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The NFL's forgotten players

FootballCompensation and BenefitsFinanceRetirementNFL

During 14 years in the NFL, Dick "Night Train" Lane was celebrated for his vicious clothesline hits, his technicalskill on the defensive perimeter and his fast-paced lifestyle offit. Few players were bigger in stature -- or better at their job-- than the Hall of Fame defensive back with the alluring monikerwho intimidated receivers from 1952 to 1965.

"Train was kind of in the show-business atmosphere,"said Lenny Moore, a longtimefriend and on-field foe. "He married the great[jazz singer] Dinah Washington. That had himin the spotlight. He was as popular as she was."

The lifestyle turned out to be fleeting. Besetby financial problems and poor health, Lanespent his final years in an assisted living facilityin Austin, Texas. Even though he had threesons -- in three cities -- and two ex-wives(Washington died in 1963), his caretaker was aretired construction engineer he met on thegolf course.

In the end, Lane was neither exalted norself-supporting. He lived paycheck to paycheckfrom his NFL pension, barely able to getaround on bumknees. He died, virtually penniless,in 2002. It was a sad end to a proud life.

The harsh lesson of Lane's riches-to-ragssaga is not lost on retired players today. TheNFL's pioneers are awash in mental health issues, physical disabilities and financialdistress.

There are dozens, if not hundreds, ofretired players in need of assistance after missingthe NFL's money boat, a shipthat sailed in 1993 with the merger offree agency and the salary cap. It left behinda whole generation of players whohelped build the NFL from the groundup and now feel abandoned.

In an industry that created nearly$6 billion worth of revenue last year, retiredplayers are scoffing at plans for a10-to-20 percent increase in their pensionbenefits this fall. The proposalcomes under terms that have yet to bemade final in the NFL's new collectivebargaining agreement.

For many older players, that increasecould amount to as little as $40 a monthper credited season, or an additional$2,400 a year for a player who lasted fiveseasons.

That might be too little, too late for thefast-dwindling corps of pre-1959 playersfacing insolvency and worse. Unofficially,there were more than 700 living pre-59ers when the landmark 1993 collectivebargaining agreement was reached. Today,there are fewer than 300.

"Guys are at an age where their healthis quickly deteriorating," said former BaltimoreColts running back Joe Washington."In realistic terms, if these guys dieoff, we wouldn't be having this conversation."

No money for funeralLane was due an increase on his$800-a-month NFL pension when hedied of a heart attack in January 2002 atthe age of 73. Were it not for the diligenceof Charles Carroll and the charityof Mike Ditka, however, Lane might havehad a pauper's funeral.

Carroll was the businessman who befriendedLane and controlled his limitedbank account ("Train was no moneymanager," he said). Upon Lane's death,Carroll said he was directed by GeneUpshaw, executive director of the NFLPlayers Association, to give Lane a goodfuneral.

According to Carroll, there was enoughmoney in Lane's account for half of the$12,000 funeral expense, and the otherhalf came out of his own pocket whilehe waited for the NFLPA to send the rest.Ultimately, that check arrived throughthe intervention of Moore, a Hall ofFamer with the Colts.

Still, there was a $1,600 headstone topay for. Ditka covered the cost withmoney from his annual Hall of Famegolf classic in Chicago.

Ditka, a Hall of Fame tight end turnedESPN analyst, has been waging his owncampaign to help needy players. Hestarted a trust fund four years ago andestimates it helps 20 to 25 players eachyear. He also said he has written lettersto NFL owners soliciting donations of$100,000 a team to "solve" the problem.

"The response was embarrassing,"Ditka said. "One team sent $5,000, onesent $10,000. We're trying to let guyswho made the game what it is todayhave some dignity.

"I'm very aggravated with the playersassociation; I'm very aggravated withGene Upshaw. I don't think they doenough. I don't think they do anything."

Upshaw, vacationing in Europe, has declinedrepeated interview requests. It isa fact of labor law, however, that he is allowedto represent only active players,not retired players, as the union leader.

It's not just the league's pioneers whoneed help these days. Mike Siani playedfrom 1972 to 1977 with the OaklandRaiders and from 1978 to 1980 with theColts as a wide receiver. He seems typicalof the majority of retired players.

At 56, Siani has no medical, dental orlife insurance because he can't affordthe premiums. He gets just $492 amonth in benefits because he took hispension early, at age 45. And he has towork two jobs, one as coach of a minorleague indoor football team.

"People think, 'Wow, you played in theNFL, you must be a millionaire,' " Sianisaid. "They don't realize when I startedplaying in '72, I made $22,000 as a first-rounddraft choice."

He agrees with Ditka that Upshaw --his former teammate on the Raiders --and the NFLPA haven't done enough forretired players.

"As all the former players do, I thinkthat maybe Gene is saying, 'Just go away,don't rock my boat, I've got a good giggoing and I want it to last.' I'm very disappointedwith what he hasn't done forus," Siani said.

Upshaw has been under fire since January,when he told The Charlotte Observerhe doesn't represent retired players-- a point the union acknowledged asfar back as 1974 -- and labeled thoseplayers attacking him as ungrateful.The comments galvanized pockets ofretired players across the country andfostered an atmosphere of mistrust towardthe union. Some retired playersbelieve there is more money availablefor pension increases than Upshaw says.

Baltimore's chapter of 65 retired playershas stood at the forefront in thefight. The chapter established a blog, aGoogle link and an e-mail system to informall retired players. Irked by themanagement of retired player funds ayear ago, former Colts safety BruceLaird, 56, has drawn a line in the sand.

"We do not trust Gene Upshaw or theNFLPA," he said, "because quite franklythey don't work for us."

What Laird hopes to do is improve dialoguebetween current players and retiredplayers, dialogue that is virtuallynonexistent. It is clear, however, thatUpshaw still has support within the retiredplayer ranks.

Upshaw critics, fansHall of Fame tackle Ron Mix, now anattorney in San Diego, wants to see benefitsincreased across the board, especiallyfor a group of 325 retired playerswho took an ill-advised Social Securityadjustment (more money up front, a lotless on the back end). Nevertheless, Mixis quick to credit Upshaw with improvingthe retired players' lot.

"A lot of criticism directed at [Upshaw]is not merited," Mix said. "It was his administrationthat sensitized the currentplayers to pension increases [for olderplayers]. There is absolutely no legal obligationby the league or the players associationto go back in time and increase pensions.[But] it's been done a couple times."

In 2002, the NFLPA doubled the benefitsof players who played before 1968from $100 to $200 a month per creditedseason -- at a cost of $110 million fromcurrent player benefits. According toNFL spokesman Greg Aiello, the leaguepays out nearly $5 million a month inpension benefits.

Ravens kicker Matt Stover, a player representativefor most of his 16 NFL seasons,visited a Baltimore chapter meetingof retired players last month to answerquestions and explain the process.He promised the 10-to-20 percent increaseonce the new collective bargainingagreement is ratified in late summeror early fall.

"I want to make sure that the NFL retiredplayers will always be consideredin all negotiations. They have been sinceI've been here," Stover said. "My heart,as an active player, is to take care ofthem as much as we can.

"Can those guys be made whole? Oh,my goodness, we don't have billions ofdollars for that. There's just no way."

How much money the union can allocateto retired players from funds in theBert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player RetirementPlan is a point of debate. So far,Upshaw has declined to share specificactuarial information with them.

Ray Bille, who spent 37 years as a retirementplan consultant for three nationalfirms, believes the NFLPA coulddo more to help.

Although he does not have access toNFLPA financial documents, Bille hasspoken with a number of retired players,worked out his own calculations andcome to the conclusion they could get asmuch as $100 more a month, not justthe $40 that the union has proposed.

"I have no motivation to discreditUpshaw. I didn't play in the NFL and Ihave no relation to him one way or another,"said Bille, now retired. "I feel he'snot being totally aboveboard in the wayhe's communicating the opportunity tothe retired players."

Bille also described the NFL's pensionplan as "quite a bit weaker" than MajorLeague Baseball's, in part because of avariable annuity element in baseballthat the NFLPA bargained away in 1970when executive director Ed Garvey waspursuing free agency.

Major League Baseball provides$175,000 a year for life for a fully vestedpension based on 10 years' experience.A player with five years gets half thatamount.

"Where football is today, I think [currentplayers] do have something to dofor the old-timers," Bille said. "The NFLis so much more successful than anyother sport, including baseball. I feelstrongly players averaging $1.5 millionhave somewhat of an obligation to theolder guys, because it wouldn't be close tothat if not for the base laid by these olderplayers in the '60s and '70s."

ken.murray@baltsun.com


Three who have struggledAmong the NFL retired players most in need are those who played during thepre-1959 era. The median public pension average for 70- to 79-year-olds, fromthat era, is $16,200 a year. Here are three examples of players who struggleto make ends meet on their NFL pensions.

SISTO AVERNO
Personal: 81 years old, living in Baltimore with his wife, Margaret, anddaughter Dina.
Career: Played guard on offense and linebacker on defense in a five-yearcareer (1950-1954) with the Baltimore Colts, New York Yankees and DallasTexans.
Pension: $1,000 a month.
Issues: Has endured four-way heart bypass surgery, knee and hipreplacements, a stroke and separate surgeries to clear out both carotidarteries in his neck.
Quote: "My father is not one to complain about anything," said Dina Averno."He's from the old school. He played with dislocated shoulders. If he couldwalk, he'd still be working now."

JOHN HENRY JOHNSON
Personal: 76, living in Fremont, Calif., with his daughter, Kathy Moppin.
Career: Played one year in the CFL, 12 in the NFL and finished with theHouston Oilers in the AFL in 1966. Rushed for 1,000 yards twice with thePittsburgh Steelers and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1987.
Pension: Approximately $1,600 a month.
Issues: Has early-onset dementia and serious short-term memory problems.Also has a pacemaker and spends about $800 a month on a dozen differentmedications.
Quote: "My dad's a great warrior," said Moppin, a nurse. "He needs to betaken care of, and I feel bad he's not taken better care of. I'm not making alot of money. I know at some point, I will have to make a decision for ahigher level of care."

JOE PERRY
Personal: 79, living in Chandler, Ariz., with his wife, Donna.
Career: Played 14 years with the San Francisco 49ers and two with theBaltimore Colts. A 200-pound fullback, Perry rushed for nearly 10,000 yardsand scored 513 points. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in1969.
Pension: $1,489 per month from pre-1959 years and $167 for his last fouryears as a vested player.
Issues: Has pugilistic dementia and suffers from short-term memory loss.
Quote: "People expect Joe, because he's in the Hall of Fame, to come andappear at [different functions] because he's got money," Donna said. "There'sno money. We're on a fixed income, so we have to budget everything."

[Ken Murray]


AssistanceRetired NFL players who have medical or financial crises may qualify to getassistance from one of the following groups:

  • Players Assistance Trust Fund --Maximum grant is $20,000 for medical orfinancial crisis. Under the umbrella of the Professional Athletes Fund, it isdistributed by the NFLPA.
  • Hall of Fame assistance fund --Established four years ago for Hall of Fameplayers in need.
  • Mike Ditka's trust fund --Dikta and some other Hall of Famers hold acharity golf tournament each August that raises $200,000. Half goes to acharity for children, and the other half to retired Hall of Fame players.
  • Dr. Arthur Roberts' screenings --An NFL quarterback-turned-heart surgeon,Roberts offers free cardiac screenings to all players in different NFL cities.Benefits todayPlayers retiring after this season will have these benefits:
  • Severance -- Players get $12,500 per year, up to $15,000. A vested 10-yearveteran would get $125,000. The benefit tops out at $200,000.
  • Medical insurance -- Good for four years from end of career. Player iseligible after three years and three games.
  • Annuity -- Available at age 35 or five years after career ends, whichevercomes later. Starting in 2001, players with three years and three gamesexperience receive $65,000 per year in tax-deferred compensation.
  • 401(k) -- Available at age 55 without penalty. Can receive at 45, but mustpay 20 percent tax hit.
  • Retiring Medical Savings Account -- New, enters the plan with thiscollective bargaining agreement. Player gets $25,000 per year once he isvested, topping out at $300,000. Similar to a bank account and to be used forhealth-related issues.
  • Life insurance -- Under the previous collective bargaining agreement, thepolicy went as follows: 1 year - $150,000; 2 years - $180,000; 3 years -$210,000; 4 years - $240,000; 5 years - $270,000; 6 or more - $300,000.
  • Pension plan -- Previous plan ranges from $200 a month per accredited seasonto $425 a month per accredited season.[Ken Murray]
  • Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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