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."