Hoard chronicles his post-career pain

Leroy Hoard, the tough running back who used to run through the Vikings' opposition, is now dealing with debilitating pain running through his head. Hoard explained his plight to ESPN's "Outside the Lines" and his pain shows through with his words and actions.

For all of the drivel that ESPN spews out – from Skip Bayless to Stephen A. Smith debates – the self-proclaimed "worldwide leader in sports" can consistently deliver tear-inducing moments on its program "Outside the Lines." By definition, the show takes the viewer beyond the X's and O's and into the reality version of the NFL.

Last Sunday, OTL did a story on former Viking Leroy Hoard, which proved to be a cautionary tale about those who loved the game and gave all of their physical capability. Hoard was known to old-school NFL types as "a banger" – a player who opted to run through defenders rather than around them. It made Hoard a 10-year NFL veteran. His career was highlighted in 1999 when he scored 10 rushing touchdowns as a short-yardage replacement for Robert Smith.

The cheering has subsided for Hoard. If it returned, it would likely give him a headache.

Like so many other former NFL players, Hoard is suffering the repercussions of being a tough guy in a sport defined by tough guys. The story arc of Hoard's recent experience is notebooks that he keeps as a short-term journal to jot down cogent thoughts that hit his memory. It's not a "Beautiful Mind" scenario. It's a "Desperate Mind."

"I don't know what things I'm going to remember or not," Hoard said.

Melanie Hoard been married to Leroy for three years. When they started dating, she said Hoard had "an impeccable memory." Now, she finds notes everywhere – constant reminders to Hoard in the event he forgets to do things as mundane as paying a monthly bill.

Hoard explained his plight, but rationalized to OTL, saying, "It sucks, but it could have been worse. I could have been one of those three guys."

Those three guys are Andre Waters, Dave Duerson and Junior Seau – three former NFL players who took their own lives through gun-related suicides. Waters killed himself in 2006 with a bullet through the brain. Both Duerson and Seau committed suicide with gunshots to the chest – leaving their brains intact to be studied by researchers.

"I don't own a gun," Hoard said. "That may be the only reason why I'm here right now."

The symptoms that are being repeated over and over again by former NFL players manifested themselves in Hoard. He found solace in his former teammate Smith – a player who was generally viewed as aloof by media and teammates alike. However, at a group photo op of former Vikings for a 40th anniversary All-Vikings team in 2000, Smith told Viking Update that he was troubled by some of the Vikings greats he saw. They were men whose physical health was so deteriorated that getting from the Metrodome entrance to the floor was a significant issue.

When Smith noticed a change in Hoard, who had become a close friend, he took an active presence in Hoard's life – being a constant in a world that was changing significantly for the worse. Smith served as a life preserver for Hoard as one day morphed into the next as the increasing pain and problems mounted.

"I was getting these pains and these headaches I had never had before in my life," Hoard told OTL. "I was miserable. I don't know if I needed somebody to solve my problems as much as I just needed somebody to listen."

How severe was the pain?

"It feels like somebody's taking a sledgehammer and hitting me in the head," Hoard said. "Sometimes it I get dizzy. Sometimes it rings. Sometimes it's unbelievable."

To escape the agonizing pain, Hoard told OTL he often sits in a room with no light – the bathroom in the interior of his home is his sanctuary. He can't even hit the fan switch because doing so "goes through me like a knife." He has sat in life depravation for up to three hours – shutting down all of his senses in complete darkness to alleviate the pain.

Perhaps the most telling portion of the battle former NFL players have is admitting they're not immune to the lingering effects that happened to others. That was exemplified by how Hoard responded to the question of how he felt at the moment – in a brightly lit two-camera interview to film the subject and a three-second shot of the interviewer needlessly nodding in response to the answer.

Hoard was honest. Painfully honest.

"Like crap," Hoard said. "My legs are broken down. I can't feel my toes. I can't feel (my right) arm. I'm getting a headache from these damn lights."

But he wasn't done answering the rhetorical "you'll never understand what I'm going through" type of question asked of a professional athlete. Hoard finished his response, "Other than that, I feel great" – flashing a fake smile that said more than his words could express as quickly as it appeared and disappeared.

His wife summed up the feelings of many spouses of former NFL players. The man she loves is still there, but he's changing and, barring a medical breakthrough, hindsight may view these as comparative good times.

"It will only get worse and that's scary," Melanie Hoard said. "That is very scary, because I know that one day I will transition from a wife to a caregiver."

Hoard feels much the same resignation that his situation will be one that future generations look back upon with shock that things were so primitive medically at a time when advancements in the understanding of concussions was becoming so clear. Hoard wasn't going to be one of "those guys." Things haven't gotten any better. They've gotten worse. It's made Hoard a loving apologist.

"I tell my wife I don't know if you've seen the worst I'm going to be," Hoard said. "But I'm sorry in advance. I don't know."

While ESPN is better known for Disney-fying former NFL players and clowning up the tough-guy image of the NFL, Hoard's story on "Outside the Lines" hammered home the point that there are many more casualties than success stories. It's yet another wake-up call for the band of NFL brothers to watch out for each other. Hoard is fighting the good fight. But not everyone has his resolve, even if they share the same experience. If nothing else, Hoard's story is ongoing. It's not like that of Waters, Duerson or Seau. He's still here. So are countless others who are getting the initial symptoms that will worsen over time. His plea is painfully obvious – keep your eyes open and don't forget.

The shine of the NFL spotlight fades. The reality of the darkness that follows that dimming is something Hoard's story (and Waters', Duerson's and Seau's) brings home. It's a problem that is going to get worse before it gets better.

"I just think that people say, ‘he seemed like he was alright,'" Hoard said. "And I think, ‘Shame on you. Shame on you.' If you think something's wrong, something's wrong. Dig into it. You could be saving a person's life."

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.

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