Birk, Ditka Enlist Help for NFL Alumni

Pro Bowl center Matt Birk is taking on another charitable cause by contributing $25,000 and a lot of publicity to Gridiron Greats, a young organization whose mission is to help former NFL players now in dire need because of health problems or homelessness. Birk was joined by current and past players as they implored the help of others.

Current and former Minnesota Vikings gathered along with former Chicago Bears player and coach Mike Ditka and Kansas City Chiefs offensive lineman Kyle Turley to raise awareness of a rift between the NFL, the NFL Players Association and its alumni.

Some of those alumni have joined forces to form Gridiron Greats, a charitable organization that is dedicated to the humanitarian side of the post-football related issues, according to its website,

Turley became one of the first active players to contact Gridiron Greats a couple weeks ago, according to executive assistant Jennifer Smith, and on Tuesday Matt Birk, several of his teammates and Vikings alumni gathered at Birk's Minneapolis restaurant, Matty B's, to donate money to Gridiron Greats, implore other active players to donate a portion of their Dec. 23 game checks, and tell the stories of how some former NFL players are unable to get disability assistance from the league and NFLPA despite "dire need."

"A lot of the players that we are caring for are players who are not receiving their full disability benefits or are being turned away by the league and the union for charitable contributions to help them with food, medicine, clothing and shelter," Smith said.

Turley contacted Gridiron Greats two weeks ago and said he wanted to donate his Dec. 23 game check to the cause, but he also wanted to involve other active players to help the plight of many NFL alumni who need assistance. Birk joined those efforts by donating $25,000 to the fund, and he and Turley are imploring the rest of the league to join their efforts by donating a portion of their paycheck from a day that is being dubbed "Gridiron Guardian Sunday" on Dec. 23.

Current Vikings Steve Hutchinson, Ryan Cook, Anthony Herrera, Ben Leber and Marcus Johnson were also in attendance, and former Vikings Ed Marinaro, Paul Krause, Jim Marshall and Chuck Foreman offered their support, appreciation and stories of life in the NFL as a player and an alumnus.

Turley said he's received support from his teammates as well, with players like Tony Gonzales, Larry Johnson, Jason Dunn, John Welbourne contributing to the cause. So are other players around the league, with Turley mentioning Kawika Mitchell of the New York Giants and Ephrain Salaam of the Houston Texans.

"This is an issue that resonates throughout each locker room," Turley said. "… This is something that will mark our legacy as National Football (League) players and it's something that's stressed to us every day that we go to work – ‘What is your legacy going to be?' To me, as I sat this year and this football season, I couldn't let it go by as these issues stood in place and knowing that as a union representative myself that a point and time in my career these issues are going to continue going ignored and continue to strap mandates on when they need to be seriously operated on by skilled physicians. This thing needs to be fixed and we're demanding as active players that it be fixed. From (NFLPA executive director) Gene Upshaw to (NFL commissioner) Roger Goodell, stand with us. Stand alongside these men that played this great game."

Birk and others acknowledged that they have publicly criticized Upshaw in the past, but current and past players alike stressed on Tuesday that the issue is bigger than any one person and needs to get solved so former players who are homeless or hurting can receive disability assistance.

"Personally, I've been critical of some of the leadership before. Certainly with recent things that have come out in the paper, people are critical of Mike Ditka and the work he is doing here, but this isn't about any one particular person and I think it's time that we kind of stop that rhetoric and that game," Birk said.

Ditka's Hall of Fame Assistance Trust Fund is being disbanded, Ditka said, after USA Today reported last week that the fund had collected $1.3 million but netted about $315,000 after expenses and distributed only $57,000 to former players. Ditka said the fund had distributed about three times that amount, but he said the fund's balance would be divided and given to three chartable efforts, including about $200,000 to Gridiron Greats.

But Tuesday was a day for current and past Vikings to donate to the fund and tell stories of those whose health has been affected by their playing days.

Turley cited Jim Marshall's 20 years of service and the pain he still suffers from his injuries and sacrifices. Marshall, however, preferred to deflect the stories to former teammates and opponents from his playing days.

"The Minnesota Vikings, we were a tight-knit group and we now have players that are committing suicide, guys who are homeless on the street. We've got a guy that's in the nursing home that we go to see on a regular basis that's had strokes because of too many concussions – and he's not getting any help whatsoever," Marshall said, a reference to former offensive lineman Brent Boyd, whose plight was chronicled in the November issue of Viking Update The Magazine.

Marshall called the system a "pipeline that sends you out into a minefield" to try to receive assistance.

"We are all pledged to do whatever we can to help the players who are disabled, who are in dire situations, and we will continue to do that, but the National Football League has a responsibility too," Marshall said. "The National Football League Players Association, the association that we all worked so hard to put together so that we could have support in this time in our lives when we were finished with football, it is not working. It is not doing what it should be doing."

Turley said if the league took $1 from each ticket sold for NFL games in one week, it would raise $3 million, or if every player in the league would donate $5,000 to the Gridiron Guardian Sunday on Dec. 23, it would raise $8 million.

"Before I came into this league in 1998, I remember this league being described as a brotherhood that no matter who you were, when you played, how long you played, once you were part of the NFL as a player, you were part of that for life," Birk said. "As players today, we definitely stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us. We're reaping a lot of the benefits of the price that was paid by those players that have come before us and we cannot forget that. Right now, there are players who, through no fault of their own, are in dire need because of circumstances that have occurred because of their participation in football.

"As a player, when you strap on a helmet on Sundays and play, you know that there is a risk involved. You accept the fact that one day you might walk with a limp or you might have a scar to show people, but the price that has been paid by some is way too high and way too much and consequently has put them in dire need. Us as active players need to step up and reach out to our own, and first and foremost need to let them know that we are there, that we are not turning our backs on them, we are not forgetting about them."

Gridiron Greats is not even a year old, and Smith said that alumni who have contacted them are especially grateful to have someone return their phone calls within 24 hours and turning around their applications within seven days.

"Guys that need help, they can't wait 45 days. They can't wait three months. They can't wait five years to get their disability," Smith said, referring to the stories of past players being put off when seeking disability assistance from the NFLPA. "This isn't just an issue regarding disability. It's the way that people, players, are treated once you are no longer a player and no use to the game."

Krause said that every time he speaks out on the subject, he gets in trouble. But that didn't stop him from telling a story that illustrated the tough-guy mentality that was and still sometimes is associated with the league.

In 1978, Krause said he was knocked out in the first quarter of a game in Detroit and regained consciousness with a minute or two to go in the game. He said he was "dragged" off the football field, put on the airplane to Minneapolis with his uniform on and said he played the next game.

The following season, Krause said he was told he had a cracked vertebrae.

"One hit could have been deadly," Krause said before joking that "fortunately I didn't hit anybody," a reference to his reputation among some that he avoided contact from his safety position.

"Above everything else, this is a humanitarian issue," Birk said, saying there is no reason that the National Football League, in a time of great wealth, should have their former players going through dire need without assistance.

"Down the road, when these injuries start to turn full circle on you later in your years, you would hope that … that support would be reciprocated when these injures come about," Turley said.

Former Jacksonville Jaguars offensive lineman Brian DeMarco is one player highlighted on the Gridiron Greats web site. DeMarco was a star offensive lineman for the Jacksonville Jaguars during that franchise's formative years. Now, according to the web site, "his back is fractured in 17 places, his elbows were both shattered, and he has significant nerve damage. Often times his hands do not work and he loses all feeling from them."

DeMarco has suffered a minimum of 12 concussions and suffered from headaches and tremors, explains. He has tried to contact the NFLPA more than 100 times and no longer receives assistance despite being homeless three times in the past two years and living in a storage facility, according to the site, which also explained that DeMarco and his wife have gone days without eating in order to feed their two children.

"No matter how (the NFL and NFLPA) try to sugarcoat this issue and what they've accomplished and what they're working towards, it's still a very serious problem and there are still guys that are in very dire need of serious help," Turley said.

"Quit the bickering and the fighting and resolve this problem immediately."

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