They remember the hard hits — most of them, at least. The brain-rattlers that left them blank-eyed and disoriented, they have no recollection of at all. But the ones that snapped ligaments, rendered bones the consistency of crushed ice or bent joints in ways they ought not to bend are still felt every morning years later.
A career in the National Football League creates echoes good and bad. Some reverberate in medical records, others in luxuries from rich contracts. But the most vivid ones for many former players come when they get out of bed each day and put their feet on the floor. If the NFL confers wealth — a rookie’s base pay next season will be $405,000 — it exacts a heavy price: lifelong hurt.
A Washington Post survey of retired NFL players found that nearly nine in 10 report suffering from aches and pains on a daily basis, and they overwhelmingly — 91 percent — connect nearly all their pains to football.
“I hurt like hell every morning when I wake up,” says former linebacker Darryl Talley, 52.
“I can’t run anymore,” says former offensive lineman Pete Kendall, 39. “I can’t play basketball with my kids, can’t walk for any extended distance.”
“I’m 40 years old going on 65,” says Roman Oben, another ex-lineman. “God knows what I’ll feel like when I’m actually 65 years old.”
The Post’s online survey of more than 500 retired players paints a rare portrait of the toll a career in the NFL has on the long-term health of those who competed in the bruising game. The results also present a striking paradox: Nine in 10 said they’re happy they played the sport. But fewer than half would recommend children play it today.
Among the survey’s other findings:
●Nine in 10 former NFL players reported suffering concussions while playing, and nearly six in 10 reported three or more. Two in three who had concussions said they experience continuing symptoms from them.
●More than nine in 10 players reported suffering at least one major injury while in the NFL. More than half reported three or more; one in five reported five or more.
●Forty-four percent of former players said they have either had a joint replacement or have been advised they’ll need one.
●A third rated the medical care offered by team doctors as either “not so good” or “poor,” though a majority rated it as “good or “excellent.” Those who retired more recently reported more satisfaction than those who retired earlier.
In addition to those surveyed, The Post conducted extensive interviews with more than three dozen retired NFL players, and most said they accepted a certain amount of pain as the fair exchange for football’s compensations.
“If you have brains when you start, you are aware that banging your head into people is not the best thing for your body,” said tight end Chris Cooley, a two-time Pro Bowler with the Washington Redskins.
The physical, gladiatorial nature of the game attracted them in the first place, many said. Among its rewards were electrifying Sundays, deep relationships with teammates, personal pride and social mobility — it paid for their college educations and afforded them a lifestyle they would never have enjoyed otherwise.
“The game was going to better your family, better your life, better your children's lives,” said former defensive tackle Warren Sapp, recently elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But player responses also raised the question of whether at least some of the lasting damage they incurred was avoidable, and if the NFL is doing enough to mitigate it.
Continuous crippling pain
Seventeen years removed from his NFL career, ex-quarterback Don Majkowski says he can no longer hold down a job. He can’t stand for long periods, and sitting also is tough. He has undergone nearly 20 surgeries related to football, including 11 on his ankle, three on his shoulder and two on his back. He has a 12-inch scar on his stomach, and he can’t walk very far because his left foot is fused with his ankle by a pair of metal plates and 13 screws. “It’s like walking on a pirate peg leg,” he said.
No one warned Majkowski that all those blindside hits might result in lumbar spinal fusion and degenerative disk disease, and certainly no one mentioned the crippling pain that preceded it. What few warnings he did receive, he didn’t particularly listen to. “You hear stories of what you will have to face when you get older,” he said. “You don’t put much merit in that when you’re younger.”