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The '94 Chargers' Tragic Toll
"What's going on? What's happening?" asked tackle Harry Swayne, now the assistant director for player development for the Baltimore Ravens.
'Where Were His Friends?'
On May 10, Curtis Whitley, the backup center from the 1994 team, celebrated his 39th birthday at his trailer home on the grounds of a west Texas wind farm where he had been working. The next day, his boss's wife, having not seen him for hours, entered his trailer and found him lying on the floor dead. He was wearing a pair of blue warmup pants and nothing else. On the countertop, deputies of the Pecos County Sheriff's Department noted, sat several syringes. Weeks later, the coroner's report would report what many had feared: He died of a drug overdose.
Whitley had always been the hardest one to figure out. He could be eccentric -- the one who once showed up in the team weight room wearing a cowboy hat and spurs or the one who carried nothing but a toothbrush for the Chargers' week-long trip to Germany in the summer of 1994. But he could also be cruel.
"When he was drinking, he was not a good guy," said May, the tight end who was Whitley's roommate for three years on the road. And the problem was, Whitley drank a lot. Several times, the league punished him for violating its substance abuse policy, finally suspending him for the 1998 season when he was on his last chance with the Oakland Raiders. After that, his career was done.
In a way, his old teammates always suspected he would not live long. Still, there was something troubling about his death, its emptiness.
"He was a teammate of mine," said tackle Stan Brock, until Dec. 12 the head coach at Army. "To pass away in a trailer like that? Where were his friends?"
There were more calls, more e-mails. Hall, the center, scrolled through LinkedIn, a networking Web site, looking for names of players he once knew. He found May. He called. He asked Johnston, the Chargers' PR director, for more names and more numbers. He phoned old friends wondering if they had contacts for players. He felt compelled to talk to them, to hear their voices, to listen to their stories. He talked about the idea of a reunion, something they had not done since each left the old locker room his own way, at his own time, until the life had drained from the locker room.
"I'm trying to reach out and see if everyone is okay," Hall said. "We've got to make sure that we as linemen keep our weight down and stay in shape. I told a couple of the guys, 'I don't want to see you in the obituaries.' You know, I can see old guys dying but not 30-year-olds and 40-year-olds."
One day after Whitley died, May went to the doctor. He asked for tests. If there was something wrong with him he wanted to know. The doctor told him he had sleep apnea, the same condition that killed one of the linemen. It is common among large men with big necks, the doctor told him. They just stop breathing at night. May was told to buy a $3,000 machine that would regulate his breathing while he slept. He gladly did this.
He could afford a $3,000 breathing machine. He had a good job, managing money for, among others, racecar drivers in North Carolina. He wondered about his former teammates. He is sure Whitley didn't have health insurance. He figured many of the others, like Mims, didn't either.
Perhaps health insurance wouldn't have saved Whitley, but it might have helped some of the others. May has become involved with a growing group of retired NFL players who have pushed their union and the league for better benefits including insurance -- something the union and league are slowly starting to provide.
May sighed. "You want to find someone to blame for this," he said. "And yet maybe there is no one to blame."