By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 28, 2007
PRINCETON, Fla. He always found comfort in the lonely fight.
Eugene "Mercury" Morris, a star running back for the 1972 Mia mi Dolphins, has a favorite movie: "To Kill a Mockingbird." He has watched it countless times, ever engrossed by the fix that was in for Tom Robinson, an African American man accused of raping a white woman in an early-20th century Alabama town. In the heavy, hopeless air of that courtroom, Tom Robinson sits by himself facing a system too big to beat with only his lawyer, Atticus Finch, at his side.
"The guy was on trial where he simply could not win," Morris said.
At night, in a two-story house half an hour south of Miami, Mercury Morris sits at his kitchen table and sees himself as a real-life Tom Robinson fighting all alone. He is 60 years old, and football has left him with a spine that had to be fused together with pieces of a dead man's bone. Several doctors have told him the injury has destroyed important nerves and this gives him, on occasion, debilitating headaches that drive him to the bedroom in the middle of the day, where he must pull down the blinds and pile towels across his face
He also said that the National Football League, or more specifically, its retirement plan, will not acknowledge that the headaches are a result of the injury and thus is denying him benefits he believes are his. He will not accept this explanation. And for the last 20 years, he has waged a one-man war against the plan.
"Which is just the way I like it," he said.
This is an issue gaining momentum among the league's retired players, especially those hitting middle age as old injuries turn into more debilitating problems and who feel the retirement plan is not helping them with mounting medical bills. And at this Miami Super Bowl, it seems to be a topic the league would rather go away.
Late last year, an appeals court awarded the estate of former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster more than $1.5 million in disability pay from the plan. It was the first successful challenge of the plan's rules and it has given hope to many of the players who feel left out.
Which was all Morris needed.'He's Too Smart'
Morris moves about the house with the energy of a man two-thirds his age, scouring wrinkled copies of the retirement plan with the significant sections marked by adhesive strips. Always by his side is a red, hardbound copy of Webster's dictionary and he often looks up words, parsing their usage to see if the author has a hidden meaning. He examines everything for mistakes. He catches even the smallest discrepancy, colors it with a yellow highlighter then announces it as an "aha!" moment. Often giving it a name such as "the Smoking Gun."
Morris talks fast, words spilling like roaring rapids, harder and softer, rising up and down in bursts that can last for 10 minutes or more.
"He's so immersed in it he's hard to follow," said Bernie Parrish, the founder of the NFL Players Association and a leader in the fight for bigger retirement benefits. "It took me awhile to get it all but he knows what he's talking about. He's so versed in it I had to keep asking him and taking notes."
Morris is aware that people have trouble understanding the complexities of what he's saying. He realizes that not everyone devours piles of legal papers the way he does, nor do they write dozens of them a year. He will stay up all night talking about the plan if you wish. He rarely sleeps, burning off energy by working out for two hours at 10 o'clock every night. And even after that, he often takes a pill just to fall asleep at 3 or 4 in the morning.
"He needs to physically shut down the machine," said Gita Sekhri, the Frenchwoman who lives with Morris. He has no formal legal training other than watching countless episodes of "Matlock" and "Perry Mason." Nor does he type, which means that Gita must transcribe all of his briefs and letters at night after she is done with her day job. She does not object to this. Morris is doing important work, she said.
But don't assume he is a crazy old football player. He hates when people underestimate him. Those who know him well say he might be the most intelligent person they know. "He's too smart," Gita said. Already, Morris claims to have won two favorable small-claims settlements with people who have "crossed" him -- a lawyer who tried to bilk him on speaking fees and an electronics store that lost a piece of his radio and tried to cover it up.
He says he is sure the retirement plan is working against the players by making it impossible for a retiree from a violent game to collect disability. He said that 50 to 60 percent of the players leave the game because of a disability, but that only 1.7 percent collect disability benefits.
The league says there is no data to prove exactly how many players leave the game because of injury.
And as word has gotten out among retired players that Morris has become consumed with the retirement plan, several of them have sought his counsel. And the more he reads their files, the more shocked he becomes.
For instance, Don Besselieu, a 50-year-old former Dolphin who has a similarly fused vertebrae and has had schizophrenia diagnosed, was turned down for degenerative disability benefits. This was in part, he said, because in a conversation with the doctor the plan sent him to see, Besselieu mentioned that he cut his children's hair to save money and also that he felt badly for the troops stationed in Iraq. The doctor wrote in the report that Besselieu wanted to find work as a master barber in Iraq and thus was employable.
Morris seethes when he sees a comment in a 2005 Wall Street Journal story from Douglas Ell, the plan's attorney from the Washington-based Groom Law Group, boasting that courts ruled that 16 of the 20 lawsuits filed by players looking for disability payment were decided in the plan's favor. Two were reversed on appeal and two (including Webster at the time) were in appeals court.
Morris said this is further evidence that the plan is going all out to squelch any attempt by retired players to claim benefits.
Ell would not comment about Morris because the player has pending litigation against the league.
Then Morris mentioned that he and Parrish recently discovered, after sharing information, that the NFL Players Association paid Groom $13 million between 2000 and 2006.
He slams his hand down on the table.
"To litigate against us!" he shouts. "To litigate against us!"'Simply Not Relevant'
There was that period after his career was over in 1977 when Morris admits he "went crazy." Two years after football, he began freebasing cocaine, which was popular then. He began to use it more after his spinal surgery in 1980, and even though he didn't realize it, by August 1982 he was in deep. So much so that he ignored all the warning signs that screamed at him and agreed to be the middleman in a cocaine deal with his gardener, who claimed Morris owed him money for yardwork and wanted to get even.
The deal was a setup that Morris believes was the result of a television investigation that attacked the state of Florida for lenient cocaine sentences. He is convinced his resulting arrest in a sting operation was in large part to nail a high-profile athlete.
He refused to plead guilty or reveal names of football players who used drugs, either of which might have kept him out of prison, he said. Instead, he was convicted of trafficking cocaine and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
It was a huge story at the time, a football superstar going away for much of his adult life. And Morris was no ordinary prisoner. He conducted interviews, agreed to do speaking engagements, told everyone the experience had erased any desire for a life involving cocaine.
All the while, he and his lawyer Ron Strauss appealed the conviction to the Florida Supreme Court, which ruled in 1986 that key evidence was suppressed when the jury was not allowed to hear testimony from the government informant who helped to set up Morris. The conviction was overturned and a settlement was reached, and Morris was released.
Morris spelled out the details in his book "Against the Grain," published in 1988. And while he often gave speeches on his experience and has freely spoken about the trial and prison within the context of his entire life, he is not comfortable with it arising in a discussion of his work now. Because, he feels, to talk about his conviction without the full accompaniment of his life experiences is to strip him of his intelligence, the hours spent pursuing his benefits and everything else he has accomplished the last 20 years. He will not stand for this.
"It's simply not relevant," he said, icily.'It's the Principle'
Morris knows the moment he broke his neck. It came on a "Monday Night Football" game in 1973 when he was tackled by the Steelers' Mel Blount on the hard artificial turf in Miami. He landed with his body twisted back and Blount falling on top of him. Years later, when doing an interview at the NFL Films headquarters, one of the producers found a tape of the game and Morris got to see it for the first time -- the awkward collapse, the way he hit the turf. They even gave him a DVD showing his neck breaking for posterity.
That night, the Dolphins' team doctor took X-rays and told him he had a sprained neck -- an injury through which he played the rest of the season. It wasn't until after the season was over and he had to take a thorough physical in San Diego for the Pro Bowl that the doctors noticed something was wrong. The AFC coach, John Madden, was the one who had to tell him he had two cracked vertebrae in his neck.
The California doctors told Morris they would have put him in a halo when the injury first occurred, he said. They told him he had to wear a neck brace for six weeks or face serious long-term problems. But when he got back to Miami the doctor told him the Pro Bowl physicians had overreacted and he didn't need the brace at all, Morris said. Conditioned by years of treating team doctors' word as gospel, Morris took off his brace and left it in the doctor's office.
Six years later, he finally would have surgery on the broken neck. Then, in 1986, he tried to get line-of-duty disability benefits from the NFL retirement plan that would pay him from $9,000 to $19,000 a month as opposed to the $2,500 or so he is eligible to receive. But after sending him to a plan-approved doctor, he was turned down when the doctor said he did not meet the qualifications of a line-of-duty disability, citing language in the plan that say a player must have had "surgical removal or major functional impairment of a vital bodily organ."
Morris said he read the plan carefully and realized the doctor had left out a key provision at the end of that sentence: "or part of the central nervous system." Didn't his neck injury qualify for that? In 1989, independently of the board, Morris saw more than a half-dozen doctors who he said concluded that he did indeed have a nerve problem. Finally, the plan sent him to an orthopedic specialist in New Jersey who qualified him for line-of-duty disability, Morris said, but only for a partial-permanent disability, never addressing the nerve problems.
After two more years of haggling over this language and the plan's insistence that the matter be handled in arbitration, Morris settled for $295,000.22, a figure that Atlee Wampler, a Miami attorney who advises him for free, said is far below what someone with his condition should receive. "He took it in the face of them forcing him to arbitration," Wampler said.
But Morris, with the help of an attorney, had language inserted into the settlement that said he would be entitled to full retirement benefits, which would qualify him for the larger payments today.
In 1996, he went to court to have a declaratory judgment made on his disability benefit. The judge said the matter had been taken care of in the settlement. So Morris appealed. The retirement plan came back and sued him for legal fees.
"They wanted to put him down so nobody would try this again," Wampler said, then gave a dry laugh. "The nerve of a beneficiary trying to judge the breadth of his benefits."
This time, though, Morris won, arguing himself before a U.S. magistrate judge.
Two years ago, Morris sued again, for the higher retirement benefits he said his injury allows and are provided for in the plan once a retiree turns 55. He insists these are protected by the terms of his settlement. He even had a trial scheduled for 9 a.m. Feb. 4, the day after the Super Bowl, in U.S. District Court in Miami.
"I was excited," he said. "One day they were going to have the biggest game and the next day they were going to have the biggest pain."
But last year, the plan successfully argued that the claim already had been dismissed by lower courts.
Still, Morris pushes on. A few days ago, he sat in his house filing three motions in response. There were more late nights, more legal papers for Gita to type at 3 a.m.
Morris figures he has generated almost 200 letters back and forth between the courts and law firms. Wampler patiently tries to tell him that this is an arduous fight, that courts like to preserve settlements and leave discrepancies in retirement plans up to Congress to settle. He knows Morris listens when he says this, then stubbornly ignores the advice.'Do U Wonder?'
Despite everything that's happened, Morris still loves football. None of the 1972 Dolphins remains as fiercely defensive of the only undefeated team in modern NFL history as Morris. His star rose quickly as a player, culminating in 1972 when he had 1,000 yards, and fell quickly two years later when the injuries took hold.
But that season will always be magic for him. He is excited the Super Bowl is in Miami this year because the NFL Network is picking the best Super Bowl team in history and has been counting down the finalists each week. Morris has inside information that it will be his Dolphins.
"Who else would it be?" he asked.
To help commemorate this and also answer the doubters who think the 1985 Bears or 1978 Steelers might be better, he wrote and recorded a rap song, which he calls "a rhyme" about the team. He did this with absolutely no musical knowledge, putting it together first with a local DJ in the bathroom at home, with towels dangling all over the walls.
Later, he found a producer, Keith Morrison, who has worked with Ricky Martin, among others. Morrison cleaned it up, added in a background singer and turned out a disc with two versions of the song that Morris calls "Do U Wonder?'
In the first, Morris bellows out the words as if he's still a player shouting in a crowded locker room. It is loud, raw, in your face, and hard to understand. The second is more refined. Morris likes the first one better.
Nonetheless, just as he is with the retirement plan, Morris is obsessed with his rhyme. He listens to "Do U Wonder" dozens of times a day. In fact, it is the only song he listens to, taking it to the gym, the car, everywhere he goes. But it must be perfect, and no matter how many times he listens, something is never right.
Morrison, a patient man with David Crosby-like hair, is asked if he regrets working with Morris.
"For about five minutes," he said, laughing. "But there are people who are a pain in the neck just to be a pain in the neck, but Gene is very sincere about what he is doing."
Morris is nothing if not that. On a day not long before the Super Bowl, he sits in a car riding back from Morrison's studio. He pops "Do U Wonder" into the car's CD player and turns the volume way up. The words crash off the ceiling and rattle off the doors.
"When you finally see the light and the truth is a must
There's not another team inside this perfect circle but us
Since we ran the table on 'em it ain't been the same
You wanna go undefeated you got to win every game
I know you wonder."
"This must withstand the scrutiny of my harshest critics," he said. "They may hate me but I want them to listen to this song and say, 'Yeah, that was all right.'"
Then he grows quiet for a rare moment.
"You know" he continued, "I'm going to win. I can't let these guys get away with it."
And then he gazes back out the window at the houses and schools passing by, lost like he is for most hours of every day, thinking about the impossible fight.