Better Deal Urged for NFL Retirees

The Associated Press
Thursday, February 1, 2007; 8:25 PM

MIAMI -- They limp through life, often too proud to ask for handouts but desperately in need of help. They are the aging NFL retirees and, as a rule, the older they are, the less they receive from the league's pension and disability funds.

"An embarrassment," is what famed former player and coach Mike Ditka called it.

"Twenty percent of nothing is nothing," former Bills offensive lineman Joe DeLamielleure said.

Ditka, DeLamielleure and another Hall of Famer, Lem Barney, joined one-time Packers star Jerry Kramer on Thursday to promote Kramer's endeavor to auction championship rings and other valuable memorabilia to raise money for their fellow retirees.

Ditka described the situation as "shameful," saying he received a $100,000 donation from an owner of a sport other than football. When he sent letters to the 32 NFL owners asking for the same donation some time ago, he said he received one check for $5,000 and another for $10,000. He said he sent those checks back.

"It's a problem that should have been remedied and it's going to get remedied," Ditka said. "If they don't, a lot of people are going to be embarrassed."

Ditka brought up a number of players _ John Mackey, the late Ernie Stautner, Doug Atkins and others less famous _ who are aging and hurting. Perhaps the worst case was the late Mike Webster, the Hall of Fame Steelers center who suffered from mental illness that was widely attributed to head injuries. He died homeless in 2002.

"I can't tell you today if Mike Webster would've been alive today," Ditka said. "I don't know. But I do know he wouldn't have been a damn street person. I know his family wouldn't have had to sue to get his benefits. It's not right. It's just not."

While Ditka wouldn't say precisely who's to blame, DeLamielleure wasn't shy about it. He blamed former commissioner Paul Tagliabue and players' union head Gene Upshaw for the growing discrepancy in the amount of money recent retirees and old-timers get in pension and health care.

"They have been in power for 20 years and have done nothing about it," said DeLamielleure, the former Bills lineman who is auctioning off a gold bracelet he received from O.J. Simpson.

But Upshaw, speaking later at a separate news conference, said: "For anyone to say that the NFLPA does not care about retired players is not responsible. They don't know the record, they don't know the body of work."

The league says $126 million a year goes into pension and post-career disability benefits for retired players and their families. The accounts pay out $60 million a year to those players, $20 million of it for disability payments.

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