“Why are you still here?”
That’s the question that was put to me in the days before the Super Bowl, as I made the rounds of Media Row to talk about Fourth & Goal’s eight-year effort to advocate for retired players and help those in need.
Quite frankly, the answer is simple. I’m still here – and Fourth & Goal is still here – because there is still work to be done.
Last week, I spoke with O.J. Brigance and his wife Chanda. O.J. is one of approximately 20 former NFL players afflicted with ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. ALS is among several neurological diseases linked to head trauma. In fact, a study of nearly 3,500 former NFL players who played between 1959 and 1988 found they were three times more likely to have neurodegenerative diseases than the general population and four times more likely to have Alzheimer’s or ALS. That’s why I’m still here – and that’s why Fourth & Goal is still here – to inform and educate active and retired players, their families, their coaches, their fans, and the media; to support efforts to make the game safer and to protect players; and to ensure that those who suffer from debilitating illnesses linked to football receive the care and comfort they need and deserve.
Last December, Fourth & Goal contributed to the Brigance Brigade, founded by O.J. and Chanda Brigance to fund research into ALS, and to Sports Legacy Institute, founded by Chris Nowinski to solve the concussion crisis in sports and the military. That’s why I’m still here – and that’s why Fourth & Goal is still here – to raise awareness and funds so that tomorrow’s former players (i.e., today’s active players) are spared the incapacitating diseases that have afflicted too many of those who built the game, the union and the league.
Last spring, I attended the Tom McHale Memorial Fundraiser in Washington, D.C., benefiting Sports Legacy Institute. During the event, Tom McHale’s widow Lisa asked a question that has both haunted and driven me. “How could a life of such promise end so tragically?” A standout college player at the University of Maryland and Cornell University, Tom McHale went on to a nine-year career in the NFL. In 2008, at age 45, he died of an accidental drug overdose and was posthumously diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). That’s why I’m still here – and that’s why Fourth & Goal is still here – to prevent future generations of NFL players from suffering similar declines and deaths.
And last year, we learned that 320 widows had inadvertently been excluded from the Legacy Benefit – simply because their husbands died before the August 2011 signing of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. We immediately alerted both the NFL and the NFLPA. The league acted immediately, promising to contribute its CBA-defined share of the benefit to the widows. As the union dragged its collective feet, Fourth & Goal continued to advocate for the widows, to inform the media and the fans, and to tell the widows’ stories. Finally, nearly one year later, the union agreed to fund its share of the Legacy Benefit to cover the widows. That’s why I’m still here – and that’s why Fourth & Goal is still here – to hold the union accountable and to ensure that retired players and their widows are represented.
It’s important to note that Fourth & Goal was formed only after the Baltimore NFLPA retired players’ chapter first tried to work through the NFLPA and NFLRPA to obtain assistance for our teammate John Mackey. As the union continued to sit on the sidelines, ignoring the plight of Mackey and many retired players in physical and/or financial need, the Baltimore Chapter organized Fourth & Goal – not for prestige, not for profit, not for personal gain, but simply because it was the right thing to do. That’s why I’m still here – and that’s why Fourth & Goal is still here – to stand up for our teammates and to ensure they receive the assistance and support they’ve earned.
Because we believed that one independent organization should be formed to represent retired NFL players, we supported the reconstituting of NFL Alumni and the refocusing of the organization on retired players. To our deep disappointment, NFL Alumni failed in its responsibilities, squandered its opportunity and misused millions of dollars. That’s why I’m still here – and that’s why Fourth & Goal is still here – because the NFL Alumni’s actions left retired players with no representation, no relief and no recourse.
Too many of our teammates – the men who watched game films with us in the meeting room, who dressed next to us in the locker room, who lined up next to us on the field, who blocked and tackled for us – are struggling, too many are suffering … and too many others are silent. THAT’s why I’m still here – and THAT’s why Fourth & Goal is still here.
Fourth & Goal Foundation
Baltimore Colts, 1972-1981
San Diego Chargers, 1982-1983