Lurtsema's Reaction: The Disability Rift

The press conference held Tuesday with Matt Birk, Kyle Turley and Mike Ditka brought awareness to the problems some NFL alumni have faced in getting disability payments. Former Viking Bob Lurtsema attended the event and has his reaction and insight to the problems the old-time NFL players face.

VU: I thought the presentation at Tuesday's Gridiron Greats press conference at Matty B's was very good, but do you think that the changes the NFL is starting to make are going to be enough for the old-time veterans to get them the payments they need?

BL: Absolutely not. The best part of that thing was the awareness factor. The owners have to step up. The owners haven't really done much yet. If you do play, and the average career expectancy is between 3.4 and 3.6 years, people don't realize that over 70 percent of those players have some type of permanent disability. Going into that situation, the old-timers like Ditka and me, and even the owners, have to help the younger players because when you're young like that, you think you're never going to get hurt. You don't look beyond your youth, and that's the way it should be to a large degree because you want to enjoy those younger years while you're healthy. It's our responsibility – the old-timers and the owners – to protect these young players knowing that they're going to become our ages and they're going to have some type of disability where they need our help. They're not going to be able to do the things they are capable of doing now.

Some of the alumni players are so bad that they can't even hold a job. There is dementia out there and there are so many different joint replacements due to football, which all of the sudden changes their job structure. I think anybody that is reading this right now realizes that if they couldn't do what they are doing now or are forced into something that they didn't like and had to do it to survive, they wouldn't enjoy life as much as they can. And these players should get a second chance.

When people read this and say, ‘Well, they're rich and they're that,' maybe they are now. OK, that's a different situation. But when we played we didn't make a lot of money. Yes, it was good money, but we played for the love of the game. Now with the money they're giving these younger players, a lot of them are just throwing it away and wasting it in so many different ways – like spending $40,000 on a set of hubcaps. They can do whatever they want with their money, but it's a billion-dollar industry. We're not talking about 10,000 people; we're talking 300 or 400 alumni that need help. Obviously, as they're getting older, they're checking out to see the good Lord, so that number is going to dwindle. But these people now, they're going to be in our situation and the owners should respect them enough – because they're making all the money in the world for them – to give them a good enough policy to cover them in their later years.

VU: What are some of the issues that need to be corrected here?

BL: The coverages, the qualifications and the wording and the opinions – it's such a long process and there is no direct, concrete rule. In other words, if you qualify for this, this and this, you receive X amount. These people are qualifying for this, this and this, but they don't get X amount because of something else that offsets some other rules. There are so many general rules for the average person to look into, there is so much fine print that destroys the general rules.

VU: Are there any stories that you heard that might help fans relate to what sort of problems these alumni are going through?

BL: Well, there was Peggy Turk, whose husband Dan died of cancer. After eight months of following him around, he still couldn't get the drugs he needed because there was so much paperwork. And you hear about Mike Webster shooting himself and the other suicidal guys. You hear about Jackie Wallace, the old Viking, living in Miami underneath the highway. He was living with no money whatsoever, dead broke. Paul Dixon, he's bent over and in a walker and can't around at all because of the injuries. There will be more and more popping up. The same with Jim Marshall. Bill Brown is in so much pain with his back from the injuries and playing. He's having another operation. He's had his hips replaced because of football – they're all football-related. And the sad part? Bill Brown is in a lot of pain and won't say boo. In the same breath we talk about this, we're going against how we feel because it was an honor to play. Whatever we got from football, we thought we were stealing because it was so much fun and the fan base was so much fun to be around. Our attitude was, ‘Hey, if you get hurt, if you had a bad knee, you put on aspirin on it, put a band-aid over the aspirin and you go back and play. That's the way it was.

Even Kyle Turley, he's getting numbness and he's not sure how he's going to be covered and that's why he's involved so much. He's a current player with an injury that's going to force him to retire. He said, ‘I can get through it on Sundays with adrenaline,' but you see he's got that attitude. When he was released, because he was ‘Physically Unable to Perform,' he tried to qualify for some disability insurance and he couldn't get it. They cut him and then he signed with Kansas City. He couldn't qualify and so that's why he went back. He said he had to qualify with 20 percent permanent disability and he had 17 percent permanent disability. Well, who is coming up with these percentages?

VU: How much blame do the old alumni put on the NFL doctors? Do you feel like they were being at all truthful with you when they informed you of injuries that you had? I know Paul Krause related the story of the broken vertebrae that he had that wasn't diagnosed for almost a year. Is there resentment toward the NFL doctors?

BL: No. Some players might have resentment if they are a lot worse off, but you have to realize that what they knew back then with the medicine – these are some of your 1950s and '60s players and the '70s – the joint replacement and all these things were just kind of still like a baby in a diaper. They weren't out yet. As you become more knowledgeable now, you're really not comparing apples to apples when you relate back to the old-timers or the doctors. As for resentment, I don't think so. You still have some malpractice suits that are always going to be out there, but I don't think many of them are bitter because they were old enough, they were over 21, it was their decision to play. Even with a concussion – I had a couple concussions – and wanted to get back in there. As a matter of fact, against Kansas City I talked my way back in and had the greatest game of my life because it happened in the first half. I talked my way in in the second quarter and I watched the film rooting for myself. I never got off the ball so fast, like my rookie year, because I was totally uninhibited. If you want to get back in, you have to have that type of attitude. You can't hesitate and think 30 years from now I could be this. That's why we've got to help these kids, because they're not going to be 30 years old in their minds. For them, take care of those who gave you the opportunity to make the big money now while in the same breath helping yourself when you become their age. It's not just, ‘Here old man, here's $50,0000 – go buy yourself a beer.' It's, ‘Here old man, here's $50,000 – thanks for making this the greatest game in the world and thanks for eventually helping me in the golden years of my life.'

< BR>Bob Lurtsema was a 12-year veteran defensive lineman in the NFL, playing with the Baltimore Colts, New York Giants, Minnesota Vikings and Seattle Seahawks, and the longtime publisher of Viking Update. He joins for a weekly Q & A session, and his monthly column appears in the magazine.

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