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The average pro career is short but lucrative (average annual pay: $1.1 million). Because there are just 53 jobs on an active NFL roster, however, holding on to one of them requires not only supreme athleticism but also the ability to play in pain, whether it's a twisted knee, a broken finger or a bruised brain. Coaches and fans, of course, laud hard hitters. "Guys don't think about life down the road," says Harry Carson, a Hall of Fame ex-linebacker who has postconcussion symptoms like headaches. "They want the car. They want the bling. They want to have a nice life."
The Players' Crusade
Carson is one of a growing number of former pros who have begun to petition the NFL for help in dealing with their deteriorating health and finances. Carson and Kyle Turley, a former NFL offensive lineman who has had postconcussive symptoms like vomiting, vertigo and headaches, have emerged as advocates for improved health care benefits for retired players. Dwight Harrison, an NFL player for 10 years who retired in 1980, symbolizes football's blight. His postconcussion syndrome has robbed him of short-term memory and left him severely depressed. He lives in a trailer in Texas.
Though some former players have been making their cases for years, the NFL has until recently downplayed any link between football head trauma and cognitive decline. In 2009, after a study sponsored by the league showed evidence that retired players had long-term mental trauma, and after more damaged players came forward, Congress stepped in. At one hearing, Representative Linda Sanchez, a Democrat from California, compared the NFL's stance on concussions to tobacco companies' denial that smoking causes lung cancer. Others have taken up the players' cause, like Gay Culverhouse, the terminally ill former president of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who has established an outreach program for those needing assistance.
The NFL has finally acknowledged the potential long-term consequences of concussions and taken first steps toward addressing the problem. Now an NFL player who sustains a concussion cannot return to the game that day. Since 2007 the NFL and its players' union have spent some $7 million on health care expenses for retirees with dementia or Alzheimer's.
Help is already too late for Tom McHale, one of the CTE victims Hadley examined in McKee's lab. A nine-year NFL vet who became an ebullient restaurateur after he retired in 1995, McHale suddenly lost interest in his work--and life--about four years ago. He couldn't focus, fought addictions to painkillers and cocaine, and died of a drug overdose at a friend's apartment in 2008. McHale was 45. "He went in, lay down and didn't wake up," says his widow Lisa, a mother of three sons, ages 15, 12 and 10. "God, if you would have known him ... The fact that he won't be around to raise his boys--that's the hardest thing."
How to Fix Football