Ex-players making gains on benefits

Colts great Art Donovan

Baltimore Colts great Art Donovan signs a helmet at an event in Woodlawn to aid injured former players of the NFL. (Sun photo by Gene Sweeney Jr. / September 20, 2007)

Earlier this week, Brent Boyd walked into Room 253 of the Russell Senate Office Building, noticed the sharp wood paneling and the three low-hanging chandeliers. The first thing he thought was, "This is the most opulent room I've been in." The second was, "What the hell am I doing in here?"

Exactly one year earlier, Sept. 18, 2006, Boyd says, he was admitted to a Reno, Nev., hospital. He couldn't talk, and doctors thought he had suffered a stroke. Boyd remembers the date but not the day. He was in the midst of a 90-day period for which he has no recollection, he says. When he finally came to, doctors again attributed his condition to the unknown number of concussions he had suffered as a lineman for the Minnesota Vikings, from 1980 to 1986.

"You mean the concussions the NFL said I never had?" he thought.

A year later, on Tuesday, he was testifying in front of a Senate committee, providing the most gripping testimony in a day full of emotional testimonies. The problems suffered by Boyd - not the severe headaches and deep depression, but rather his inability to procure what he considers to be fair disability and pension money - lie at the heart of the quarrel between the union and a group of retired players who feel they deserve better benefits.

But it's Boyd himself, 50 years old and barely able to get out of bed some days, who finds himself positioned to be the solution. That's what's so intriguing about this skirmish between the game's aging and aching giants and the union's pinstriped suits whom they have embarrassed in the crusade for better treatment. The union, with billions of dollars behind it and a complex public relations machine, is losing battle after battle to a grass-roots campaign that moves with the aid of artificial joints and walking canes.

The little guys are slowly winning - not because they have successfully secured adequate benefits but because they have finally forced the union to acknowledge them.

"They have to finally talk about the system being broken, because we've forced them to talk about it being broken," says former Baltimore Colt Bruce Laird, founder of Fourth & Goal, a nonprofit advocacy group for retired players.

Last night in Woodlawn, just two days after U.S. senators put increased pressure on the NFL and its union, Laird's group held a charity event in honor of Art Donovan and raised more than $100,000. Earlier in the day, several former players gathered for lunch.

There was Tom Matte, who goes in for surgery the way most of us go out to check the mail. "We look like the geriatric ward at some of our meetings," said the former Colt. "It's funny, but it's not funny."

There was Sandra Unitas, whose husband, John, felt pain trying to scribble an autograph and could barely even grip a golf club in his last few years.

And there was John Mackey, a former union leader himself who today suffers from frontotemporal dementia. Mackey was in Syracuse last weekend, where his former school retired his No. 88 jersey. "He romanced that crowd like he was running for office," said his wife, Sylvia.

After a long fight with the union, Sylvia Mackey today receives financial assistance under a new program named in her husband's honor - the 88 Plan, which aims to help former players suffering from Alzheimer's disease and dementia. It's one of several concessions made by the players association. Union leaders have also increased pension money and created a $7 million fund that pays for free surgery or joint replacement.

When Upshaw finally spoke in front of Congress this week, he asked for changes in the law that would allow him to limit the red tape that separates ailing players from health benefits. It might seem minor, but the union's acknowledging that the process is too difficult for ex-players to navigate is an important step.

Players such as Boyd already knew that. His full disability claim was denied. After two doctors said his present condition resulted from his football career, he was told to seek a third opinion. That one didn't agree, and that was the one the retirement board relied on. Though he didn't receive the $8,000 monthly stipend he sought, Boyd gets $1,500 in disability each month and lives in a modest, 900-square-foot house.

Upshaw told the Los Angeles Times this week that in Boyd's case, the board, which comprises three NFL owners' appointees and three by the union, was split 3-3. He said it was the union appointees who wanted to grant the claim. Among the changes Upshaw's recommended to Congress is the ability to allow the union to approve claims without input from the owners.

This long dialogue will continue, and it will continue to be contentious. And it's hoped, as a result, conditions will continue to improve.

Very slowly, this grass-roots campaign has forced a defiant union into action. Union leaders who wouldn't even acknowledge these problems not long ago are now straining their necks to tell us they're doing all they can. They wouldn't return reporters' phone calls for months; now they're the ones dialing the phone. They have even contracted the services of Lanny Davis, a former adviser in the Clinton administration who is considered a crisis management specialist.

And it is a crisis, one in which battle after battle is being won by the former players, whether it's in the court of public opinion or a Senate meeting room.

rick.maese@baltsun.com
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