One Team's Tragic Toll

By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 26, 2008

High on a cemetery hillside, far above the growl of a Los Angeles freeway, sits the freshly covered grave of former San Diego Charger Chris Mims. It is set to the side of a small chapel and surrounded by trees. Those who have visited find it a happy place. And maybe this comforts them. In life he was always the one who laughed the loudest.

When word spread on Oct. 15 that Los Angeles police had found Mims dead on the floor of his downtown apartment that morning, a familiar dread rippled through the community of former Chargers players. Not Mims. Not the one with the roaring voice that bounced merrily off locker room walls. The one whose fruitless attempts to shed weight led them to call him "the Fat Doctor."

Natrone Means, the running back, called tight end Deems May and said, "We lost the Fat Doctor."

There have been too many of these calls, too many somber e-mails, too many funerals. Once, as players, they had been a part of a Chargers team that upset the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC championship game in January 1995 and went to the only Super Bowl in the franchise's history. Now, nearly 14 years later, five of them are dead.

Five men from a 53-player roster, all gone in their 20s and 30s. Marjorie Rosenberg, a professor of actuarial science and biostatistics at the University of Wisconsin, calculated the odds of something like this happening at less than 1 percent.

"I couldn't imagine one team having five guys from one calendar season just die unless it's a team crash or something," May said. "I bet you couldn't find a small business with 53 people and have five people die."

It began only weeks after Super Bowl XXIX, a 49-26 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in Miami, starting with the linebacker's car that skidded across a Florida highway. Then came the running back killed in the plane crash, the linebacker who was hit by lightning and the center who was found dead in his trailer home a day after his 39th birthday.

And now Mims.

"I guess it's just a part of life you have to deal with," said Stan Humphries, the quarterback.

From his home in New York, Courtney Hall, who was the team's starting center, sighed into the phone. "It's just ridiculous the way it's been happening. You have 53 guys and 10 percent of the team passes away? Before the age of 40? The numbers just don't make sense. Is this a curse or something? I just hope I'm not next."

'Everything Came Together'

It was remarkable how well they got along that season. "To this day I don't know if there is a team in one single year that was as close as that one," said Bill Johnston, who has been the Chargers' director of public relations for 19 years.

When practice ended, nobody went home. Instead they pulled tables together, ordered out for beer and chicken wings and played dominoes until 8 or 9 in the evening. They gave each other nicknames. Means was "Piggy," Stanley Richard "the Sheriff." Shawn Jefferson went by "Skeeter." Duane Young was simply "House."

On Sundays they woke early at the team's hotel to be on the first bus to the stadium, where they dressed in their uniforms, pulled on their pads, taped their hands, streaked black lines under their eyes and then sat in the lounge playing video games such as Madden NFL and Mortal Kombat until it was time to go onto the field.

But what they remember most was how magical the season became; how they kept winning games in the most improbable ways. They beat Denver when Broncos quarterback John Elway's pass was intercepted on the brink of a game-winning touchdown. They won in Seattle thanks in part to a 99-yard touchdown pass. And they surprised Pittsburgh with a pass Humphries was certain would fail, mocking it as "a high school play." Instead it was a touchdown.

And when they flew home from Pittsburgh on the night they won the AFC, more than 70,000 people went to Jack Murphy Stadium to welcome them. It was a spontaneous thing. No celebration had been announced, no rally scheduled. People simply drove to the one place it seemed most logical to be that night. Later, after landing, as their buses crawled through the traffic on Interstate 8, the players gazed at hundreds of cars abandoned on the side of the freeway as the fans -- frustrated at the gridlock -- decided it faster to walk the rest of the way.

Inside the stadium, every seat was taken. The roar was so loud it drowned the voice of Bobby Ross, the team's coach, as he spoke into a microphone. No one cared.

"I think we had such great chemistry," Hall said. "It really was a year where everything came together."

Then one of them died.

'We're Not All Superhuman'

It came on a mid-June night, just five months after the Super Bowl. A black 1992 Lexus sped down an offramp on Florida's Turnpike in the Fort Lauderdale suburb of Davie, only 10 minutes from where the Super Bowl had been played. The Lexus's tires hit a 10-inch hole in the pavement, the car spun, hurtling over the roadway, smashing into a large signpost. The signpost tore through the passenger door, cutting across the seat, coming to rest against the driver still strapped in his seatbelt.

The paramedics arrived and they rushed the driver into an ambulance. A news helicopter hovered overhead, its searchlight beaming down on the shattered car. By the time the ambulance reached the hospital, David Griggs, the linebacker they called "Pop" because he seemed so much wiser than his 28 years, was dead.

The next evening Ross appeared on the San Diego radio show of the team's announcer, Lee Hamilton. He was stunned, fumbling for answers. Just a few days before as they left their last minicamp of the spring he warned them to be careful, to do nothing that would get them in trouble. Now one of them was gone.

The rest of the year brought nothing but reminders. Griggs's locker stood out from the other cubicles occupied by living players. His mother, Doris, sang the national anthem before a preseason game. A pact was made. Chargers players would give any money collected in fines to his daughter Jasmine, until every act of discipline brought his face to their minds just like those black stickers with his number 92 on the back of their helmets.

"It was hard knowing someone for so long, knowing the person and playing with him, then boom! They're gone," Eric Bieniemy, a running back on the team, said from his office in Minnesota, where he is now the running backs coach for the Vikings. "You work out and you condition and train and you tell yourself, you do that 'because of who I am as an athlete, nothing will ever happen to me.' Then when a player like David Griggs gets into a car accident you realize we're human. We're not all superhuman beings like we thought."

And yet they moved on with their lives, shaken, but a little more confident about their invulnerability with each day that passed. The next spring, running back Rodney Culver, 26, took his wife on a birthday cruise, leaving their girls, just 1 and 2, with family. A few days into their cruise, missing their children, they wanted to come home. Culver, who had confessed a terror of flying to at least one teammate, left the cruise early and bought two tickets on ValuJet Flight 592, scheduled to fly May 11, 1996, from Miami to Atlanta.

The plane, a DC-9, left late that day, the result of traffic on the ground in Miami. Six minutes into the air something went wrong, flames filled the cabin, the electronics started to fail. In the cockpit recording, people can be clearly heard screaming. "Fire, fire, fire, fire." "We're on fire. We're on fire."

Investigators would conclude uncapped chemical oxygen generators loaded into the plane's belly had ignited on takeoff and erupted into an inferno. The pilots tried to race back to Miami. For a moment the plane was steady, then it plunged into the Everglades at more than 500 mph.

Over the next several days there would be three memorials for Culver -- one in his home town of Detroit, one at Notre Dame, where he played in college, and one outside San Diego. Each drew hundreds. Each brought giant men to tears. Soon the helmet stickers with Griggs's 92 were replaced with Culver's 22 (he wore No. 35 during the Super Bowl season, but switched the year after). Another locker sat unused. Reporters came. Questions were asked. How could they live with this every day? The Chargers players shook their head. They didn't know.

But most of them wouldn't be around much longer. The team was disintegrating. Ross resigned after the 1996 season. The video games had long ago been banned. Players were traded. Players were released. The locker room that seemed like home to so many of them was now a cold and empty place. Nobody pulled the tables together anymore. Nobody ordered out for beer and wings and stayed until 8 or 9 at night. It was as if the joy of the Super Bowl season had been drained from them for good.

'What's Going On?'

By 1998, Doug Miller was all but forgotten in the room. He had been a linebacker on the 1994 team, playing mostly that year and the next on special teams before injuries forced him to retire. That July he set out, at 28, to start a job as a graduate assistant coach at the University of California. On his way, he stopped near Vail, Colo., to camp with friends. One afternoon, as they set up camp near the Colorado River, a storm moved in.

Miller helped to erect a tent. Suddenly a bolt of lightning made its jagged path toward earth, striking him and knocking him down. One of his friends rushed to his side and began to give CPR. As he did, there came another flash, another roar of thunder and lightning once again struck Miller. The friend was unharmed. Miller was dead.

It was the randomness of it all that got the Chargers. Three and a half years had passed since the Super Bowl and three players were gone in three almost inexplicable incidents. None of it made much sense. Maybe it wasn't supposed to make much sense.

"I mean when you get hit by lightning twice, it's just your time," May said.

Ten years later, the fourth and fifth players on the Super Bowl team would die. But even before, there had been too many other stories, too many people they knew.

There was the ex-wife of Dwain Painter, the quarterback coach from the 1994 team, who killed herself after the Pittsburgh game. When his adult daughter went to spread her mother's ashes on the California coast, a wave swept her into the sea.

There, too, was Sid Brooks, the equipment manager, who painstakingly affixed the black decals with the numbers 92 and 22 to the back of every helmet and maintained the abandoned lockers. Retired from the Chargers, he slipped in a sauna a year and a half ago, hitting his head on the floor. There he would lie, dead, until he was found the next day.

Then there were the four offensive linemen -- players from the 1992 and 1993 teams -- men unknown to all but the most voracious of football fans, yet nonetheless teammates of the players left behind. Together they had dressed in the same locker room, kept many of the same friends and met each other's families. One died in a motorcycle accident, the other three of natural causes. Most shocking were their ages: 35, 37, 40 and 41.

"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."

Then this fall came the news about Mims.

'It's Been Tough'

It shouldn't have been a surprise. Mims had talent, lots of talent. Ross always thought he had a unique ability to play both defensive tackle and defensive end. He could have been one of the best defensive linemen in the league. But something seemed to hold him back. Coaches and teammates say it was a group of friends back home in Los Angeles, friends who appeared mostly interested in his money and fame. He seemed unable to detach himself. They followed him everywhere.

Those who knew Mims, who spent the 1997 season with the Washington Redskins before returning to San Diego for two more years, said he had been depressed. His body was failing. A few months before his death he had a small stroke that seemed to limit him and sadden him even more. The coroner's report listed the primary causes of death as an enlarged heart and heart disease. But it would also say he had high blood pressure and liver problems. When he was found, he weighed 456 pounds, 160 more than when he played.

In the months before his death, his junior college coach, an old friend, called him several times after hearing many of his friends had abandoned him. Mims never called back. The coach surmised that Mims didn't want anyone to see him the way he had become. It was as if he had already decided life was over at 38.

In the weeks since Mims died there have been more calls back and forth between old teammates. More panicked conversations. They are, after all, relatively young men, not far removed from professional sports careers, and yet circumstances have forced them to wonder which of them is marked. Which of them is the next to go?

"Quite frankly, it's been tough," May said.

It is an uncomfortable subject. Means, a close friend of Mims, did not answer several calls for this story, nor did he respond to messages left on his voice mail. Swayne, when reached in his office, mumbled an apology about not returning a message left a few days before. Something in his voice said he had no interest in ever responding to the call.

"You can't even put a finger on it," Swayne said finally. "Is it health-related? Football-related? Could they have done something different? You can't say. Stories like this come up when you can't explain it. We can't explain when our time on earth has been done."

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