One case Mix is working on is that of former Charger star Eric Parker. The agile wide receiver and punt returner signed a five-year deal in 2006 that would have paid him $1.85 million in 2008. But a painful injury to his big toe — requiring three surgeries, and even then a bone in the ball of his foot refused to heal fully — forced him last year “to hang it up.” An end, he tells me by phone, he doesn’t regret. During a short but intense career (between 2003 and 2008, he was third in receptions, with most of his catches from Drew Brees), “I had nothing but smooth sailing with the Chargers.” Parker recalls two concussions as well as injuries to his ankle, back, and shoulder. “Nothing uncommon,” he says. He retired because, as a receiver, “I couldn’t take off on the foot or stop on it like I used to.” He’s hoping his claim will pay for a trauma he’ll always need to nurse, especially in his new job as wide receivers’ coach at Helix High School. The hardest part of retiring for Parker was being unable to compete, which he’d done since age three. “It’s over so fast. Imagine a musician who can’t play anymore, can’t do what he’s so good at. I feel just like that.”
In addition to position-related injuries, Mix says, “All players — and notice I didn’t say ‘some,’ but all — have early degenerative arthritis in all their joints and spine. It comes from what we call ‘cumulative trauma,’ which means wear and tear over their career.” (Eric Parker says he was told at various Charger seminars that most guys would develop arthritis from playing in the NFL.) “The body is subjected,” Mix continues, “to thousands of mini-traumas when players hit and get hit, run, jump, lift weights. Lifting heavy weights is a major contributor.
“Those who play sports that involve head contact,” football and soccer (heading the ball), “often have neurological problems. Diminished memory. Inability to focus or concentrate.” Those with head trauma or concussions have, Mix says, “a much higher incidence of early Alzheimer’s disease than the general public.” Confirming this is a just-released study, commissioned by the NFL, that Alzheimer’s and other memory-related diseases occur in ex-players aged 30 to 49 at 19 times the normal rate.
In addition, Mix continues, all players take a lot of anti-inflammatory drugs and pain medications, and “when these are ingested regularly, they can lead to gastrointestinal problems and kidney irregularities.” All these conditions greatly “diminish their ability to compete in a marketplace” against guys who have not endured the battles of the professional athlete.
Mix filed and won his own claim for injury. And, he insists, every player has a “legitimate claim.” All of them should file a claim within a year of retirement. Sadly, he says, the majority don’t. Making it tougher is that none of the players’ associations in the major sports have created programs to help retired players. They have made the financial and medical benefits of active players sweeter. But that’s it. Mix says that current players have no “legal responsibility” to help their ex-brethren. “But they do have a moral responsibility.” He says it’s wise for players now to plan their postcareers. “They may spend 10 years as a player, but they’re going to spend 40 years as a retired player. They’re one injury away from retirement.”
One final myth that Mix likes to deflate is the American belief that “all exercise is good for us” and that a life spent conditioning and training for sport will spell continued health. Not true for the pro. It’s a myth that victimizes athletes the most. They “figure that once they stop playing, the pain will go away,” he says. “But it doesn’t. Degenerative arthritis is progressive. Many of them are surprised when they take a few months off, do nothing, and then feel worse.”
Talk About Feeling Worse
The ongoing effects of wear and tear in the NFL have certainly surprised former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Todd Washington. Though he’s employed as the offensive coordinator with the University of San Diego football program, Washington’s retirement involves much more than simple nostalgia for a career that culminated in a Super Bowl ring. He’s still amazed that he survived eight years as an NFL lineman, where, as one savvy observer put it, every time the ball is snapped, the collision of opposing players is no different from a car crash.
In August, Washington took time out to speak with me just before opening camp for the Toreros. He’s still a big guy, not quite the 317 pounds of his playing days. Once with hair, now without, Washington played from 1998 to 2005. He spent his last three seasons with the Houston Texans. He retired during training camp with the Cleveland Browns in 2006. His first five years (1998–2003) came with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He was on the 2002 team that beat the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII. Local fans recall that game, played at Qualcomm Stadium, January 26, 2003, when the Bucs collared the Raiders, 48–21.
Prior to the NFL, Washington graduated from Virginia Tech. “I can honestly say that the NFL was a secondary thing for me. My father coached me in high school; teaching and coaching is what I’ve been around all my life. Everything I did during my career at Virginia Tech was geared toward becoming a coach when I graduated.” He knew, going in, that his career would be temporary. Eventually he’d coach college. But not before he suffered major body blows in the NFL.
Washington played some of the game’s toughest positions. Even in the second person, he’s blunt: “Once you start playing in the NFL, your body will never be the same.” His position was offensive lineman, guard and center, and he defended on kickoffs. As a lineman, he crouched down, stood up with the snap, backed up or ran slants, blocked the defense’s charge, all to protect his quarterback and running back.