The Fifth Quarter
Since retiring from the game, the men of the St. Louis football Cardinals have endured knee replacements, financial hardships, and mounting concern about head injuries. But they'd do it all over again.
Photography by Kevin A. Roberts
You will know them by their hands. Thick and strong, long and wide enough to swallow footballs, to send titanic men crashing to the ground. They dole out handshakes that reverberate in your wrist, the way fathers teach their sons—look ’em in the eye and make it firm—but with the amplifier turned up to 11.
You’ll also see scars: knobs where broken bones couldn’t quite figure out the right way to fuse back together. Knuckles swollen and smashed, mangled and misshapen. Fingers jutting in unnatural directions. And then there are rings, tokens from championships and hall of fame inductions, shimmering trinkets hung from the wreckage.
When these hands start talking, look out. Try to maintain your poise as they demonstrate the head slap, a legal maneuver in the National Football League of the 1960s and ’70s. Don’t flinch as they recount a particularly brutal fight between teammates in training camp. You won’t doubt the punch these fists could pack, even in retirement.
Glance at the knees, if you dare. Some carry the S-shaped scar from surgeries to repair torn ligaments in the age before arthroscopy. Many have been replaced altogether, a few more than once. With enough procedures, they cease to look like knees at all—they’re balloons filled with jelly. You’ll marvel that a pair of shorts could possibly pass over such a large and lumpy mass.
“You ever want to see something ugly, go to a golf tournament with NFL retired players,” says one such player. “I’m not kidding you. It looks like Star Wars, half-moon scars back and forth, big globs of cottage cheese in the knees. Guys with knees this big [he indicates the size of a basketball] trying to walk.”
The Cardinals football franchise moved to St. Louis from Chicago in 1960 and then bolted for Arizona after the 1987 season. Though the team is gone, many Big Red players have stayed here, forging lives after leaving their violent, fleeting profession. No matter what they’ve accomplished in the years since, they continue to be defined by the game. And even while suing the NFL over concussions or fighting for workers’ compensation, their bodies battered, they say football has given them far more than it has taken away, as cliché as they would never admit that sounds.
Dan Dierdorf was born to play football, a 10-pound baby in Canton, Ohio, a pigskin-obsessed town in a pigskin-obsessed state, the birthplace of professional football. When Dan was 13, he and his father went to the groundbreaking at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
As a 250-pound teenager, Dan became a fixture at the annual induction ceremonies and the Hall of Fame Game, which traditionally kicks off the NFL preseason. “Back then, the men who played pro football, it’s like they came down from Mount Olympus to play the game,” he says. “They were almost mythical characters. To see them in person, even to know you were within 100 yards of one of those guys, was kind of intoxicating.”
He saw the legends of the game as true men. They shaved. They had wives. And they played in the NFL.
But despite his girth, Dierdorf wasn’t hyped as a high-school lineman. Legendary Ohio State Buckeyes coach Woody Hayes didn’t even offer him a scholarship. Instead, Dierdorf ended up playing offensive tackle for the hated rival, Michigan, becoming a consensus All-American. His parents only missed two games his entire college career, driving all over the country to see Big Dan play.
During his senior year, Dierdorf’s Michigan team played Arizona and a future teammate, linebacker Mark Arneson, who had the best game of his career, 21 unassisted tackles. Decades later, Arneson found a picture that showed him going right over Dierdorf to tackle the ballcarrier. When he showed it to Dierdorf, the lineman’s reaction was instantaneous: “Obviously, I must have tripped, because there’s no way you ran me over.”
Jim Otis, too, was born to play football in a small Ohio town, “15 minutes from the edge of the earth” as he puts it. Like Dierdorf, Otis’ grandfather was a Michigan Man, the school’s first crowd-inciting yell-master. But Jim was destined to be a Buckeye. His father had been coach Hayes’ roommate and fraternity brother at Denison University. “Woody used to box, and Dad used to announce him and be his cutman in the corner,” Otis says.
When he was 7, he got his picture taken with Howard “Hopalong” Cassady, the Ohio State star who won the Heisman Trophy in 1955. By that time, little Jim had already been playing football for a few years. “I didn’t start until I was about 4, so I was late there in the community,” he jokes. Eventually, his parents installed a proper football field right in their back yard, complete with goal posts, so he and his buddies could play pickup games.
Back then, freshmen weren’t allowed to play varsity football, but Otis, a fullback, led Ohio State in rushing all three years he was eligible. He remains the only Buckeye ever to have three 100-yard games against Michigan. Even more impressive, Otis boasts, he was never tackled in the backfield, not even once in his college career.
Johnny Roland grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas, the son of an airplane painter and a cook. In junior high, he tried to play trumpet in the band. “Nobody told me you had to blow into the sombitch,” he says with a smile.
After his uninspiring performance, the band director took Johnny aside. “Young man, you have talent, but it doesn’t show here,” he said. “Where you need to concentrate your time is out there on that football field.”
Roland took the advice, becoming the star running back at Roy Miller High School in the early days of desegregation, leading the team to an unexpected state championship.
When it came time to choose a college, the major Texas schools were out, because they weren’t recruiting black athletes. Roland considered Oklahoma, where he would have been the second black man to play on the football team, but he ultimately chose Missouri.
In his first varsity game, he rushed for 171 yards and three touchdowns. He was playing defensive back, too, staying on the field for roughly 55 minutes of the 60-minute game, playing both ways.
The next year, though, he was forced to leave school, accused of stealing a set of tires. “That was a college prank that went bad,” he says. “Only me and God know that story.” He spent a year working construction, and not one of those no-show jobs that boosters give football players at car dealerships—this was hard manual labor.
When he returned to Mizzou, he became the first African-American captain of the football team and helped beat the Florida Gators in the 1966 Sugar Bowl, showing his versatility by throwing a touchdown pass.
The Cardinals drafted Roland in the fourth round of the 1965 draft. He remembers his contract being for $250,000 over a few years. One teammate said it was more like $450,000, the zeros clearly making an impression. “Whatever it was, it was big,” Roland says.
Conrad Dobler began playing football to get out of work. He was born in Chicago, where he has “like 82 first cousins,” but his family moved to 29 Palms, California, because of his brother’s asthma.
His father ran a food-distribution business, so Conrad missed first period in high school to deliver milk to schools. He joined the football team hoping that after-school practice would mean less after-school work, but his father usually found a way to make him do both. One time, Conrad was supposed to be competing in a track meet, but a driver was sick and he had to fill in. So he pulled up to the track in the refrigerated truck, changed clothes in the back, ran two races, pole-vaulted, changed again, and finished the route.
He played running back and linebacker in high school (later moving to the offensive line), made a few all-star teams, and chose to play college ball at Wyoming over Arizona, thinking it would be cooler for two-a-day practices in August.
These days, the NFL draft is a major prime-time TV event, players showing up in suits or watching from home with cameras set up and an entourage gathered. In 1972, Dobler, who wasn’t much of a sports fan, was out mountain-climbing when the Cardinals selected him. When he returned to his dorm room, a reporter called and said, “You were drafted.”
The Vietnam War was still going on, so Dobler took that news pretty hard. “Drafted?” he asked, incredulous. By the Cardinals, he was told. Now he thought it was a prank call. “Why would a baseball team draft me?” he asked. The St. Louis football Cardinals, the reporter said. Dobler put his hand over the phone and asked his roommate if St. Louis had a football team. With confirmation, Dobler turned back to the phone and said, “Yeah, I was just joking with you.”
Jim Hart decided to go to Southern Illinois University Carbondale because he knew he’d get a chance to play, because he could handle the academics, and because “the Illinois Central Railroad was running four trains a day, so I had ample opportunity to get back up to the Chicago area.”
Hart became the starting quarterback for the Salukis as a sophomore, just as Southern Illinois left the small conference in Illinois that it had dominated for years and began playing bigger schools. “We just got the snot kicked out of us time and time again,” he says. In three years, Hart remembers winning fewer than 10 games. It wasn’t surprising that no NFL team drafted him. “They went for winners,” he says.
Hart thought his football career might be over. Then his college coach got a job as an assistant with the Cardinals. He saw Hart on campus and asked whether he wanted to try out. “Well, yeah,” he responded.
The Cardinals signed him for $1,000, plus $12,000 more—if he could make the team.
It came down to Hart and Gary Snook for the third-string quarterback job in 1966. Snook was a high draft pick out of Iowa, and Hart was a no-name off the street, so there was no doubt which guy the Cardinals planned to keep. But when Snook was drafted into the U.S. Army, Hart had a job.
A year later, he came into training camp as the backup, but Charley Johnson, the incumbent starter, had an ROTC commitment and was called up. Hart was the starting quarterback, his contract doubled to $24,000.
He was “happier than a pig in slop.”
In 28 seasons in St. Louis, the Cardinals never won a single playoff game, but from the mid-’60s to the mid-’70s, the organization fielded some excellent teams. This was before 24/7 media scrutiny, before money poisoned football, and for players of that era, the game was still a game.
The Cardinals tended to have good teams in even-numbered years in the ’60s. Again and again, the team would be on the brink of greatness, only to be derailed by an injury or the weather or bad luck. When Johnson was healthy, he was a good quarterback, and the offensive line boasted four Pro Bowl players, including Bob DeMarco and Irv Goode. If Jackie Smith wasn’t the premier tight end in the NFL, he was certainly one of the best.
In ’64, the Cardinals went 9–3–2, finishing just behind the 10–3–1 Cleveland Browns for a place in the championship game. One of the Cardinals’ ties was a 10–10 game against the Giants in a torrential downpour, the field a muddy mess. Back then, the NFL played a consolation exhibition game for third place, called the Playoff Bowl. That season, St. Louis beat Green Bay 24–17, the closest to a postseason win the team would ever come. While the Cardinals were held back by injuries the following season, that same Packers team won the championship. Such was the luck of the football Cardinals.
In 1970, the Big Red played the Cowboys in a pivotal midseason game in Dallas on Monday Night Football. Don Meredith, who had been the Cowboys’ quarterback for much of the previous decade, said the Cardinals had no chance. “We kicked their ass,” says Roland, who scored three touchdowns in the 38–0 romp. After the game, Meredith came into the locker room and apologized to Hart for “crying poor mouth” in the booth. Of course, the Cardinals lost the last three games of the season, and the Cowboys went on to play in the Super Bowl.
Don Coryell became the coach in 1973, and he breathed fresh life into the franchise. He instituted an up-tempo passing scheme that became known as Air Coryell. St. Louis won at least 10 games each of three straight years, starting in ’74. People around town started calling the team the Cardiac Cardinals.
Hart made four straight Pro Bowls, and Otis led the conference in rushing in ’75. But the team’s real strength was the offensive line, headlined by the fearsome Dierdorf. “Dan was the biggest man I had ever seen in my life,” Roland says. In 1975, the Cardinals allowed just eight sacks, then an NFL record.
“We weren’t a good offensive line,” Dierdorf says in his proud way. “We were a great offensive line.”
But even with that powerful line, the Cardinals couldn’t come through in the playoffs, losing to the Vikings in 1974 and to the Los Angeles Rams in ’75.
Conrad Dobler started out following the rules. It just didn’t work. In training camp his rookie year, he did as he was told. Dierdorf and Tom Banks, Pro Bowlers from major college programs, gave him a hard time about coming from Wyoming, told him to stay in line. The day before the first game, Dobler got cut.
The day after the second game, the Cardinals signed him again. Sore about missing out on the pay from two games, he decided that this time, he would do things his way. He was going to go all out in practice, attack his teammates, even in drills that were explicitly supposed to be half-speed. “I came back with an attitude,” he says. “If I get cut, I’m going to get cut because I’m not really worth a damn. It’s not going to be because I’m not putting out the effort.”
It didn’t take long for his teammates on defense to reach their breaking point. Every day for weeks on end, Dobler got into a fight that stopped practice. The veteran players started looking forward to the fights as a chance to take a break. Arneson, a devout Christian, fought Dobler eight or 10 times.
And Dobler was even harder on his opponents. Sports Illustrated put him on the cover, calling him “Pro Football’s Dirtiest Player.” He would scratch and claw, punch and clothesline, anything to keep a defender away from the quarterback. He calls it “victim-precipitated violence,” saying that defensive linemen aren’t the “brightest light bulbs in the box.”
His patented moves were the leg whip, which has since been outlawed, and a shot to the solar plexus, which he thinks more current players should use. Whenever a defensive lineman jumps up to bat down a pass, Dobler sees an opportunity. “Why do you let them jump in the air?” he asks. “Why wouldn’t you catch them in the solar plexus? If you just push them, they’ll fall ass over teakettle.”
In the playoffs in 1975, Dobler faced off against Merlin Olsen, a Hall of Fame defensive lineman for the Rams who played in a record 14 Pro Bowls and went on to play farmer Jonathan Garvey on Little House on the Prairie.
Bob DeMarco, at the end of his career, was a backup on the Rams. At lunch one day, Olsen told him about watching film of Dobler. “This guy is nuts,” he said. DeMarco’s advice: “Merlin, you’re a clean ballplayer. If he starts that shit, you tell him one time. The second time he does it, you just haul off and kick him right in the nuts. Just down him.”
Olsen couldn’t bring himself to do it. In the middle of the game, he came over to Hart and asked him to intervene. “I know you don’t condone what Dobler’s doing,” Olsen said, complaining of leg whips and holding. “You need to talk to him.”
Well, Hart wasn’t about to tell the offensive lineman who was protecting him to start taking it easy. “I can’t do that,” Hart said. “His job is to keep you from getting to me.”
After the game, which the Rams won, DeMarco couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw Olsen in the locker room. “I’m not kidding you,” DeMarco says, “his shirt looked like he had been in a fight with a lion.”
For Dobler, it was all psychological. Defenders would be so mad at him, they would forget all about the quarterback. “Most of my battles were won before I ever stepped on the field,” he says.
The old Busch Stadium, where the Cardinals played their home games, was among the first in the country with artificial turf. When they went to install it in 1970, they weren’t sure what to put underneath, so they used blacktop, unlike the advanced turfs of today, which rest atop layers of sand and rubber. At that time, training camp was held at Lindenwood University, and that stadium had AstroTurf, too, meaning the guys had to endure two-a-days on the same unyielding surface.
“It was asphalt with a piece of indoor-outdoor carpet laid across the top of it,” Dierdorf says. Mike Wood, who kicked and punted for the Cardinals in the late ’70s, likens it to “a napkin over concrete.”
It was practically impossible to play on. Every team had a different type of experimental turf, so on the road, players would travel with five or six pairs of shoes, not knowing which, if any, would work on a given surface. Players spent as much time thinking about the field as their opponents.
Competing year after year on that turf at Busch Stadium was devastating to players’ joints. “We didn’t know it at the time,” Dierdorf says, “but it was just grinding us to dust.”
And while the turf took a cumulative toll, players sustained more violent, immediate injuries, too. In 1972, a blocker slammed into Smith’s right knee, tearing his medial collateral ligament. He knew it was serious, but decided to go back to the huddle anyway. When he tried to run to the line of scrimmage, his leg was just flopping around; he had no control over it. He got down in his stance, looked over at Dierdorf, and said, “I’ll see you next year, big boy.”
Dierdorf suffered a catastrophic injury in 1979 during an extra point, of all things, when somebody fell on his knee and dislocated it. “It just tore everything to shreds,” he says. He played another four years, but he’d lost his mobility. “I was playing on one leg.”
Roland was an immense talent, and had a chance to be a star. But his second year in the league, he suffered a horrible knee injury. He remembers everything about the play. It was a run, Roland had the ball, but it was “cloudy at the point of attack.” When he tried to jump over the pile, a safety waiting in the hole hit him in the knee and hyperextended it, tearing his MCL and his anterior cruciate ligament. He came back but was never the same.
When injuries weren’t quite as bad, the guys fought through them.
DeMarco broke his right wrist, not a good injury if you’re the player responsible for snapping the ball. He didn’t miss a game. “I just shot it up,” he says.
In 1977, Dierdorf suffered a broken jaw. He missed just a few weeks, returning to action with his mouth wired shut. “Looking back on that, I’m not sure that was my best move,” he says. “Having your jaw wired shut and then trying to do something as strenuous as football isn’t the easiest thing in the world. I lost 55 pounds in six weeks.”
Smith describes the toughness necessary to play through pain like this: “If I can strain a little bit and make it ache a little bit and still do the job pretty good, acceptable for the team, then that’s what I’m going to do. You just go play.”
Dings—that’s what players in the good old days called concussions. They all had them, suffered them in vicious and violent ways.
Hart says he had three or four. For Arneson, the number was seven. Linebacker Eric Williams says he had several.
Dierdorf initially says he didn’t suffer any, since he was never knocked unconscious. But he admits there were times when he would be watching the previous week’s game in a film session and wouldn’t remember certain plays. “The one thing that surprised me is how well you can play on autopilot,” Dierdorf says. “I never seemed to see a drop-off in production just because I had gotten dinged.”
Ask Dobler how many concussions he’s had, and he’ll say, “You know, I don’t remember.”
During a game in Denver, Smith had too much momentum heading toward the sideline. He ran into the Broncos’ bench, and one of their guys hit him in the head with a forearm, knocked him out. The next thing he remembers, he was dressed and on the bus, headed to the airport. “That was magic,” he says.
Roland is matter-of-fact about his head injuries. “Football is a contact sport; it’s not a dancing sport,” he says. “So obviously you are going to have some dings.”
The concussion test back then could charitably be described as rudimentary. Every guy describes it a little differently, but the standard procedure was, “How many fingers am I holding up, one or two?” If you got it right, you were back in. Answer wrong, you’d sniff some smelling salts, then get back out there. And hey, the players weren’t arguing. They wanted to play.
“I have three fingers up. How many do I have?” Goode says they asked him. You could be dealing with some serious mental impairment and still get that one right. The same goes for Dobler’s version: “What’s two and two? Hell, he didn’t know that answer before he got hit.”
Contract negotiations with Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill usually went like this: The player would make his case for more money, then Bidwill would say no.
One year, Goode went into Bidwill’s office to ask for a raise. He brought along a packet of information. “I was more prepared than he was,” Goode says. “He didn’t even have a folder in front of him, for Christ’s sake.” Bidwill said no, money was tight. Goode relented, but said, “Next year, we’re going to talk some money.” Bidwell said not to worry.
The next year, Goode came in, and again, he says, Bidwill came completely unprepared. “He was so full of shit, it was unreal,” Goode says. He stood up and swiped his arm across Bidwill’s desk, knocking all his things on the floor. “F—k you,” Goode said. “Trade me.” And he did, to Buffalo. A couple of years later, in Miami, Goode won the
When Bidwill fired coach Bud Wilkinson, the one-time legendary Oklahoma Sooners coach, after only two seasons, the owner came into the locker room to give the players a pep talk. Offensive lineman Keith Wortman interrupted. “Let me see if I got this straight,” he began. “You want us to work together collectively. Have you ever once thought of taking that approach to us as a team? You run this place like a goddamn cookie farm.”
After Bidwill walked out, Dierdorf came over to Wortman: “I have two things to say: What’s a cookie farm? And it was nice knowing you.” (But somehow, Wortman kept his job.)
No doubt, Bidwill had a reputation as one of the league’s stingiest owners. But the larger problem was that in the era before free agency, the players simply held no power in contract negotiations. The teams owned them. “We weren’t good negotiators,” Wortman says. “When we went on strike, half the guys would walk in.
“Football, by nature, is a do-as-you’re-told sport,” he continues. “Coaches are the end-all power. I guess in hindsight, it probably wasn’t surprising. Football players are lucky that the courts got involved [in granting free agency], or they’d still be screwed.”
Even long careers by football standards are short by real-world standards. The average NFL career lasts somewhere between three and six years. (That’s a point of contention between the league and the union, the NFL Players Association.) It’s a strange aspect of professional sports, men in their thirties being considered old, washed up.
DeMarco once confronted Bidwill’s brother about this aspect of the game. “We’re like a bunch of whores and prostitutes,” he said. “When our bodies give out, we’re done, and you guys get rid of us.”
This is how DeMarco describes the harsh reality of the NFL: “Three things are going to happen. 1. They’re going to draft somebody who’s really so good, you’re going to get beat out. 2. You’re going to get injured and your career is going to end. Or 3. you get so f—king old, it doesn’t matter.”
Mike Wood, who once held the NCAA record for field goals made, grew up in Kirkwood following the Cardinals. “You watch them on TV all those years and dream about it,” he says. “All of a sudden, you’re sitting in the same locker room with the same people you used to idolize and still do.”
But he always lamented seeing players get cut, their lockers emptying overnight. “It’s a pretty damn cold business,” he says. “It’s a meat market.”
His second year with the Big Red, “I was doing shitty again,” he says. Wilkinson called him into his office. “Woody, I love you kid,” the old coach said with tears in his eyes, a compassionate man in a cruel world. “I gotta let you go.”
“Aw, shit,” Wood said, feeling sorrier for Wilkinson than for himself.
He drove back to Kirkwood, where he was living with his best friend from high school, who worked the graveyard shift. When his buddy got home, he asked what Wood was doing there.
“I got bad news.”
“I got cut again,” Wood said, and suddenly he was the one with his heart in his hand, no idea what to do with himself.
“No shit,” his buddy said. “What the hell am I going to do for free tickets now?”
In chain restaurants and Irish bars and public libraries, on long-distance calls from fishing trips in Louisiana and summer homes in Michigan and retirement in Florida, the Big Red tell their stories. Ten of the 12 former players quoted in this story still live in St. Louis.
Sitting in his corner office at Otis & Clark Properties, the real-estate company he has built over the past 30 years using the principles he learned playing football, Otis looks ready to get back out on the field, wheeling around in his chair to diagram plays. His Cardinals helmet hangs on the wall, along with dozens of family photos. His son Jimmy won a national championship at Ohio State, just like Dad. His other son, Jeff, played quarterback in the NFL.
During his playing career, Roland was never interested in coaching, but after he retired, he didn’t know what to do with himself. “I still got a nasty, dirty habit,” he says. “I got to eat.” He became one of the most successful running-back coaches of the past few decades, working with Walter Payton, Emmitt Smith, and Jerome Bettis, among the leading rushers of all time.
Jackie Smith, who now works for Hobie Cat Company, designing and selling fishing boats, was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1994. Dierdorf went in two years later, 34 years after he and his father went to the groundbreaking. Until a couple of months ago, he and Hart had a steakhouse here in town. Dierdorf is also a prominent broadcaster and was on Monday Night Football for a dozen years. “Call me the next time somebody does it for 12 years,” he says. “It was a long run.”
Hart was the athletic director at his alma mater, SIUC, for many years, before retiring to Florida. DeMarco’s retired, too, his tan, leathery skin a sign of his several-times-a-week golf habit. Eric Williams worked for UPS for almost 28 years, starting as a driver and eventually becoming a manager. Wood is vice president of Stephens Floor Covering. Wortman has a marketing company that provides printing materials to beer distributors. Arneson does fire restoration. And Goode sells insurance, having closed his sporting-goods store when the feds made selling guns too big of a pain in the ass, he says.
Dobler was on the radio for a while, until everyone involved realized that a crude, crass guy who doesn’t follow sports wasn’t a great fit for a sports talk show. Now, he runs Superior Healthcare
Staffing, providing nurses and administering vaccinations for corporate customers.
The guys get together often. They have an annual Christmas party and various golf outings. Quite a few are outdoorsmen. Smith grew up in Louisiana, where he spent his childhood hunting and fishing, learning life on the river from a hermit he called Uncle Boots. When he became Goode’s roommate with the Cardinals, he couldn’t believe Goode had grown up in Kentucky and didn’t know how to hunt. “I thought you had to hunt in Kentucky if you wanted anything to eat,” Smith says.
Smith showed Goode the ropes, and when their days on the field finished, they continued to compete through hunting. One time, they were out hunting doves, positioned on opposite sides of a pond. If they both shot at the same bird, they’d look to see which side the bullet went through, so there was no doubt who had made the kill.
One time, Smith hit a dove and was feeling good about himself. “That’s your dove, because it’s not shot in the head,” Goode remarked. “I only shoot them in the head.”
“Bullshit,” Smith replied. “The next dove that comes by, if you shoot it, I’ll catch it.” Sure enough, a dove flew past, Goode shot it, and Smith ran out, catching it in the air with one hand, still a talented receiver.
Smith looked down at his hand and said, “Holy shit.” The dove didn’t have a head.
“It was just one of those lucky-ass deals,” Goode says, laughing.
There are teammates who haven’t fared quite as well, didn’t land on their feet after football. But the NFL is a fraternity, and the brothers protect one another. “I don’t want to mention names, because I don’t want to embarrass anybody,” Otis says.
And some have died, starting with tight end J.V. Cain, who collapsed because of a congenital heart failure during training camp in 1979. “I was right next to him when he fell during practice,” Otis says. “By the time he hit the turf, he was dead.”
Every retired NFL player knows exactly how much less money he made than the wealthy players of today.
Dierdorf uses Orlando Pace as an example. Like Dierdorf, Pace was an All-Pro tackle here, playing for the Rams from 1997 through 2008. In 2004, Pace and the Rams had a contract dispute, and he held out, skipping the off-season workouts and training camp. He signed a contract for roughly $7 million on the Monday before the first game. Then he practiced for the rest of the week, played on Sunday, and collected a game check, worth one-sixteenth of his salary. A week later, he played a second game, and earned another one-sixteenth of his salary. “In those 13 days, Orlando Pace made more than I made in my entire 13-year career,” Dierdorf says.
Dobler breaks it down to individual plays. Take that $7 million salary, divide it across 16 games, 60 plays per game, and Pace made more than $7,000 every time the team snapped the ball. Dobler’s salary was $17,500. They only played 14 games a season back then, but even so, he made about 20 bucks a snap. “That is an amazing statistic, isn’t it?” he says.
In 2005, Pace made $18 million.
Accounting for inflation makes up a bit of the difference. Dierdorf’s salary of $18,000 in 1971 would be worth just over $100,000 today. That’s still a far cry from the millions being made by current stars, but it might make you feel a little less sorry for the retirees.
Still, it’s worth factoring in their short window of earnings potential. Making a salary of $100,000 over a 40-year career as an investment banker or engineer, you are in pretty good shape compared to most Americans. Making that money for, say, seven years, then being left to fend for yourself with a bum knee for a few decades, that’s a little more dicey.
To fully explain all the nuances of the NFL’s pension system, we’d need a lot more pages than are in this magazine. The long-story-short version is that the pensions are based on how long you played and what the collective bargaining agreement was at the time. Generally, the older the player, the worse the pension.
The pensions increased with the most recent collective bargaining agreement, which formed the Legacy Fund to help former players. Before that, some guys who played in the early days of the NFL were receiving only a couple hundred dollars a month. Now, the minimum is set at $600, which still isn’t a fortune.
Williams says his pension amounts to about $3,000 a month. His pension from UPS is about the same. Arneson’s pension pays him $39,000 a year. It’s about half of what baseball players get, the NFL retirees are quick to point out. And it’s not nearly as much as what’s been promised to current NFL players, even though they may not need it anyway, since they’re making millions.
Beyond the specific dollar amounts, the older guys just feel disrespected by the owners and current players, who they say haven’t done enough to help them. It was the players of the ’60s and ’70s who sacrificed to make the game the multibillion-dollar business that it is today. They just want to share in that success.
“We’re the ones who built the game,” DeMarco says, “and they shit all over us.”
If those pension figures don’t seem so bad, here’s the rub: healthcare costs.
The NFL doesn’t provide health insurance for these former players. (Current players receive five years of health insurance after they retire.) If your football career ends at age 30, you’ve got a long time to wait for Medicare, and for retired players who are self-employed or out of work, premiums are astronomical. These guys are walking preexisting conditions, and the insurance companies know it.
Arneson pays $1,170 a month for himself and his wife, with a $5,000 deductible for each of them. For Wortman, it’s $2,100 a month, plus $6,000 deductibles. Suddenly, that $3,000 pension is cut in half, and the $600 pension is spent and then some.
But given the number and severity of their health issues, they’re probably costing insurance companies more than they’re paying them.
Upon viewing an X-ray, a doctor once told DeMarco, “It looks like a hand grenade went off in your elbow.”
Dierdorf has covered the entire joint-replacement bingo board, limping around on two artificial hips and two artificial knees. “I’ve never met anybody else who’s got all four,” he says. “If you saw me walk, you would probably go, ‘Wow, that’s not good.’”
Hart isn’t doing much better. He had back surgery in 2006 and again in 2010. In 2011, he had right-hip surgery and another back surgery. He had his left hip replaced in February, and now that brand of hip is being recalled. He walks with a cane. “My body is falling apart,” he says.
Dobler has endured nine total knee replacements and so many other knee surgeries that he’s lost count. A staph infection in one knee nearly cost him a leg, and doctors have told him that any further knee trouble will mean amputation. “They look like I got in a knife fight with a midget,” he says. “If I go on the beach, the small kids would jump in the shark-infested water if they saw me walking toward them with those knees.”
Several years ago, Dobler’s wife fell a few feet out of a hammock, a seemingly minor accident, and was paralyzed from the neck down. As their medical bills mounted, golfer Phil Mickelson heard about the family’s plight and paid for college for Dobler’s daughter.
While the NFL won’t pay for insurance, the league and various associated charities do have programs that will pay for certain medical procedures if retirees can demonstrate a need, but to qualify, you have to be “destitute,” as DeMarco puts it. There are also discounts at the dentist’s office or even restaurants available to players, but Goode says he can get better deals through AAA.
“The NFL is doing all these wonderful things for us,” he says, “and they’re all bullshit.”
One avenue players have used to receive help with their medical bills is in danger of being shut down: workers’ compensation. Professional football players don’t tend to think of themselves as workers, as a matter of vocabulary. They’re players, not employees; teammates, not colleagues.
So in the ’60s and ’70s, it never occurred to them that they might qualify for workers’ comp. By the time they figured it out, the statute of limitations was up. But one state, California, had a unique set of laws that allowed them to file claims. There was no statute of limitations, and players only needed to have played one game in California to qualify.
Some Big Red players still have pending claims, including Hart and DeMarco, whose doctors ruled he was 51 percent impaired. Others have already been through the process. Dierdorf, Williams, and Dobler all received settlements. Dobler was declared 98 percent physically incapacitated.
At press time, a bill was working its way through the California State Legislature that would close what advocates say is a loophole in the system. Despite efforts by players to impress upon lawmakers the fact that teams and their insurance companies pay the settlements, not taxpayers, the bill passed an initial vote 57–1 in May.
The idea that repeated blows to the head could have negative consequences for athletes is hardly new. We’ve known that repeated concussions could lead to dementia in boxers since the early 20th century. Back then, it was called dementia pugilistica, or punch-drunkenness. Now, it’s chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
Neuropathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu diagnosed the first case of CTE in an NFL player in 2002. He analyzed the brain of “Iron” Mike Webster, who suffered from amnesia, dementia, and depression before dying at age 50. In his analysis, Omalu observed the sort of brain damage previously associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill showed that repeated concussions in football players “may be risk factors for the expression of late-life memory impairment, mild cognitive impairment, and earlier expression of Alzheimer’s.”
Then players started shooting themselves. Former Philadelphia Eagle and Arizona Cardinal Andre Waters committed suicide in 2006 at age 44. Omalu said his brain tissue had deteriorated into that of an 85-year-old. Former NFL safety Dave Duerson shot himself in the chest in 2011, after sending his family a text message asking them to donate his brain to Boston University, where neurologists diagnosed him with CTE.
Last year, a group of researchers at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, did a study analyzing causes of death among NFL retirees. The study was just a first step, but it found that while the players had lower overall mortality rates than the general population, their mortality as a result of neurodegenerative disorders was greatly increased. “The rate of death in our study population was about three times higher than you would expect to see in a comparable population in the general public,” says NIOSH researcher Everett Lehman.
Dr. David Brody is the director of the Concussion Clinic at Washington University, as well as site director for the NFL Neurological Care Program. He’s working on developing MRI and other imaging methods that can detect concussions. Of CTE, the neurologist says: “We’re recognizing clearly that there is a neurodegenerative syndrome that occurs in players who have had multiple concussions. It involves changes in personality and poor decision-making and depression and oftentimes suicide.”
But he also warns that the science of CTE still has a long way to go. It’s unclear why one former player gets CTE, while another gets Alzheimer’s, while a third has no trouble at all, despite sustaining several concussions. Perhaps other factors—such as alcoholism, steroid use, or genetics—play a part. There’s much that we don’t know, Brody says, including exactly how dangerous football is.
Back in 1994, the NFL formed what it called the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee. Rather than choosing a noted neurologist, the league appointed Dr. Elliot Pellman, a rheumatologist, to lead the group. For more than a decade, with Pellman in charge, the committee put out reports and studies saying that concern about head injuries was overblown. Pellman resigned as chairman amid controversy in 2007, but the committee hardly changed its tune. Another member, Ira Casson, went on HBO’s Real Sports in 2009. He was asked whether there was “any evidence” linking head injuries in football to depression (“No”), dementia (“No”), Alzheimer’s (“No”), or any long-term problem whatsoever (“No”).
At that point, Congress hauled the NFL brass in for a chat. Congresswoman Linda Sánchez tore the league apart, comparing it to Big Tobacco, profiting from a product that’s killing people and telling them there’s nothing to worry about. Since that hearing, the NFL has scrambled to clean up its act, donating millions to research, changing rules to limit blows to the head, and instituting guidelines for when a player can return to play after a concussion.
But by then, the damage was done. Players began filing concussion lawsuits against the NFL in 2011. Soon, suits were being filed across the country. Now, they have been combined, and more than 4,000 players have signed on. Among them are Arneson, DeMarco, Dobler, Goode, Roland, Williams, Wood, and Wortman.
The Big Red players give differing reasons for signing on to the concussion lawsuits. For one, they’re worried about their brains. They’re still sharp—Roland can recite basically the entire roster of every team he ever played for or coached. But Arneson’s short-term memory isn’t what it once was. Williams goes to the refrigerator and can’t remember why. Of course, those things happen to all of us, even the nonconcussed. And these guys aren’t getting younger.
“I don’t know if that’s just what happens when you grow old, if it’s from concussions, or a combination of what,” Arneson says. “I don’t know if it’s from football, but I think a degree of it is.”
Goode will be driving down the interstate and forget where he’s going. He is participating in a program at Wash. U., run by Dr. John Morris, tracking people’s brain function as they age. The 72-year-old underwent a set of baseline exams earlier this year, getting scans and taking tests. Goode plans to donate his brain to that program.
Some former players say trainers and coaches weren’t malicious, just ignorant. “How many fingers?” was the best they could do at the time. But others feel misled, especially by Pellman’s committee. “The NFL did lie to us,” Goode contends.
According to Paul Anderson, a lawyer from Kansas City who runs a website, NFL Concussion Litigation (nflconcussionlitigation.com), dedicated to following the lawsuit, the players allege that “the NFL knew ever since its inception that concussions were dangerous, that repetitive head trauma can lead to later-life cognitive decline, yet instead of informing the players, the NFL turned a blind eye.”
The NFL filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. Their claim, Anderson says, is that this is “fundamentally a labor dispute over workplace health and safety.” If that’s true, then the disagreement should be settled by an arbiter as part of collective bargaining.
In April, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told CNN, “Any allegation that the NFL intentionally sought to mislead players has no merit.” The league didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The players, unsurprisingly, reject the notion that this is a labor issue. They aren’t saying the collective bargaining agreement was breached; they’re saying that their basic human rights were.
At press time, U.S. District Judge Anita Brody was expected to rule on the motion on July 22.
Meanwhile, players keep dying. Ray Easterling, one of the leading plaintiffs in the concussion lawsuit, committed suicide a few months after filing. Legendary Chargers linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest last year. The National Institutes of Health diagnosed him with CTE.
“I see guys 10, 15 years younger than me that their brains are so scrambled, they’re committing suicide,” says the 63-year-old Wortman, “and they’re doing it with the full intent of having their brains studied, because they know something is terribly wrong.”
The Big Red retirees have various opinions about the rule changes the NFL has made to protect players. Otis thinks the league hasn’t gone far enough to eliminate hits to the head, while Wood worries that the game is getting too soft.
Most think the changes represent steps in the right direction, but admit that no matter what you do, concussions will be part of football. “I think the NFL has made some real strides in trying to do away with unnecessary violent concussions,” Dierdorf says. “You can’t take hard hits out of the game. It wouldn’t be football anymore.”
Arneson concurs: “If you play in the NFL, you’re going to get concussions. There’s no question about it. It’s a violent, violent game.”
They all agree that compared to players in their day, today’s athletes have it made, with their eight-figure salaries, state-of-the-art medical care, mandated limits on practice times, gleaming training facilities… “If I were playing today, I would be in the lap of luxury compared to what it was when I played,” Dierdorf says.
And if you transported modern players back to the age of head slaps, leg whips, cut blocks to the knees, and clotheslines, “I think half the guys playing today would have probably quit,” DeMarco says.
Another thing they all agree on is that, if given the chance, they would go back and do it all over again, crummy pensions, concussions, and all.
“I wouldn’t change nothing,” Williams says. “Being a football player, that was my dream.”
Besides, Arneson says, “America loves football.”
It’s one thing to say that you would relive your glory days, but these guys have grandkids now. Would they encourage them to play football, in light of what we’re learning about head injuries?
For Dierdorf, who between his playing days and broadcast career has been in an NFL stadium every fall Sunday for more than 40 years, the answer is easy. “I still think it’s the best game ever,” he says. “If it’s coached properly and played properly, it’s a worthwhile endeavor.”
DeMarco has one grandson who’s into mountain-biking and soccer. He’s not pushing him to play football. But his other grandson might want to. “He’s sort of a hothead,” DeMarco says. “He may play. He’s crazy. But you gotta be half crazy to play the game.” If he does, Grandpa will be there to cheer him on. Would he worry about concussions? “Not really.”
Roland’s grandson plays for Oakville High School. He’s not concerned. “He could walk across the street and get hit by a car,” Roland says. “We don’t know how we’re going to go anyway.” But is football worth the risk? “Absolutely.”
Williams has one grandson, also named Eric. He’s starting to play football, and his grandfather is anticipating the day when he can “hit somebody as hard as his grandpa did… I don’t want him to be timid, not playing football.”
The lone dissenting vote comes from Jackie Smith. He wouldn’t forbid his grandsons from playing football. He’s simply not in the business of telling them what to do. But he sleeps easier at night knowing they have other interests.
“I don’t need to see them out there playing that game,” he says. “I had a lot of fun with it. But if there’s this much controversy and this much doubt about what these type of injuries can cause you later in life, why would you even take a damn chance? That I don’t understand.”