He's in Need, but Too Proud to Beg

Willie Wood
Packers Hall of Famer Willie Wood has been in an assisted living facility in Hyattsville since November. His care over the next year will cost about $100,000. (Preston Keres - The Washington Post)
By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 16, 2007

Willie Wood sat up in his bed and used his hands to help lift and maneuver his legs so he could face his breakfast tray, which had been brought in for a second time after he rejected an earlier meal, joking he couldn't recognize the food. He has gout and has been unable to walk for the past four months, and he's about to undergo replacement surgery on his left knee to go with his previously replaced right knee and right hip.

"Everything is going to be artificial on me pretty soon," he said with a slight chuckle.

It was just after 10 a.m. yesterday in Room 50 of the assisted living facility on Riggs Road in Hyattsville where Wood has been staying since November. The room was dimly lit. The window was closed, leaving no hint of the spring-like weather outside. At about 12 feet by 25 feet, the room was a virtual presidential suite by the facility's standards. Even so, the furnishings were spartan. The tile floor was uncovered and the wallpaper was pale. There were four chairs, a wooden nightstand with a lamp and two modest armoires arranged around Wood's bed. A white cable ran from the ceiling to the small flat-screen TV that sat on a dresser facing Wood's bed.

The two Green Bay Packers pennants on the window and the 2006 Packers team picture taped to the side of one armoire were the only signs that the room's occupant is a football legend.

Wood, a D.C. native who was a Hall of Fame safety on the great Packers teams of the 1960s, would get dressed shortly after breakfast. There would be a physical therapy session later in the day and he was readying for a fundraiser at a Georgetown restaurant tonight that friends hope will raise about $25,000 to help pay his medical bills. His knee replacement surgery will come soon and Wood, 70, hopes to be up and about and back on the golf course not too long afterward.

"I'm going to get up," he said. "It's a question of when. It's not like this is permanent."

Wood's friends and supporters say he is like many other former star players who helped build the league into a $6 billion-a-year industry yet suffer from mounting medical and financial problems. There is a growing clamor from former players and their supporters that the league should do more.

Much of the ire has been aimed at current players and the NFL Players Association. But Bob Schmidt, a businessman who is Wood's former teammate at the University of Southern California and once was Wood's attorney, said he and Wood don't feel the need to add to the public discord.

"We're not going to beat up on them," said Schmidt, who is organizing tonight's dinner at Agraria restaurant. "We're not here to do that. But the proof is in the pudding. You have folks out there like Willie Wood who are hurting. There are others. More can be done. Nothing is done until you raise your hand and say you need help. But these are strong human beings. They have a lot of pride."

Gene Upshaw, the NFLPA executive director, said the league and union do more for former players than they're given credit for, and will continue to help. The league and the union increased pensions and benefits for former players in their collective bargaining agreement completed last year, and Upshaw said the league and union paid $126 million last year to fund pensions and benefits for former players.

"It's been unfortunate the way it's been portrayed, people out there making these claims," Upshaw said, adding that the union spent an additional $1.2 million last year to help former players and their families with expenses like mortgages, medication and funeral costs. "In the pension area, we've done way better than any sport has ever done. I was aware of Willie Wood's circumstances as fast as anyone and we will do everything we can to help."

Wood's only source of income is his $1,100 per month pension. Schmidt said Wood has received financial assistance from former NFL coach Mike Ditka's foundation and from league-affiliated sources and soon will seek more, including from the fund just established by the league and union -- called the "Number 88 Plan" after the jersey number of former Baltimore Colts tight end John Mackey -- to benefit former players with dementia. According to Schmidt, Wood has dementia and occasionally demonstrates signs of short-term memory loss. Wood also has diabetes and high blood pressure, said Schmidt, who estimated that the cost of Wood's care over the next year will be about $100,000.

"After that," Schmidt said, "who knows? It's a question mark."

Upshaw said Wood qualifies for benefits under the Number 88 Plan, which calls for a former player with dementia to receive as much as $88,000 per year for institutional care or as much as $50,000 per year for in-home nursing care.

Wood lives on 16th Street NW with one of his two sons and he said he plans to return to his home when possible. Wood's wife died close to 20 years ago.

He has been visited by a steady stream of former teammates and old friends from his D.C. neighborhood. Sportscaster James Brown visited and kept calling him "Mr. Wood." When Wood told Brown to call him Willie, Brown said, "You'll always be Mr. Wood to me."

Wood said he's convinced that many of his health problems stem from playing football. But even with that, he said, he doesn't regret the career choice.

"I wouldn't say that," he said. "I can't say that. It's like spitting on the thing you like the most."

He made less than $20,000 as a Packers rookie in 1960 and never made more than $98,000 in a year during a career that ended after the '71 season. His only mistake, he said, was his timing. He should have been born later. "If I had it to do all over again, I'd do it the same way," Wood said. "Of course, I'd like to make more money."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company