Cover Story

The Pain Game

By Michael Leahy
Sunday, February 3, 2008

Long after winning his Super Bowl ring, Dave Pear says his life is now a 'torture chamber' of pain. Can he and other injured retirees force the NFL to rethinkits financial responsibilities to the generations that helped build the league?

"I can't get warm," Dave Pear says in the kitchen.

He is shuffling around his house in a heavy winter coat, the collar pulled snug to ward off the terrible chill he feels. Three decades ago, he played professional football for six seasons, made it to an all-star game, won a Super Bowl ring. Nowadays, his ravaged body is betraying him. "I'm so cold," he mutters, and shivers. "You cold?"

No, I say.

"I'm freezing," he says.

The thermostat says 72 degrees. But his kitchen's warmth isn't touching Pear, whose old football injuries, coupled with the many resulting neck and back surgeries, leave his extremities cold on most days, no matter the season.

It's football season, the time of year hardest on Pear's body and spirit. All the football talk on TV -- and in the Seattle suburb where he lives -- just serves as a bitter reminder to Pear of what has happened to his life and what he thinks the National Football League owes him. He walks unsteadily with a cane, his hips degenerating. He takes a step in the direction of the kitchen's fireplace and, unable to bend down, pokes at it with his cane, hoping to find a log there. No log. With his wife and two adult children off working for the day, he needs to deal with this problem on his own. He's been told by doctors not to lift anything as heavy as 15 pounds, preferably not even something like a log, if he can help it. He has what he calls "lightning bolts" shooting through his back and neck at all hours, and pains radiating clear down his left arm to his thumb.

Since football, he has undergone seven spinal surgeries, including a 1984 operation to fuse a disk in his neck. He had his most recent spinal surgery last April, when doctors fused two herniated disks in his back. Not unexpectedly, the four screws holding the disks together have left Pear with postoperative discomfort, and at this moment he is experiencing a new throbbing in his right knee. His doctors have said that at some point he'll need two new hips. "I live in a torture chamber," he says.

At 54, he shuffles like an ailing 80-year-old man. He suffers from chronic fatigue that leaves him falling asleep without warning on most mornings and afternoons, part of the reason he cannot hold a job and the reason the Social Security Administration, since 2004, has provided him with about $2,000 a month in disability benefits, in addition to picking up most of the cost of his surgeries through Medicare. At day's end, Pear often sleeps from 12 to 15 hours -- though, he says, no sleep is ever a deep sleep. He takes pills for the pain in his back and neck, others to ward off spasms and one, the powerful but potentially addictive Vicodin, intended as a last resort when all the other pain pills fail. On days when he absolutely must do everything in his power to stay alert, he takes Provigil, which is usually successful for several hours. He's taken two Provigil this morning, but it is expensive for a family barely getting by, about $13 a pill, and so he can afford to take it only sparingly.

"You wouldn't know it, but I was somebody once," he says wanly, and chuckles. In his glory days, he toiled against behemoths as a defensive lineman for three NFL teams, and, though undersized for his position at 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds, he felled plenty of quarterbacks and superstar tailbacks while with the then-dreadful Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He was the franchise's first player to be chosen for the Pro Bowl, the NFL's all-star game. He prided himself on delivering and absorbing horrific hits. In 1981, after struggling with injuries through what would be his last full season and playing in Super Bowl XV for the champion Oakland Raiders, he underwent surgery in which a bulging disk, pressing on another disk and a nerve for two years, was "hand-drilled out of my neck." By then, he says, he knew he was finished as a player.

Off and on for the past quarter-century, he has been unsuccessfully pressing the NFL for disability benefits that he believes have been unjustly denied him by the league's retirement board. His monthly NFL pension is $606, but he estimates that he often spends about $1,000 alone out-of-pocket on medication. His wife cannot afford a health plan for herself that allows for anything other than coverage for catastrophic illnesses. The Pears soon plan to sell their house overlooking a lake, with no idea where they'll live next, other than that it will be a more modest place.

Pear's desperation has driven him to join forces with a group of severely injured and financially struggling NFL retirees pressing their case to the media and Congress, all of them furious with the NFL Players Association, which represents active players and which the retirees believe has been complicit with the NFL in denying them their full disability rights.

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