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."
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."