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Help wanted for NFL's needy

The Baltimore Sun

Jennifer Smith had to hit the ground running. There was rent to pay, food to buy, prescriptions to arrange.

The executive director of the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund had families of two ailing former NFL players to rescue in Austin, Texas. At the same time, there was an escalating war of words between the NFL Players Association's executive director, Gene Upshaw, and the retired players eager to remove him from office.

"It was so hard to wrap my mind around this stupid name-calling - and whether Gene was going to break somebody's neck - when I'm out here buying groceries for [former] players," Smith said.

Incongruity comes with the territory these days for several nonprofit organizations working to help once high-riding but now-down-and-out football players reclaim their lives. Finding former players in dire need is sometimes hard enough, but getting them back on their feet often requires more than money. At least three groups of retired players are working on parallel tracks to assist needy players, including 65 members of the Baltimore Colts' alumni chapter.

"It's not about money; it's about being ignored, cast aside and not even acknowledged as they suffer in life from a significant amount of injuries," Smith said of the misery she saw in those two football families during a weeklong stay in Texas.

There is some relief available to former players who feel the NFLPA has abandoned them, however. Former stars Jerry Kramer of the Green Bay Packers and Mike Ditka of the Chicago Bears created Gridiron Greats, which Smith administers in Green Bay, just four months ago.

Former safety Bruce Laird and other retired Colts created an organization -The Baltimore Football Club Inc. - two years ago that raised more than $25,000 for former teammate John Mackey, who suffers from dementia, and several thousand more for local charities.

Ex-Cleveland Browns cornerback Bernie Parrish founded Retired Professional Football Players for Justice, a veritable legal arm of NFL assistance groups, less than a year ago. He and former Green Bay Packers cornerback Herb Adderley filed a class-action lawsuit against NFL Players Inc. and Upshaw over distribution of funds. Parrish has been Upshaw's harshest critic.

Frustrated by his inability to gain representation for retired players in the union, Laird wants to break away from the NFL's Retired Players Association to launch a national advocacy group that would incorporate the other assistance groups under one umbrella.

His entity will operate nationally as Fourth & Goal, with an emphasis on fundraising and working to improve the pension and disability benefits of retired players.

"We hope to unite all retired players under one roof," Laird said. "If we can show we are for real, I think retired players will follow us."

According to Laird, the organization already has sent one check to assist Suzie Heywood, the widow of a former player in Texas, and hopes to raise as much as $75,000 in a salute to Hall of Famer Art Donovan on Sept. 20.

Hall of Famers Sam Huff and Joe DeLamielleure, and former Ravens assistant coach Maxie Baughan have agreed to serve on Fourth & Goal's board of directors.

DeLamielleure was in the news last week when Upshaw made threatening comments in an interview.

"I wish there was one group that could handle everyone's needs," said Harry Carson, a Hall of Fame linebacker for the New York Giants who serves on the Gridiron Greats board. "Ultimately, I hope that's what it comes down to."

Parrish said he is not opposed to joining forces, but is more focused on his lawsuit against the union. "That's just the start," he said. "We'll use that as our launching pad and go on to other things from there."

Gridiron Greats, meanwhile, is trying to provide immediate help in the form of $5,000 grants and social services to former players.

Smith made two trips to Austin in the past two weeks to help families in need.

"For me, it's been heartbreaking and frustrating at the same time," she said. "When you see one guy, 49, living with his 75-year-old mother on her $306 [a month] Social Security check because [the union] pulled his longtime disability, it makes you angry, and you ask, 'How can I stop the madness?'"

Mike Mosley played 20 games in three seasons as a wide receiver with the Buffalo Bills in the early 1980s. He lost his disability payments in 2004 when it was determined he could do sedentary work, and he had to move in with his mother in the Austin area.

"Mike has no money, he's unable to work, and raising a daughter for whom he has sole custody," Smith said.

Initially, Smith was going to provide food and clothing, but then discovered he was addicted to pain medication. After going through a detoxification program, Mosley is seeing a pain management specialist.

Smith won't name the second former player she is helping. "You'd be surprised how lost some of these people are; they cut themselves off from mainstream society due to the embarrassment of their situation," she said.

But she said he's a 35-year-old unable to work because of injuries who has gotten lost in the application process. She said he has applied four times in four years, and has been unable to get his case assigned to an NFL-approved doctor.

"It's mystifying, the two cases I'm involved with," she said. "You hear about these cases where guys are being turned down. Here, one guy can't get an NFL doctor assigned, and the other had his disability taken away."

The NFL Retirement Board, not the NFLPA, determines disability claims.

In addition to the NFL's pension and disability funds, the league also offers help through its Players Assistance Trust (PAT) Fund. Grants of as much as $20,000 are distributed by the NFLPA for medical or financial crises.

Last July, the league also unveiled the 88 Plan - named in honor of Mackey - to provide financial relief for former players with dementia or Alzheimer's. Under the pension plan, former players can receive up to $88,000 a year if they require institutional care, or up to $50,000 a year for in-home nursing care.

To date, the league has received 58 of 104 applications distributed, according to league spokesman Greg Aiello. Thirty-five have been approved, 23 are pending and none have been turned down yet.

Still, many players are having a tough time getting help. And many don't know where to turn when disability claims are rejected.

"It's so hard to find these people," Smith said. "They find us."

Gridiron Greats (www.jerrykramer.com) was alerted of one player in need through the NFLPA. Smith said that a former San Diego Charger is living in a truck in New Jersey.

"When we started out, Mike Ditka and Jerry and Joe said they didn't want this to be [just] a money thing," Smith said. "They wanted it to have some kind of service aspect where we could stay engaged in their lives. What I see scares me: How do you end up like that?

"If the people that hold the purse strings and have the ability to make a difference have a chance to see this, I can't see how they wouldn't evoke change immediately."

ken.murray@baltsun.com

Heated debate

The issue -- Retired players are complaining about the NFLPA's pension and disability system, saying pensions are inadequate and the disability process is too difficult to navigate.

The sides -- The retired players have aligned in three primary groups. They include the Baltimore Football Club Inc., the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund and the Retired Professional Football Players for Justice. The target of their frustration is Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFLPA.

What's next -- Both sides will participate in a congressional hearing June 26, when Congress examines the procedures for the union's disability fund.

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