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.
Back in his kitchen, Pear looks around, his face a mask of confusion. "What did I come in here for?" He digs his cane hard on the wood floor, pivots, stumbles, grabs a counter to steady himself. His blue eyes survey a pile of papers on the kitchen table. "What was I doing?"
He squints and shakes his head. "Oh, forget it." He decides he wants out of the kitchen, anyway. "Warmer upstairs in the bedroom. I need some water. Would you like some water?" He pours two glasses. "God, I'm tired." He gulps, pushes off on his cane and, halfway up a flight of stairs leading toward his bedroom, he brightens. "Hey, I'll read a letter I got from a fan. He's a big fan. I'll show you my office."
The office is in his closet, actually. Inside, he has set his computer on a tiny table and squeezed in a chair. The setup is near the bed he shares with his wife of 27 years, Heidi. Between the bed and his office-closet rests a red laundry basket, which is holding what looks like the random booty of a scavenger hunter -- a thick belt, scraps of paper, a scuffed-up old football, a purple-and-gold blanket. Most of the items are mementos from his glory days, which began at the University of Washington. He digs under the pile in the basket and gingerly lifts things. A black leather weight belt, meant to protect his back and torso, which he used when he was squatting and bench-pressing close to 500 pounds. The game ball awarded him after a Washington victory over Syracuse in 1973. An MVP trophy for his play at Washington.
"I got my Super Bowl jersey around here somewhere," he says. He fingers the deflated football. "This is old, isn't it? Old like me." He puts it back in the red basket and looks around.
"Would you like some water?" he asks.
I point out he's already poured me some.
"Okay." He looks around. "What are we doing?"
I remind him, and he nods. He finds the letter from the fan, an Army lieutenant colonel from Vienna, Va., named Matt Ferguson, who writes that his nickname is "Mad Dog."
"I like that," Pear says. " Mad Dog."
He slowly reads the words of Matt Ferguson: "I am a recently returned veteran of the Iraq War . . . I grew up admiring the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for their grit and honor. I am especially fond of you being the first Buccaneer ever selected to the Pro Bowl . . . I have attempted to pattern my military career after your example. I have always admired your tenacity and dignity in those early years.
Congratulations on your selection as the 19th Greatest Player in Buccaneers history. It would be a huge honor if you could sign the enclosed photo of yourself in one of your games for my new Man Room. God Bless. -- Mad Dog."
Pear grins. "That's from a fan, a fan named --" He stops and flips the letter over for a reminder. "Mad Dog," he says. He lifts the game ball from the red basket, stares at it, puts it back. "Would you like a glass of water or something?" he asks.
His wife, having digested all the medical reports about his condition, says his forgetfulness is a function of "tired brain." In the years since he left football, he has been plagued by deepening memory problems, a result, he believes, of the many concussions he suffered during his playing days.
"Don't feel sorry for me," he says. "At least somebody could say I chose this for myself. But my family never chose this. They're the ones suffering." He takes a long breath and sits down on the edge of the bed. He closes his eyes, then opens them. He reaches into the basket, picks up the trophy, stares at it and drops it back into the basket. Then he asks, "Would you like some water?"
One afternoon, Pear pops a tape into his VCR. In the next instant he's watching the 1981 Super Bowl between his Raiders and the Philadelphia Eagles at the Louisiana Superdome. He eyes the screen, grinning. "Yeah, our team is ready. I'm surprised how charged up I'm getting watching this thing. You gotta be careful with yourself sometimes not to lapse into the old macho attitudes. Look at our guys. Eagles don't have a chance. That's why I have this."
He lifts his left hand to show his Super Bowl ring. Each Raider on that year's squad received two rings, one for himself, and another as a pendant for a wife or girlfriend. Never thrilled with her husband's football career, particularly the way it ended, Heidi Pear long ago gave hers back to Dave, who is wearing it on a silver chain around his neck. "I guess I'm proud about being a champion, giving everything I had," he says. "Even if it ruined me."
He settles back on his couch to watch the game's start. For the next minute or two, he is lost in a reverie.
"You know, I can tell you what I was thinking that day," he mutters, finally. "I was standing on the sideline and thinking that it was too bad that I was gonna have to go out there playing with a broken neck in my last game -- because that's what it felt like: a broken neck."
Pear gasps then, holds up a hand. He grabs his cane and tries standing up. "Gotta get up, gotta get up," he moans. Sitting this long on the couch has caused his back to knot up, which happens frequently. He presses a hand to his face. Digging his cane into the floor, he walks around for a few minutes, then returns to the couch and sits gingerly.
In the next couple of minutes, he turns his head, reluctant to watch this much longer. "The game bit me and my family so bad that if I watch these things too long, I get down," he says. "And then I end up wishing I hadn't watched at all." He doesn't see the same game that fans do. "Fans misunderstand," he says. "Football is not a contact sport. It's a collision sport."
Thinking about today's generation of players, he says: "These young guys should be concerned about us and the other retired players now because some of them are going to be in the same place. You can't take the violence out of the game, and that's okay, because it wouldn't be football without the violence, I guess. But if you can't take the violence out, you gotta at least help the people who get hurt."
Other than his pleading letters and phone calls to the league, its retirement board and the union, Pear stayed quiet for a long while. "I guess I was ashamed at times to talk publicly about what was happening to me," he says. "I think a lot of the retired players with troubles were like that for a long time."
That has changed in recent years with the emergence of private organizations formed to assist struggling NFL retirees and publicize their plight. The two best-known -- Gridiron Greats, led by Hall of Famers Mike Ditka of the Chicago Bears and Jerry Kramer of the Green Bay Packers, and Fourth and Goal, made up of retired Baltimore Colts -- immediately made it their mission to prod the injured and destitute to express their anger.
Last year, as Pear and a growing number of NFL retirees began coming out of shadows to tell their stories, a kind of critical mass was reached: For the first time, the retirees' woes caught the interest of a bloc of fans, media and politicians who, remembering the players in their glory, had difficulty believing what they were seeing. Onetime fleet young gods who ran for touchdowns now looked like old men. Powerful linemen of the '60s and '70s were visibly broken. Earl Campbell, the Hall of Fame Houston Oilers running back enfeebled by years of hits, needed a walker just to move. Former All-Pro offensive tackle Conrad Dobler, knees and hips ruined, shuffled with a cane at news conferences and talked of his medications and financial struggles. Thirty-five-year-old retired offensive guard Brian DeMarco, who suffered serious spinal and knee injuries while playing for two teams, was found in Texas, broke and unable to work or cope with his pain. Seventy-one-year-old Willie Wood, the legendary Packers defensive back whose interception was decisive in Super Bowl I, had taken residence in a Hyattsville assisted living facility, hobbled, suffering from Alzheimer's-like cognitive problems and unable to pay his bills on a $1,100 monthly NFL pension.
But at least they were alive. The autopsy of Andre Waters, who played 12 NFL seasons in the 1980s and 1990s and committed suicide at 44, revealed a ravaged brain consistent with the advanced dementia of a man in his 80s. Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster, who won four Super Bowl championships and died of a heart attack at 50 in 2002, was plagued from the moment he left football by dementia and other brain injuries caused by his play, according to his doctors. Homeless and unable to find a job during much of his retirement, Webster also suffered from chronic physical pain, contended his family, who successfully sued the NFL's retirement board for more than $1.5 million after being denied a disability claim.
Last year, the weight of the stories sparked two sets of congressional hearings. With a rapt Pear listening last September in a Senate hearing room, former Minnesota Vikings offensive guard Brent Boyd -- whose doctors blame concussions suffered in his playing days for his severe memory loss, bouts of depression and joblessness -- blasted the league and union as deceitful in their treatment of veterans with disability claims: "There is fraud, corruption and collusion by the NFL."
Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, a member of the oversight panel conducting the hearing, urged the NFL "to get its house in order" and told NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and players association Executive Director Gene Upshaw that he was prepared to introduce "accountability or oversight" legislation if he did not see changes in the treatment of the retirees by the league and the union. But ideas for specific reforms to NFL practices were scarce among the lawmakers.
Since 1993, virtually all disability payments received by retired players have come from a share of league revenue allotted to the active players, which since 2006 has been set at 60 percent. Politically and economically, the arrangement has placed the union and Upshaw on the horns of a dilemma: If the union doesn't address the needs of disabled retirees, it runs the risk of looking callously indifferent; if it does, the kitty for the active membership declines by whatever is spent on the disability awards. Upshaw, a retired player himself, acknowledges tensions. "I have [active] players who don't like us paying so much for the [retirees]," he says.
Upshaw and the retirees' representatives agree on this point: There is virtually no bond between the active players and the retired ones. The union chief casually observes that the retirees don't pay his salary and that, therefore, he doesn't represent them. "My obligation is to the players playing now," he says. "And it's a different kind of group these days."
Different generation, different expectations and a whole new set of riches for everybody involved. When Pear starred at a peak salary of $125,000, the average player's annual salary was less than $100,000. Today, it's about $1.8 million. The league's annual revenue has correspondingly soared several-fold and, in 2006, was estimated to be from $6 billion to $7 billion. The worth of NFL franchises is in some cases more than 40 times the value of teams in Pear's era.
Pondering these numbers, Pear just shakes his head. "So much money there -- it's unbelievable that we're the guys who helped to build up the league, but we're the ones fighting for crumbs."
But, Upshaw says, such a focus misses the point. He fears that, if disability payments "go to any borderline cases out there," the floodgates will open, and there "might be thousands" of claims from NFL retirees who will "say they hurt somewhere on their bodies . . . Heck, a lot of guys have little things." He says the league couldn't endure such a press of claims. "We couldn't afford that," he says. "And the [active] players wouldn't go for it . . . The players right now give up $82,000 a year [on average] to fund all the things we're doing with disability [payments] and pensions . . . We can't pay for everything for all the [retirees] asking for it. We want to protect money for the retired players who really need and deserve it."
Upshaw says that, as of last fall, 428 retirees out of 1,052 applicants had been awarded disability payments from one of the retirement plan's programs, with the union having paid a combined $126 million on pension benefits and disability claims for the retirees. At last count, 317 were still receiving disability payments, he says. But retirees have long been suspicious of the union's numbers. A lawsuit filed against a subsidiary of the players union by Bernie Parrish, a former union executive and retired Cleveland Browns defensive back, asserts that tax records reveal that only 121 retirees received disability benefits in 2006. Worse, Upshaw's critics point out, the union has frequently joined the league in aggressively trying to deny retiree disability claims.
Pear's cognitive problems do not qualify him for disability payments under the league's plan. As a general stance, neither the union nor the league believes that any player's mental impairment has been caused by football.
Upshaw resents that people have made him out "to be the bad guy" in all this. "We're working with the league to make things better," he says, referring to a relatively new NFL program that covers joint replacements for qualified retirees that will be paid for by league and union contributions. Then there are league- and union-generated charitable programs, such as the Players Assistance Trust, which provided $1.2 million in assistance to struggling retirees in 2006, according to Upshaw. Pension benefits for the retirees have climbed on average by about 25 percent in recent years, he says. "We can't do everything overnight," he says. "But we've made progress, and where does it get you? . . . You're helping people, you're paying some of their bills, and then the same people criticize you? That just doesn't seem right."
"I'll tell you what isn't right," Pear fumes later. "It's when rich people destroy hurting players and stop them from getting hundreds of thousands in their disability benefits -- and then have the nerve to tell some of them they should be grateful for getting a few bucks in charity. They try to make you feel guilty . . . Their policy has
always been: Deny, deny and hope we die. That's the part fans don't know about. My wife says most fans don't want to know. She says, 'They don't want to hear about you guys being hurt, Dave.' She said they don't want you to kill Santa Claus for them. They just want to watch their games."
When Heidi Pear arrives home, she finds Dave in bed in his winter coat, curled up, with his old college blanket over him. "This is what we have in front of us for our future," she says. "All these years Dave has had this, and how long was football really? Six years? And only four really good years?" She laughs casually, a coping laugh. "All that for football? The good days were so long ago. They don't feel real anymore."
Heidi and Dave met as students at the University of Washington in the early 1970s. She was blond and pretty, with a bit of a hippie streak, and he was a defensive lineman on the football team. "I just thought, He'll do this in college and finish up," she says, "and then we'll get on with our normal lives together."
But the Baltimore Colts selected him in the third round of the 1975 NFL draft, and, after his rookie year, he was picked up in an expansion draft by the fledgling Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who went winless in Pear's first season. But, amid the team's miseries, Pear swiftly mastered his role as the defense's nose guard. "It helped that I had a pretty high pain threshold," he says. "I was willing to do anything to be successful, anything. When I got hurt, I just made sure to get myself back into a game as soon as possible. It was
do-what-you-have-to-do, and I did it all."
That attitude was helping him to build a reputation around the league. "I play every play like it's going to be my last one," he said to Tampa media. Buccaneers officials praised his toughness. "You could cut off one of Dave Pear's legs, and he'd still be out there every Sunday, giving everything he's got," Buccaneers Coach John McKay told the St. Petersburg Times in 1977.
Pear loved the attention. After sacking a quarterback, he enjoyed standing over him and lifting his arms toward the crowd, in the way of a victorious Roman gladiator asking the mob to decide the fate of the prostrate foe. "It was like, 'Do I let this guy up, or do I end it for him now?'" he remembers. "The crowd loved it. I loved it. Football was like battling in the Colosseum." With his antics, his long, flowing brown hair and his selection to the Pro Bowl team, he became a favorite of Tampa fans, who created a fan club in his honor and regularly staged parties for him in the stadium parking lot after Buccaneer home games. He boasted of his success to a local newspaper. "Personally, I feel I'm the greatest nose guard in professional football," he said. "They double- and triple-team me every week, and they still can't touch me."
The physical punishment he endured never worried him in Tampa. "My feeling then was what every player's feeling is," he explains. "If you think you might get hurt, you could never strap it on each Sunday and be King Kong out there . . . If I saw a guy get hurt during a game, I thought, 'That doesn't apply to me -- never gonna happen to me.'"
By then he was living with Heidi, who did not relish either his popularity or
personality change. "The early years were tough," she remembers. "He got a bit of the big head there. But I think it comes with that kind of athletic life. Everybody was telling him how great he was."
In early 1979, after his Pro Bowl appearance and three seasons in Tampa, Pear told the Buccaneers that he wanted a raise on his contract that paid him less than $100,000 annually. The Buccaneers said no and traded him to the Oakland Raiders, who agreed to pay him $115,000 for his first season and slightly more for additional seasons. Pear was ecstatic. "I had what I thought was financial security," he says. "And then it happened. One play changed my life."
It came on September 16, 1979, as the Raiders found themselves losing badly on the road to the Seattle Seahawks. A frustrated Pear, thinking he had been subjected to illegal blocks through most of the game, was looking for a measure of payback when Seahawks running back Sherman Smith got the ball and found a hole. Pear filled it. "I
really wanted to nail somebody, and here comes Smith," Pear remembers. "He was a big guy, 230 pounds at least, maybe bigger. I didn't care. I was really gonna get him. I hit him. But I got the worst of it. I knew the instant it happened something was wrong. My neck felt like lightning. I felt the disk in there come out -- you don't really know what a disk is until you hurt it, and then you know, you feel this thing coming almost out of your neck. I could feel it move against a nerve. I was in agony. I was thinking, I wish I hadn't done that. And that was it. I was never the same again."
He lost playing time and, by the next season, was second-string. By then, his back and spine, first injured during his Tampa Bay years, were plaguing him, too. He says the Raiders regularly tried to treat his pain with shots and pills, including Percodan, but that he never felt real relief. In desperation, he turned to Heidi to administer shots in the evening. She injected his neck with a drug that Pear never had tried before. "Dave got it somewhere," Heidi remembers. "It was a drug they gave to horses or something."
None of the drugs helped. His second year with the Raiders would be his last with the club. After the Raiders' triumphant 1980 season and their Super Bowl title the following January, Pear went to Raiders owner Al Davis and explained that his damaged neck had made it impossible for him, at 27, to play again. He had a contract, but nothing in it was guaranteed. He says he asked Davis if the Raiders could see their way toward paying him for the following season in 1981. "I said to him, 'I'm going from here to get a neck operation -- I got a ruined neck playing for you,'" Pear recalls. "And Davis said to me, 'I'm not taking responsibility for your injury.'"
Davis has not talked publicly about the matter, and messages requesting comment from him for this story went unanswered. Raiders public relations director Mike
Taylor released a statement that, while never
mentioning Davis, said the "Raiders organization" treated Pear fairly. The statement
alluded to an arbitration in which the club paid Pear for several games into the season after his retirement. In an e-mail response to Pear's charge of "unfair and uncaring treatment," Taylor wrote that Pear's "extracurricular activities" with the Raiders needed to be "taken into account."
"Did you know about his personal problems?" Taylor demanded during a phone
interview. When invited to elaborate on Pear's problems, Taylor declined.
Would readers regard an unsubstantiated accusation as part of a smear campaign?
"Writers should use due diligence and find out on their own," Taylor replied.
When Pear heard that a Raiders spokesman made a charge and then declined to elaborate, he said in disgust, "Because there's nothing there."
Pear's departure from the Raiders had left him floundering. Pondering his rising bills and lack of an income, he decided he had no choice but to attempt a football comeback. His doctor officially cleared him to play while privately urging him not to, the Pears remember. In 1982, Pear played in the preseason with the San Francisco 49ers before being cut.
The following year, he applied to the NFL's retirement board for "line of duty" disability benefits, available at the time for players who had suffered career-ending injuries while playing for an NFL club. Pear's claim was denied. "It wasn't that he couldn't play," Upshaw says. "He did play after the Raiders. He just wasn't good enough."
For the next decade, Pear found jobs in sales. By the mid-'90s, while living in Florida, he became scared about his job performance. He was increasingly falling asleep between appointments, sometimes while in his car. And his back and neck were worse than ever, despite several surgeries and related care that, he says, has cost him more than $500,000, because he has been unable to obtain health insurance since leaving football.
In 1995, he believed his working days were running out. He applied for the league's total and permanent disability benefit with the retirement board. The doctor commissioned by the board to access his condition portrayed Pear as a man whose physical ailments left him able to do little. Presented with evidence that included reports on Pear's acute fatigue, the doctor said that Pear would require a job that granted him "frequent rest breaks." He would also need, the doctor added, to be limited to sedentary work. Pear should not stand for lengthy periods, should not bend and could not be expected to lift anything more than 15 pounds, the doctor wrote.
"You tell me how many jobs like that are out there?" Pear says.
The six-man board, made up of an equal number of management and union representatives, rejected his claim.
Three years later, eager to put his hands on cash wherever he could find it, Pear filed for his early retirement pension from the league at the minimum age of 45 and started collecting $484 a month initially. The small benefit came to Pear's savings account at a severe cost: In accepting it, he sacrificed any claim to a disability payment forever, according to the rules of the retirement board plan.
Then, out of nowhere, came what looked like the Pear family's salvation. In the late '90s, Heidi inherited $500,000 from a relative. At first glance, the money seemed to represent financial security, but the more Dave thought about the sum, the more he worried. Perhaps, he reasoned, it wouldn't last in the face of his medical bills and expected unemployment in the near future. He began investing in risky tech stocks, and, when he started losing, he invested more. He lost the whole $500,000. "The pain I was under, the fatigue, the mental stress -- maybe I panicked and wasn't thinking right," he says.
Heidi purses her lips while listening to him describe his anguish. "I told you to get us out [of the market], but we didn't get out," she says softly. "We were supposed to confer with each other."
Dave drops his head and stares at their kitchen floor. "I don't know why I did it. I thought I had to make a bunch of money." He wraps his arms around himself. His voice shakes. "I don't know why."
She looks down at him. "Oh, you were scared, Dave. You knew you couldn't work much longer."
The Pears returned to the Seattle area in 2000, and he found another sales job. By 2002, he was selling shipping containers. As the months wore on, he says, dimensions and sales formulas became elusive concepts for him. Meanwhile, alarmed that her husband was suddenly getting lost on roads, Heidi took him to a neuropsychologist, whose reports detailed his profound memory problems and, worse, made clear that his decline had been particularly swift during the previous two years, his problems gaining a frightening momentum. Dave was a candidate for early onset dementia, said the report, and his nearly constant fatigue was likely a function of a damaged frontal lobe, possibly the result of blows to the head.
"On our way out," Heidi remembers, the neuropsychologist "simply said to me, 'Good luck.' I'll never forget that. It was like, 'The handwriting is on the wall.' Everybody knew where this was going."
The Social Security Administration declared him disabled. Dave's Social Security disability benefits have helped his family, but the money isn't enough for them to keep their house, Heidi says.
She arises at around 5 every morning, teaches fitness classes at a gym until midday, then goes off to her second job as a merchandising representative. She generally works 50-hour weeks, then shops, makes dinner and looks after Dave. Dave is seldom allowed to cook anything because he might forget to turn something off. As Heidi puts it, "Dave is just here."
No ethic counts more in football than a player's willingness to compete in pain while subjecting himself to on-field danger. Since the sport's inception, coaches from Knute Rockne to Mike Ditka have expected it; and players have prided themselves on exemplifying it. It's for good reason that many football men compare their sport not to another game but to war. "You're fighting in a battle, and then maybe you limp all woozy over to the sidelines and see a few guys really injured, and, man, it's like a triage unit in war," says Kyle Turley, an offensive lineman this past season for the Kansas City Chiefs. "You have to put it out of your mind and keep fighting. That's the way you're taught. That's part of what got us into these problems."
NFL players have commonly grown up hearing stories of the game's legends persevering through serious injuries. The homilies carry a powerful message: A high pain threshold is to be emulated. Turley, a veteran of nine seasons in the NFL trenches, recalls being deeply moved by a story he heard about Jack Youngblood, the Hall of Fame Los Angeles Rams defensive lineman who limped off during a playoff game in 1979 with a fractured fibula.
"He had a Rams trainer duct-tape a magazine or something around his broken leg and then he went back in," Turley remembers. "You believe that? The lesson is, 'You do whatever it takes to play . . . You get hurt, you find a way.' There's no time for whirlpools or for healing up just right. You just suck it up and push through, and if you can't, you're out. There's a saying around locker rooms: 'No one has ever made the club from the tub.'"
Since his youth, Turley has embraced the physical risks of his sport. "If you've made it to the NFL, you've seen talented teammates fall by the wayside in high school and college from injuries," he says. "It's sad. But that's kind of the beauty of the game. It's primitive -- there's no other sport like it. You're the gladiators. And when you're kind of an elite gladiator, the injuries you suffer are badges of honor -- until they really hurt you."
Turley, who decided to retire in December, has suffered numerous concussions and already worries about his sudden bouts of forgetfulness. "I'm a little concerned about what's down the road for me," he says. His 32-year-old body is hurting more than ever. When looking at NFL retirees such as Pear, he thinks he might be glimpsing the ghost of his own future. "What has happened to Dave and other players is going to happen to a lot of players in my era," he says. "So we better start paying attention."
It disturbs Turley that the NFL usually pays for health insurance for only five years after a player leaves the game. To show his commitment to the aggrieved retirees, he has donated $25,000 to Gridiron Greats and done a TV interview with Pear, whom he thanked on-air for his part in building the game for younger players. "I heard frustration in Dave's voice," he says. "Must be so hard on him, on all those guys . . . But to a man, if you asked those guys whether they'd play again, they'd say yes. It's what they dreamed about doing."
At the peak of John Mackey's football career, his uniform number, 88, became famous in Baltimore. To his fans, perhaps his most memorable play came in 1971, when 88 caught a tipped pass from Johnny Unitas in Super Bowl V and streaked for a long touchdown, helping the Colts defeat the Dallas Cowboys.
On a Sunday last November, the former All-Pro tight end walked haltingly down a short hallway and into the living room of his Baltimore condominium. Eighty-eight wore his Hall of Fame ring on his right hand and his Super Bowl ring on his left. He looked at his wife, Sylvia, and their two adult daughters, Laura and Lisa. The three women glanced up from a football game and smiled at him.
Mackey sat beside them, then looked at a wall near the television and began talking. "One line on the right, one line on the left. Two lines on the right, two lines on the left."
"He does that sometimes," Laura said. "Sometimes he counts squares in the bathroom."
Mackey peered quizzically at the television screen. "Football," he said. A year ago, as his daughters remember, he glanced at the television to see a player in a Colts jersey with 88 on his back. He exclaimed, "Look at me." A few second later, he muttered, "That's not me. Who is that?"
Mackey was diagnosed with frontal lobe dementia in 2001, at age 60. He and Sylvia were living in Los Angeles at the time, but Sylvia immediately decided to move him back to Baltimore. "I wanted him in a city where he was known, so that people could help him if he ever got lost during a wandering stage," she says. Her worst fear became a sudden reality. He strolled off at a Baltimore Ravens game. Panicked, Sylvia and her daughters searched the stadium without success before it occurred to Sylvia that in this hometown crowd he would probably receive help. Before leaving the stadium, she called their condo in the hope that he was there. John answered. Since John couldn't explain, Sylvia can only imagine that a longtime fan of his recognized him and drove him home.
By then, Sylvia was working as a flight attendant for United Airlines, both for the salary and to secure a health insurance plan for the Mackeys. But no insurance plan available to her could pay for the round-the-clock home nursing care that her husband soon needed, and her husband's $2,450-per-month pension wouldn't offset such expenses, either.
In 2006, Sylvia wrote a letter to then-NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, asking for help, explaining the toll of her husband's dementia on their family and emphasizing that she knew of other retired players in similar straits. Last year, her letter triggered the creation of the 88 Plan, funded by the union and the league, and named in honor of Mackey and his uniform number. As of late December, according to the players union, the applications of 80 retirees had been approved for benefits under the 88 Plan. For John's care at home, the Mackeys receive a $50,000 benefit annually, which is used to hire a 40-hour-per-week daytime nurse. Families with dementia victims who require care in a facility will receive $88,000 annually.
But the 88 Plan does not provide benefits to retirees with less serious cognitive problems, such as Pear's. The six-man retirement board that has been the bane of Pear and other angry retirees will decide who receives the 88 Plan benefits.
Former Colts safety Bruce Laird, a leader of the retiree group Fourth and Goal, sees the 88 Plan as only a first step toward addressing the needs of players with profound cognitive problems that fall short of dementia. At 57, he has his own health worries, after a 14-year professional career that ended in 1986. "I had dozens of concussions when I played -- four in one year alone -- and I kept going back in games," he says.
He has been convinced by his own forgetfulness and by a pack of studies that -- though not unanimous in their conclusions -- suggest a link between long-term participation in football and an enhanced risk of dementia. A University of North Carolina study that assessed 2,552 retired players determined that the players who had incurred at least three concussions were more than three times as likely to suffer from significant memory problem than those with no history of concussions.
"A lot of the retired players just keep suffering in silence," Laird says. "Some are too screwed up even to get out of bed. Sylvia fought and won. But it was Sylvia. Not the union."
Sylvia Mackey doesn't particularly care about who gets the credit, just as long as the league and the union face up to what she sees as an inevitability. "People get hurt in this game," she says. "That's football."
From his office on 20th Street NW, Gene Upshaw picked up a phone last year, looking for help. The volume of retired players' attacks against him had driven the football union chief to Washington power lawyer Lanny Davis, whose legal specialty is not labor relations or litigation but rather what Davis cheerfully terms "crisis management."
When the wolves are baying at the door, Davis is a man to call. His experience at guiding clients through controversy dates back to his days as a legal counsel in the Clinton White House, where, during the greatest crisis of that presidency, he dispensed advice to allies on how to deal with a media corps voracious for information about Bill Clinton's relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
Davis can envision a possible way out of the public relations mess for the players union and the NFL, a solution that might, among other things, enable retirees in Pear's position to receive disability benefits from the league. Noting that, since last September, the players union Web site has stated that any retiree receiving Social Security disability payments has effectively proved his medical eligibility for the league's total and permanent disability benefit, Davis says that Pear might deserve the league benefit, now worth more than $110,000 a year, despite being denied it in 1995.
"It'd need to be thoroughly considered," he says. "Perhaps it can be done, if there is no black-and-white rule . . . I'd be curious about Gene's view."
Upshaw's view is not Davis's view.
Upshaw indicates that, for the moment, he is not malleable on the subject of retirees in Pear's situation. "He took his pension," Upshaw says, sitting in his office recently. "Pear can't undo his decision, and I can't undo it. I cannot just go around fixing his mistakes and other players' mistakes just so that they can get a benefit."
Now and then, Upshaw walks into another room to fish out records with information about Pear, along with charts and statistics about the NFL's treatment of retired players. At 62, the robust union executive has a strong gait and is about 20 pounds leaner than during his 15-year playing career, when he played offensive guard at 255 pounds and was a nimble 6-foot-5 wrecking machine on his way to the Hall of Fame. He and Pear were Raiders teammates in 1979 and 1980.
In 2006, Upshaw earned $6.7 million, including bonuses, from the union, which easily makes him the highest paid union leader in professional sports. But he contends that, if anything, he is "underpaid," given his accomplishments and responsibilities. He points out that the average player's salary was a relatively paltry $85,000 when his union work began in 1983. It has increased more than twentyfold since.
He raps a conference table with his pen. "I am the only guy in the room saying to the [active] players that we need to think of people outside this room -- the retired players," he says. "The union doesn't have to do that, but it does it, and I do it. And [active] players pay for it . . . We can't do everything these [retired] guys want done for them. There are too many of them out there, and more guys would start coming to us. We'd go broke. Dave Pear, Dave Pear, Dave Pear. It isn't just Dave Pear. There are a lot of guys."
What should somebody like Pear do? I ask. Upshaw neatly arranges his sheets of paper. "Once he took that pension, that was it: He can't get a disability [benefit]. That's not only the rule of the retirement plan -- it's the law."
I ask if he's certain of that.
"Yes," he answers. "It's not just the NFL; it's the law."
But it's not the law, says the attorney Upshaw himself retained. Lanny Davis, in a separate interview, says the NFL could grant both a pension and a right to a disability payment. "It's discretionary," Davis says, "which is the way it is with most corporations. [That's] my understanding from talking to [union attorneys]. The point that I think is more important to Gene is that everyone in the league and [union] is open right now to thinking how to help these guys."
Davis seems to want to play peacemaker, but Upshaw remains furious over the retired players' criticism of him. He pulls out pages from union files that show the specifics of the charitable donations made on behalf of the Pear family by the Players Assistance Trust. "Dave Pear says we haven't helped him and other players," he says. "We're gonna be paying out another million or so in '07 to retirees. And take a look at this sheet."
The PAT made several mortgage payments in 2006 of roughly $2,000 a month for Pear and, at times, took care of his energy and water bills. In total, the PAT provided $20,046 in charitable support that year to Pear, before halting the payments in 2007; Upshaw explained that the union wished to alternate in helping players. "Does Pear or anybody else ever say thanks for the help?" he demands.
"I can't believe he expects me to be thankful," Pear says. "I wouldn't have needed a dime of that money if they'd just paid me what I deserve in the first place . . . I know I'm not the only one out there. I ache for all these families of players in my shoes. When somebody gets a little help, I cheer. It's just that it's coming so slowly. Most of us probably will be dead before it happens."
While Heidi prepares dinner, Dave Pear digs his cane into the floor and moves toward their bedroom. He has just thought of something he wants to give to their 24-year-old son, Adam, and their 20-year-old daughter, Alexandra. The items are a reminder of all that went wrong for him -- though, in their hands, who knows? Maybe they can hawk them and make a nice piece of change, he says. He pulls his secrets out of an envelope and hoists them the way a precious metals salesman would show off gold ingots.
"Two tickets to Super Bowl XV," he says. "We all got tickets. I completely forgot about selling these two." He grins. "I'll let the kids sell them or do whatever with them. Bet those memorabilia collectors would like them, huh? I got a lot of memorabilia that can go to the kids one day."
He reaches into his closet and pulls out a white Raiders road jersey with the black numeral 74 on it. It is his Super Bowl jersey. Never been laundered, he says proudly.
He rests the jersey on the bed. A surprise catches him then, a bolt of pain shooting up the back. He winces and takes another pill. He lies on his bed, closes his eyes and drapes the jersey over himself, a makeshift blanket. He just needs a couple of moments, he says.
"Hope the kids will like the tickets," he says. "It's the Super Bowl. Everybody likes the Super Bowl."
Michael Leahy is a Magazine staff writer. He can be reached at email@example.com. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at noon.