— 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."
"I try not to take medicine. I don't want to be a zombie," Duper adds. "What little left I've got in my brain, I want to keep it normal."
Dorsett describes making the trek to the annual Hall of Fame induction ceremony and being saddened by once-hearty men deteriorating before his eyes.
"Bodies that were just mangled, just beat up. Twisted up. Hit with arthritis and the knuckles and the bones, the twisted bones. It's 'Wow!' It's very enlightening to see that," he says, wincing at the images he describes. "And then when you hear that these guys don't have insurance, that the league won't give them insurance, that the league is saying that it didn't happen on their clock. That's bull."
Citing the pending litigation, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the league would not comment on players' specific allegations and referred to a written statement initially released in December: "The NFL has long made player safety a priority and continues to do so. Any allegation that the NFL intentionally sought to mislead players has no merit. It stands in contrast to the league's actions to better protect players and advance the science and medical understanding of the management and treatment of concussions."
Jack Yeo, who works at a public relations firm representing Riddell, said the equipment company does not comment on legal matters.
As public as the plight of current players is, former players say their stories aren't widely known.
"Fans don't know. They have no clue. And you think the NFL is going to tell them? No," says Ronnie Lippett, a Patriots cornerback from 1983-91. "I'm just so happy that the senators and congressmen and congresswomen took notice of how they have been cheating us. And that's the only reason (players are) getting the help that we're getting now. And it's only been in the last two years that anything has started to change."
Soon after a House hearing in October 2009, when lawmakers grilled Commissioner Roger Goodell about the league's concussion policies and the connection between injuries on the playing field and later brain diseases, the NFL made several changes. Those included revamping return-to-play guidelines and changing the co-chairmen of its committee on concussions — a panel, originally formed in 1994, that one pending suit against the league describes as "part of the NFL's scheme to deceive Congress, the players and the public at large."
The league finds itself continually changing its concussion protocols, most recently after Cleveland Browns quarterback Colt McCoy returned to a December game despite not being checked for a head injury following an against-the-rules hit to the helmet. The league put certified athletic trainers in booths above the field to watch for injuries and added video feeds on sidelines to make it easier to track dangerous hits immediately.
But players like Dorsett and Duper, who played long before that greater awareness and vigilance, didn't have such safeguards.
"They weren't as cautious back then. We played with concussions. I didn't know what a concussion was, really, when I was playing football. We got hit, we got up," Duper says. "I can remember times when I got hit, and I went back out on the field, and I couldn't remember the plays. I guess that's what a concussion is, the 'Eeeeeeeeeeee!' you'd hear. And you woke up and you'd see stars. I remember those things. And I played with it."
Says Barry Brown, a linebacker and tight end for three teams from 1966-70: "When you know you've got a concussion, and they put you back in the game, it's abuse."
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