusher, Mc- Crary made two Pro Bowl appearances and won a Super Bowl ring with the Ravens, and his hard work paid off handsomely, as he earned more than $16 million in signing bonuses alone.

Now married and living in Baltimore County, he made enough money to give him a start in his new career as a real estate developer, but in a recent interview, he referred to his football riches as "a deal with the devil."

Sitting in his office overlooking the Inner Harbor, he shook his head sadly and said, "This is no way to live. It's a really tough situation for me. My knees hurt all the time. Now my back and legs are hurting from overcompensating for the knees. That's only going to get worse. And my family's main concern is all the medicine I'm taking. How is that going to affect my liver and kidneys?

"I just want to be able to play with my daughter. But right now, I'm on so much medication that I can't focus on her. Isn't that sick? I have to really concentrate to try to be able to focus on my daughter."

The Seahawks drafted McCrary out of Wake Forest University in the seventh round of the 1993 draft. Scouts admired his drive and intensity but thought he was too small; he weighed 240 pounds in an era when 300-plus pounds had become a routine playing weight for linemen.

McCrary beat the odds, using his quickness to outmaneuver larger linemen. He became a starter in Seattle and signed with the Ravens as a free agent in 1997. He was at his peak in the late '90s, a fierce presence who rattled quarterbacks and controlled his side of the field. He was so dominant that the Ravens signed him to a five-year contract extension with a $12.25 million signing bonus in 1999.

By then, he had already undergone four knee surgeries since joining the Ravens. Operating against double teams by 300- pounders, he used his knees to explode off the line and generate leverage.

"I was giving up, like, almost 400 pounds," McCrary said. "My only choice was to generate more leverage. My knees couldn't take years of me doing that."

Though he used a wheelchair for two months after a 1999 operation, he was able to maintain a high performance level on the field for several more years, he said, by rehabilitating ferociously, having fluid removed and taking several cortisone injections a year. Cortisone is a legal steroid used to treat inflammation.

The Ravens' medical and training staffs never pushed him to take shots, McCrary said, and always advised him about the dangers of taking too many.

"I have nothing but praise for the Ravens," he said.

`Passion for the game'

He remains close to the franchise; he volunteered to help coach defensive ends at training camp last year and hopes to do so again this year, he said, even if it means taking cortisone injections.

When McCrary was inducted into the team's Ring of Honor in 2004, Ravens coach Brian Billick said, "He had a constant motor and huge passion for the game. He was all about the game, and anybody around him recognized that."

McCrary said he received a cortisone shot in Tampa, Fla., before the Ravens' Super Bowl victory in January 2001.

"It was the biggest game of my life," he said, smiling and shrugging.

But cortisone shots didn't repair the damage; they just enabled McCrary to keep playing despite worsening knees. By the 2001 season, arthritis had set in and there was little cartilage left.

McCrary recorded eight quarterback sacks in the first 10 games of 2001, but the throbbing in his knees was so intense that he had to sit out the rest of the regular season and the playoffs, a depressing capitulation.

It was after the third game of the 2001 season, a Ravens win in Denver, that McCrary began to confront his condition. His mother, Sandy, an attorney, was in attendance and spoke to Ravens nose tackle Tony Siragusa while she waited for her son after the game.

"Tony said to me, `Do you know Michael is having 35 ccs of fluid taken out of his knees at every game?'" Sandy McCrary recalled. "I had sort of been out of the loop regarding his condition. Michael and I had a long talk after that."

At his mother's suggestion, Mc- Crary saw two orthopedists not involved with the Ravens or the NFL. Both said he shouldn't be playing and, in fact, should have retired years earlier.

"That was a stunner," McCrary said.

Sandy McCrary said: "I don't think Michael ever really understood the full ramifications of some of what was going on. He had always been able, through his strong work ethic, to make things better, so he was convinced if he rehabilitated hard and did all he was told, this situation also would get better. He never understood that after all the chop blocks and people taking him out, his condition was so bad that all the rehab in the world wasn't going to help him. That was so contrary to his way of thinking.

"It clicked for him when I said to seek an opinion from non-NFL doctors, and he heard he had the knees of a 70-year-old. And that they were only going to get worse."

McCrary was still determined to play in 2002. The Ravens didn't even ask him to practice; he just suited up and played on Sundays. But even that was too much - torn cartilage ended his season in November. He never played again.

Memories and pain

"If I had it to do over, I would retire a lot sooner," McCrary said. "I was playing on bad knees and just kept going. That's what has me in this condition today.

"I mean, I loved what I did. I loved the game and still do. I have a ton of memories I will cherish. The sight of 380-pound guys afraid to look me in the eye at the line because I was dominating them. [Longtime Steelers coach] Bill Cowher yelling at me on the field, `McCrary, I love the way you play!' That's crazy respect. But you have to move on. And I'm ready to move on. But there's no purpose in life to continue like this, the way I am now."

Having his knees replaced could eliminate the pain and the need for much of his medication, but McCrary said some doctors fear he is too young for the procedure. The life span of an artificial joint is about 20 years, said Howard of Union Memorial, meaning that they might have to be replaced.

Howard said he would advise McCrary to have the knees replaced rather than continue to live with pain.

"I might not be able to wait much longer," McCrary said. "My options right now are to take all this medication and just be out of it, or take less medication and try to function while in pain. I can't imagine what it would be like to live pain-free."

McCrary's depression - diagnosed when his knees began to hurt in 1999 - is directly related to his knees, McCrary said. His mother worries that other problems could surface. She noted the case of Andre Waters, the former Philadelphia Eagles safety who committed suicide last year and had football-induced brain damage, according to a University of Pittsburgh neuropathologist quoted in a New York Times article.

"Mike knew Andre," Sandy Mc- Crary said. "So, we're understanding that some players may have serious ramifications in terms of early-onset dementia. At this point, with Mike, we worry as much about the unknown as what we already know."

McCrary said he wouldn't be surprised to end up battling that problem, too.

"I used my head as a battering ram for a decade," he said.

It's a long list of problems and concerns, both long- and short-term, but McCrary remains upbeat about his future. He has filed a disability claim with the NFL. Football-related disability benefits are $4,000 a month for a retired player; nonfootball disability monthly benefits are $750. But of the 9,000 former players, fewer than 2,300 received benefits.

"I saved my money, so I'm in good shape there," McCrary said. "It all seems hard now, but I will find a way through this. When there's a will, there's a way."

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com