On a coffee table at his suburban Dallas home, Tony Dorsett recently laid out two pages of color-coded images for a reporter from the Associated Press, saying they show how his brain is slowly dying. The images were brain scans, and Dorsett said doctors told him the red parts indicate his brain's left lobe—which affects organization and memory—is getting insufficient oxygen.
The 57-year-old Heisman Trophy winner and Hall of Fame running back went on to tell the AP he sometimes forgets people's names, or where he's going when he's out driving. And he thinks he knows why: Despite being "knocked out" or "dazed" several times during his 12-year career with the Dallas Cowboys, and despite enduring several other injuries that resulted in excruciating pain, Dorsett often continued to play. In one instance, during a 1984 game against the Eagles, Dorsett endured the hardest hit he ever took and said the team even thought he was "half-dead." But...
And yet, he says, after being examined in the locker room—a light shined in his eyes; queries such as who sat next to him on the Cowboys' bus ride to the stadium—Dorsett returned to the field and gained 99 yards in the second half. Mainly, he says, by running plays the wrong way, because he couldn't remember what he was supposed to do.
Dorsett, who's had surgery on both knees and difficulties with his left arm and right wrist, related another story about how Tom Landry, the late Cowboys coach, once made him play despite a broken back. Another time, he said he was "squealing like a pig" so loudly after taking hits during a game that players on the other team implored his coaches to take him out. They didn't. Dorsett summed up his feelings about the NFL this way:
"They use you up. No matter what the circumstances are, it's all about winning games, football games, regardless."
More than 300 former NFL players, including Dorsett, are part of 20 or so different lawsuits against the league and the helmet maker Riddell, for unspecified damages. They claim the NFL showed little-to-no regard for the well-being of players back in the day. And just in time for the Super Bowl—that sparkling showcase of the league's global reach, fiscal strength, and vibrant health—several of those former players going back several decades spoke to the AP and described a culture that's much darker when the cameras aren't rolling:
- "Midnight snack" buffets at a team hotel the night before games that would consist not only of food and drink, but also painkillers so that, as Rory Graves, an Oakland Raiders offensive lineman from 1988-91, puts it, "The next day, you feel like a kid. You could run into a car - no pain! You didn't feel nothing."
- Cans of beer tucked into airplane seat pockets before players would board, so they'd have something at the ready to wash down the prescription drugs such as the painkiller Vicodin (commonly called "footballs" by players because of their oblong shape) or the muscle relaxant Flexeril ("home plates" because they're pentagons) disbursed freely by someone coming down the aisle on team flights. "We took those drugs because we wanted to play, but there was nobody stopping us," Turley says. "We're young. We're 10 feet tall. Nothing can harm us. If you're giving it to us, we're going to take it."
- Widespread and regular use of Toradol, a medicine intended for pain relief, generally after an operation, and a central part of one of the lawsuits that says the drug could put someone with a head injury at increased risk. "If it wasn't torn or it wasn't broken, to me, Toradol fixed it and allowed me to keep going. I was so used to using it that I wanted to make it a weekly ritual to make sure that if I did get hurt, I wouldn't have to be taken out of the game," says Joe Horn, who estimated he got four or five concussions during a career in which he caught more than 600 passes for the Chiefs, Saints and Falcons from 1996-2007. "To be honest with you, we were kind of - what's the word for it? - addicted. But I always thought it was OK; the NFL doctors were giving it to us."
- Being scorned by teammates or coaches if unable to return to a game because of injury, and a seeming total dismissal, particularly in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, of the notion that head trauma could cause significant problems, immediately or long term. "Get back out there" was a phrase repeated by the ex-players, citing words they heard during practices or games. As Joe Harris, a linebacker with five teams from 1977-82, says: "I know I had nine or 10 concussions, because I played through them. A lot of times, I'm out there and I was dazed, and I heard guys say, 'He's knocked out, and he don't even know it.' And then you talk to your coach, and they bring out smelling salts. 'Give him a hit of that, and put him back out on the field.' And they show you fingers, and you say it's three when it's two. And they say, 'Get back out there. Just hit the one in the middle.'"
- A day-to-day, post-football existence that is difficult because of, for some, depression, dementia, migraine headaches, memory lapses, along with balky hips and knees and shoulders. "My body hurts all the time," says Mark Duper, who caught more than 500 passes as a wide receiver with Dan Marino's Miami Dolphins from 1982-92. Duper is more concerned, though, about the ringing in his ears, the loss of memory, "having a conversation and, all of a sudden, I just forget what I'm talking about."
The NFL also does not provide lifetime medical insurance for current or former players. The AP noted that the NFLPA did not seek it during last year's lockout because it would cost up to $50 million (for an industry with revenues totaling more than $9 billion) and claimed current laws cover pre-existing conditions for most players. But Dennis Harrah, a former All-Pro lineman who played for the Los Angeles Rams in the '70s and '80s, said there are Hall of Famers out there who made just hundreds of dollars a month and are now stuck without health insurance.
"They're just waiting until we die," he says of the NFL. "They're just waiting for us old guys until we pass - to quit complaining, and we die."