He came off the snap and started upfield, the linebacker dead in his sights. Brian DeMarco – 6-foot-7 and ripped at 320 pounds; the rare pulling guard who could run like hell and bench press 500 – led his tailback, Corey Dillon, into the hole. DeMarco, with a full head of steam, was set to bury the linebacker, put a helmet between his numbers, and plant him, when someone tripped Dillon from behind. Dillon fell crosswise on the back of DeMarco's legs, pinning his knees to the turf. In slo-mo DeMarco was falling forward himself when the linebacker lowered his helmet and drove through DeMarco, knocking his chest downfield as his hips went upfield, practically cleaving him in two.

"I heard the pop in my back as I was going down and just felt this pain like I'd never felt before," says DeMarco, who had recently signed with the Cincinnati Bengals after four solid years with the Jacksonville Jaguars. "I'm at the bottom of the pile under a thousand pounds of guys, and I'm thinking, I'm never getting up. I'll never walk again."

In the grand scheme of things, he'd been hit harder: shots that broke ribs and left them slapped on sideways; head-to-head collisions that knocked him senseless and smashed the orbital bone around his eyes; blows that sheared knees and turned elbows inside out. None of those, however, had managed to shove his spine forward on his pelvis and shave off bits of vertebrae like ice chips. Here was terror: DeMarco couldn't work his legs, and the pain between his hips sawed him in half.

They got him to the sideline, where the trainer and his staff laid DeMarco on the bench and tested his legs. He wasn't, in fact, paralyzed, though he couldn't sit up. And so the doctor stepped in and did what doctors have done since the banzai days of Vince Lombardi. He produced a four-inch needle, hiked the player's jersey up, and injected him several times with lidocaine. The numbness set in, DeMarco got to his feet, and, minutes after breaking off bits of spine, reentered the game. He was 27; in a few months he would be out of the sport, a young man with an old man's body.

Eight years later, and a thousand miles away, a woman gets out of a car. She has driven from the airport through the kiln of southeastern Texas to a suburb of Austin that isn't really a suburb; it is more like the rubble of an ugly spacecraft that has crashed in the middle of nowhere and been repurposed. The houses thrown up here are flimsy and dour and the residents mostly evacuees of Hurricane Katrina. The woman rings the doorbell and fans herself; the heat, even in May, is wearing spurs. She waits and waits; at long last, footsteps.

Invited in by his wife Autumn, she finds the man she came to see sprawled on a couch, unable to stand. Although the house is cool, he is sweating profusely and can't find a position, seated or prone, that doesn't cause him grotesque pain. Every so often his huge body jerks in spasms of head-to-toe agony. The fits, when they come, turn him as white as the walls and send unself-conscious tears down his cheeks. It's DeMarco at 35: dirt-poor, broken, and in a headfirst spiral, taking his wife and children down with him.

The visitor, Jennifer Smith, takes a look around and can scarcely believe her eyes. "There was no food in the house, and I mean none – not a box of mac and cheese or a can of tuna," she says. "Brian and Autumn hadn't eaten in a couple of days and between them had 75 cents. Total."

Smith, who runs a charity called Gridiron Greats that gives money and care to ex-football players whose injuries have left them in dire straits, has flown in on short notice. She's come with with $2,500 in cash from a private donor and the authority from her board to cut a check for thousands more when the banks reopen on Monday. But before she can take this family to the nearest Wal-Mart for the fill-the-pantry shopping they sorely need, she first has to get a 320-pound cripple off his sweat-soaked couch and into her car.It is one of the master stories of the American century: a workingman's game of make-believe warfare becomes the richest, most ravishing pageant on earth, a carnival of beauty and gore. The players, like the sport, transform before us, turn massive and mobile to make panoramic violence on our behalf, then get up, walk it off, and go again. The big get faster and the fast get bigger, staging goal-line hurdles and blindside hits the likes of which no one has seen before and won't again, till 'SportsCenter' airs at six, showing the plays and their end zone celebrations until they're etched in the dura of our skulls. Forty years ago football's TV rights sold for $9 million a year to CBS; last year the networks paid out a combined $3.7 billion, or more than $100 million per team. Thirty years ago it cost $16 million to buy a franchise in Tampa Bay. By 2004 Robert McNair was paying $700 million to found the Houston Texans; for bidders who hope to place a new team in Los Angeles the asking price could top $1 billion.

But the men on the field who generate those billions are real; they bleed; they break; their brains cloud. The nature of their injuries, particularly the mind-dimming concussion, has dominated the off-the-field news of late. Post-mortem exams of Andre Waters (suicide at 44), Terry Long (suicide at 45), Justin Strzelczyk (car crash at 36), Mike Webster (heart attack at 50) – showed staggering brain damage in men so young and affirmed that football is no longer a contact sport but real-life 'Mortal Kombat' in cleats. Stunningly no one in the sport has stepped up to address the scope and depth of the injuries – not the teams, not the owners, and certainly not the one organization charged with looking after the athletes, the NFL Players Association (NFLPA). In a game expected to take in $7 billion this year and that exceeds all others in causing bodily harm, fewer than 3 percent of the men who played in the league succeed in getting disability benefits. Worse, the players union turns away ailing vets despite a pension fund with $1 billion in assets.

The great Earl Campbell is 52 and relies on a walker to get around. Al Toon, the best receiver in the history of the New York Jets, ended his career after his ninth concussion, in 1992; the Jets' next-best receiver, the oft-concussed Wayne Chrebet, left equally ravaged after the 2005 season and is still debilitated by headaches. Three of the best centers ever – Jim Ringo, Mick Tinglehoff, and Webster – were all beset with severe dementia as young men.

Twenty years ago, when linemen weighed 280, it was common for them to play on into their 30s. Now offensive tackles average 320, and a typical career lasts three and a half seasons, or just half a season more than the minimum to qualify for a pension. Nor does playing longer secure one's finances during old age. Full pension payouts start at 55, which is around the time the average former player dies, two decades sooner than non-players.

But bigger-faster-stronger only begins to tell the story when it comes to short careers and early deaths. The NFL off-season has become a misnomer, with mini-camps, workouts, and OTAs (organized team activities) that the league hilariously calls "voluntary." The regular season has 16 games, but the postseason now has four rounds of games for those hardy enough to survive. Helmets have improved, but players are taught – still – to lead with their heads.

"If I got my hat between your numbers, I'd take you anywhere I wanted," says Daryl Johnston, the Fox TV analyst and ex-fullback for the Dallas Cowboys, who opened huge holes for Emmitt Smith during Dallas's glory years in the '90s and played in two Pro Bowls. Adds Johnston, who retired with a broken neck after 11 brutal seasons in the league, "Strap a helmet on, run headfirst into a wall, then do it again 35 times. That's what I did every Sunday afternoon."

Then there is the matter of the game's mentality, a form of mass psychosis passed down through the decades by coaches and players alike. "You can't make the club from the tub" is its motto, a summation of the imperative to play through pain, get back on the field with all manner of debilities, lest your teammates taunt you and your coaches replace you the very first chance they get. In the only major league sport without guaranteed deals, the majority of players are essentially cows at market – large, anonymous slabs of beef to whom too few in management feel financial loyalty or, for that matter, human concern.

"When I broke my neck doing what I was trained to do, the league and union told me to get lost," says Johnston, who filed for disability and says he was curtly turned down by the retirement board. "The second I couldn't play I was dead meat to them. It was 'So long, see you later, and don't call us.'"

Mike Ditka, the embodiment of old-school toughness as a player and then as the coach of the Chicago Bears, says it was just as bad back in the day. "I took cortisone injections three times a week and had four hip replacements after I quit the game, but that's football, and we chose to play hurt. We paid the price and thought the game would pay us back, but the league and union sold us out. In every sport, you've got your adversaries. I never thought we'd have to fight our own."

Ditka, who earned a pittance by today's standards as a player and whose sizable wealth was amassed off the field, has taken it upon himself to redress the plight of ailing vets, many of whom he played with and against. He's joined forces with Gridiron Greats founder Jerry Kramer, and a board of directors that includes several Hall of Famers (Gale Sayers, Harry Carson, Joe DeLamielleure, and others) to raise a hue and cry against the Players Association for its abandonment of ex-players.

"It's criminal," says Ditka at an upstairs table in his huge, clamorous steakhouse in Chicago. "There's so much money in this goddamn game, and no one gives a shit about these guys. Bill Forrester's attached to a feeding tube, Joe Perry has to choose between eating and pain pills, and here's this Upshaw, with his $6.7 million salary, saying there's no dough left to help them out. That's greed talking, and nothing else."

He is speaking, or more like it, shouting about Gene Upshaw, the long-serving chief of the players union, who's become the white-hot focus of some veterans' rage. "The NFL is the worst-represented league, on the players' side, in pro sports," said Joe Montana in a 2006 newspaper survey of Hall of Famers. DeLamielleure, the anchor of the Buffalo Bills line that blocked for O.J. Simpson, turns red as a fire ant when asked about Upshaw. "I won't stop until that bastard's gone or in jail. He's a disgrace to every player, past and current."

Upshaw, who refused to speak for this article and elected to leave the country when Congress staged a hearing on the union's treatment of injured vets in late June, has responded to his critics with schoolyard taunts, calling Ditka too "dumb" to understand the issue and threatening to break DeLamielleure's neck.

This is odd behavior for one of the highest-paid officials in the history of organized labor, and, in any case, these attacks duck the issue at hand: the needs of broke and battered ex-players. An exhaustive investigation – including interviews with dozens of injured vets, evaluations of their medical charts and reports from doctors selected by the league, and conversations with critics of the Players Association in the medical and legal community – reveals a pattern of conduct by the NFLPA that denies former players the money they need and to which their injuries should entitle them. What emerges is a picture of a labor union that has turned its back on the men who built it, and officials who use their power not to advocate for their brethren but to protect the assets of the 32 owners with whom they once did battle.Because they are always going backward in pass protection, and because, for many years, they weren't allowed to use their hands to block, there's a notion that offensive linemen are passive creatures who stand around waiting to get hit. Brian DeMarco has one word for this: bullshit. "Those draw plays and sweeps where we're coming down the line and have 10 yards to pick up speed? Man, I've crushed guys so bad they were carried off twitching. A couple of them were never the same again."

DeMarco was a monster in the free-weight room, loading the bar out till it bowed on his shoulders, doing squats with 900 pounds. He'd been like that since boyhood, a 5-footer in first grade whose father, a former lineman himself, taught him to play the game of football with a mean streak. He was first to every practice and practically lived at the stadium during the off-season, training six, seven hours a day. A good thing, too, because the coach who drafted him was a tireless old-school bully.

"That first training camp under Coach [Tom] Coughlin was the most abusive, hellacious thing I've ever been through," DeMarco says. "An unbelievable heat wave, 110 on the field, and we're doing full-speed hitting twice a day for eight weeks. I saw grown men give up and walk off in tears, good players who signed with other teams."

Coughlin, a bellicose, red-faced screamer who coached the Jacksonville Jaguars from their inception in '95 till his firing eight years later (he's currently on shaky ground as the coach of the New York Giants), is a product of the Bill Parcells coaching tree, a man who, like Parcells and Bill Belichick, had little or no tolerance for "softness."

"Tom told us straight up that injuries were bullshit and he wasn't gonna stand for 'em," says DeMarco. "He said, 'You sit out a game and I'll fucking waive you. I don't want cowards on my team.' No matter how bad you were, you were gonna play, which is why four of the five guys who started on that line are now severely messed up in their 30s."

He ticks off names and medical conditions: Tony Boselli, left tackle, washed out at 29 after a string of surgeries to his shoulder, knee, and ankle; Leon Searcy, right tackle, badly hobbled by leg woes and waived out of the league at 32; Jeff Novak, left guard, retired at 31 after playing on a leg that bled like rotting meat, and which the then-team doctor so grossly mishandled that a jury awarded Novak $5 million when he sued the physician, Dr. Steve Lucie. "Lucie was no more than a yes-man for Coughlin, but it was the trainers who really put the wood to us," says DeMarco. "They handed out these big, long packets of Vicodin and shitloads of muscle relaxers like Soma and Flexerall and were always hassling you with 'You playing? You're playing, right?' – and that wasn't just on game day. That was Wednesday practice." (The Jacksonville Jaguars declined to comment for this article; the Bengals told 'Men's Journal': "The rules regarding injury treatment procedures are based on the government regulations and the NFL's collective bargaining agreement. The Bengals, to the best of the team's knowledge, are in complete compliance in these areas regarding Brian DeMarco.")

DeMarco is half-sitting and half-lying on a couch in a house kept dim during the day. Even lamp light can crease his eyes and trigger the cluster migraines that send him back to bed in the middle of the afternoon. Since May, when he stopped taking pain meds cold turkey, he has lived in the kind of crackling, bone-on-bone agony that might best be called electric. Ask him where it hurts and he lets out a breath: "Man, ask me where it doesn't; that's quicker." Just now, there are sharp stabs under his ribs, the residue of the kind of bad-luck spill that linemen take all the time. In a game in '97 he knocked down Tony Siragusa, the Pro Bowl nose tackle of the Baltimore Ravens. Siragusa was on his back, one leg planted in the turf, when DeMarco was slammed sideways by someone behind him and landed on Siragusa's upturned knee. Three ribs shattered and two dislodged from the cartilage that bound them in place. DeMarco was carried off to the sideline by teammates, barely able to breathe for the pain. Trainers laid him out on a metal bench and had staffers huddle around him so that no one would see what happened next.

"The doctor took this needle, filled it up with lido[caine], and put a towel in my mouth saying, 'This'll burn,' " says DeMarco. "He stuck that four-inch needle up under my rib cage – six big shots from my rib cage to spine, and suddenly I couldn't feel a damn thing. They wrapped up my ribs, which were sticking out sideways, and sent me back in on the same series." Many of DeMarco's stories begin and end this way: a savage blow that rips tendon or bone and a hasty in-game visit with the team doctor, who numbs him up with long needles before he's sent back into the game. "Anytime a crowd's gathered around on the sideline," he says, "they're doing something they don't want you to see."

Dave Pear, the ex–Pro Bowl nose guard, agrees. After three stellar seasons with Tampa Bay in the late '70s, he was playing his third game for the Oakland Raiders when he was hit and felt "lightning" down his spine. "I came over to the sideline and the team doctor – his nickname was Needles – sends me back in the game. He says I had a broken neck, and I was in agony the rest of the season; but he said I was a hypochondriac and there was nothing wrong with me, and shot me up with whatever he said I needed."

Pear, who's 54 now, has had seven operations on his upper and lower spine. He hasn't known a moment without grinding pain since that game against Seattle in '79. He somehow played on through the Super Bowl in 1980, getting handfuls of Percodan from the Raiders' staff and doing further damage to the discs in his neck till he was properly diagnosed in 1981 by an independent physician. (The Raiders declined to comment, except to say that Pear's back surgery was not performed by a team physician, he played only after completing a physical, and he was released due to personnel issues, not injuries.) Like DeMarco, Pear's spine is busy with rods and screws that creakily bolt the whole mess together. He hasn't worked in years and barely earned a living when he did, driving around in a series of lowly sales jobs that left him doubled over in his van. Pear had two young children that he couldn't chase after and a wife who had to do the bulk of the parenting while holding down a full-time job, and in 1995 he applied once more for NFL disability. The first time he did so, in 1983, Pear was approved by the physician the league sent him to, and he waited for a check. Instead he was told by Dee Becker, a union claims rep, that he'd brought too much "information" to the examining room (i.e., X-rays and case files from his surgeon) and was disqualified for "influencing" the doctor. "I said, 'You must be kidding,' and she said, 'Nope, that's how we do it. Flat out, you're not going to get it.' "

Pear, whose neck and back pain had become intolerable, applied in '95 for a new class of claims – permanent and degenerative conditions. As before, he had a slam-dunk medical case: three fused discs, a host of neural damage, and a sheaf of reports from spine experts. The league's appointed doctor found him "markedly incapacitated," but again Pear learned he'd been denied. "I called Dee Becker at the player's union and said, 'What do you have to be to be called "disabled"?' And she says, 'Unless you're in a wheelchair like Darryl Stingley, you won't get the benefit.' "

In despair, Pear took his pension early and gets $600 a month from the NFL for his six years of backbreaking service. His drugs alone cost him twice that much, and he survives, albeit barely, on his spouse's salary and a modicum of Social Security. He has, however, managed to keep a roof over his head, which is more than Mike Mosley can say.

Mosley, a blazingly fast returner and flanker for the Buffalo Bills in the '80s, ripped his right knee making a cut on turf and went down in a heap, untouched. The doctor who attended to him botched the treatment so badly that Mosley, who ran a 4.28 in the 40, could barely stop and start on a two-move pattern. "He 'fixed' the cartilage, which was fine, and left the ligament, which was torn, and I ran on it and frayed it completely," says Mosley, now 49, in the thick-as-gravy accent of small-town central Texas. "I went from being the return champ in 1982 to being unable to bend my knee by '84. Then the leg withered, and that was it. I was home on my front porch at 26."

Mosley, a golden boy in high school and college – he was the wishbone quarterback at Texas A&M, where boosters threw cash and cars at him and the girls lined up to ride shotgun – fell fast and hard once football was done, lapsing into deep depression. He tried to get a job, but his knee kept buckling, and he had additional problems with his shins and back. In 1998 he filed for disability and, to his shock and relief, was approved. The $9,000 a month allowed him to buy a small house and win custody of his five-year-old daughter Kendall, and though medical expenses ate up most of the rest, he was able to fashion a life again. And then in '04, without a word of warning, the pension board cut him off. He appealed to the union, but it soon stopped taking his calls. In short order he lost his house and truck, and he and his daughter were forced to move in with his 75-year-old mother. She is in very frail health, has run through her savings, and must feed three people on her Social Security check of $319 a month. Mosley, a man of 49, hides in his room, surrounded by football trophies. The look he wears when you flush him out is that of a dying quail.

"There's nothing left," he says. "They took it all from me, and never even gave a reason. If you talk to Upshaw – and I tried like hell to – could you ask him how he lives with himself?"The billion-dollar question, of course, is why. Why have the pleas of DeMarco, Mosley, et al., been met with indifference, even hostility? Why has ex–Pro Bowler Conrad Dobler been denied five times for disability, despite 13 operations on one leg? Why is Willie Wood, the gallant Green Bay safety, unable to pay for his assisted living facility? Why is Mercury Morris, the fleet tailback who fractured his neck as a Miami Dolphin, still fighting in appeals court to overturn the pension board's decision, 20 years later? Why did Johnny Unitas, the onetime face of the NFL, die embittered by the league's callous treatment of his teammates?

Since no one at the union's DC office responded to multiple e-mails and phone calls, the best one can do is sift the facts. Begin with the pension fund, which the players union won after a bitter fight with owners in the '60s. It has grown, like the game, from a shoestring concern to an instrument of vaulting wealth and continues to take in more – tens of millions more – than it pays out in benefits each year. Team owners paid $67.9 million in 2005 to cover the monthly checks for retirees, and the plan, called the Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan, earns millions more a year in additional interest on its vast investment holdings. From early on a supplement of the plan provided disability funds for injured ex-players. The checks were mostly modest and not easily gotten, particularly if you said your suffering was football-related. Nonetheless, some veterans won, and eked by on sums equal to what they'd get as pensioners.

But all that changed in 1993, with the landmark bargaining agreement between players and owners that made partners of the long-term enemies. The Groom Law Group, a K Street, Washington, outfit, was hired first to write the collective bargaining agreement and later to represent the NFL retirement plan. To the existing bureaucracy – a six-man board of trustees, made up of three reps from owners and players apiece – a screening committee was added with the power to approve or reject claims. Confusing new rules and categories were added, and retired players were reduced to one kind of claim, football degenerative injuries. But unless they could prove that their health woes were caused by football, they stood no chance of ever collecting the $9,000 a month. And most of those who won claims had to win them over and over again, as the board sent them to doctors every second year to recertify their debilities. "That's the trick they pulled on me," says Mosley. "They shopped and shopped till they found a quack doctor who would cross me off the list."

The union says it pays out $20 million a year to 317 disabled ex-players and that many of them get the maximum benefit of $18,600 a month. But tax forms for 2006, the most recent year available, show that only 121 players receive disability, for a total of roughly $9.2 million.

Then there is Upshaw's oft-repeated assertion that the money to pay these claims comes from active players. That's misleading. Every cent of the fund is put in by the owners, although in 2006 active players reduced their annual salaries by an average of $56,000 to contribute to the fund.

"Gene lies and lies, telling the young guys today that they'll have nothing to retire on if he pays us," says Bernard Parrish, the former cornerback for the Cleveland Browns, who's a spry 71 and comfortably fixed, having earned a handsome living building hotels. "It's divide and conquer, and it distracts them from his real job, which is guarding the owners' money."

Because disability claims are protected by privacy laws, the union doesn't disclose who is turned down or why. But the case of Mike Webster, which played out in court, afforded a rare look at its mind-set. Webster, the seemingly immortal Steelers center who made the All-Century team and was the four-time captain of a Super Bowl champion team, retired in 1990 after 17 seasons and immediately presented signs of dementia. As offensive line coach for the Kansas City Chiefs, he slept on a bench in the locker room and couldn't recall where he lived. He gave whatever money he had to total strangers, wound up bedding in his truck, and frequently zapped himself with a Taser gun to quell the pain in his back.

"He was drifting for years when I got him to doctors who diagnosed severe TBI (traumatic brain injury)," says Bob Fitzsimmons, a West Virginia lawyer who worked, pro bono, for seven years to bring the case to closure. "The union hired an investigator to try to discredit Mike, brought their own doctor in who agreed with my doctors, and they still denied us three or four times and kept trying to spend him dry. Finally we got to trial and won a huge judgment in district court. But even after the union lost again on appeal, Upshaw told reporters that if the board voted that day, they'd still go against Mike, six to nothing."

Upshaw's confidence in the board is hard to fathom, given that three of its reps are, like Upshaw himself, supposed to put players' interests first. But Upshaw's appointees are all compromised in one way or another. One, Tom Condon, is Upshaw's agent, who negotiated his salary as the head of the union, a sum that wildly exceeds what union chiefs make in other sports. (Upshaw: $6.7 million a year; Billy Hunter: $2.1 in basketball; Donald Fehr: $1 million in baseball.) A second is Jeff Van Note, a broadcaster for the Atlanta Falcons, whose salary is paid by team owner Arthur Blank. The third is Dave Duerson, who pled guilty to beating his wife and throwing her out a hotel door and into a wall.

If that seems a shabby way to staff a pension board, it is very much in keeping with Upshaw's style. From his bellicose beginnings as a union chief in 1983, Upshaw, the Hall of Fame guard for the Oakland Raiders, has been dogged by allegations of fiscal mismanagement. As reported by the 'Boston Globe' in 1990, the sloppy bookkeeping included a loan of $100,000 made by the union to Upshaw that prompted a Department of Labor investigation in 1988 (it's illegal for a union to lend any official more than $2,000), but that was later chalked up to back pay, deferred salary, or an advance on his severance.

But the greater outrage, by far, is what he hasn't accomplished. He failed to win guaranteed contracts in bargaining, failed to get his players long-term health insurance, and failed to get as big a percentage of total revenues as union chiefs have in other sports. Baseball, which took in $5.1 billion in revenues in 2006, provides 10-year veterans a maximum annual pension of $180,000; football, by contrast, which grossed $6 billion last season, pays 10-year vets only about $50,000 a year. On a yearly basis, according to figures provided by union critic Parrish, baseball pensions average three times the NFLPA's (roughly $36,000 to a sub-poverty $12,000). Some of the greatest men who ever played the game receive pensions of a couple of hundred dollars a month.

"It's a colossal failure of leadership by Upshaw, who simply refuses to admit he made mistakes," says Cy Smith, who was co-counsel in the Webster case. "He failed to account for the violence of the game by getting insurance and disability, and is afraid to go back to the owners now and say, 'Guess what? I fucked up.'" Jerry Kramer, the Pro Bowl guard who founded Gridiron Greats, adds, "You could almost understand this in 1967, when the TV deal with networks paid $9 million. But the sport grew like crazy and the billions rolled in, while the attitude at the union never changed. It's still 'delay, deny, and hope they die,' which is thinking that I can't fathom."When you talk to ex-players like Kramer and Ditka, what you come away struck by is their acceptance of pain as the wages of a job well done. Hips that don't work, knees that have stopped bending: It is all part and parcel of the warrior life, something to be borne with equanimity and a certain brand of crusty pride. It is a very different thing, though, with the rash of brain trauma that has overtaken the sport. That is spoken of with dread and sorrow, even by the martial Ditka.

"I know way too many guys it's happened to – Larry Morris, Jim Ringo, Harden Hill, John Mackey – I could go on and on," Ditka says. "It just tears you apart to see 'em like that, and then have the league claim it didn't come from football. Why aren't we doing more to help these guys? Why is it all on their wives and families, and how many more are out there?"

Brent Boyd, a former guard for the Minnesota Vikings, has some thoughts on these matters, though he can't always string them together. When you've been hit in the head as much as he has, moments of clarity are hard to come by, and words and memories can elude him. He can't, for instance, tease apart the blows that hurt him from the ones that left him merely dazed. But that first whack – no, he doesn't remember that either, though he does recall his terror on waking up. "I'm laid out, wondering why I can't see, or get up, and then I'm on the sidelines screaming, 'I'm blind! I'm blind!' Well, coach comes over and asks if I can see out of one eye, and he sends me back right in."

This last story is related not in rancor but fondness; Boyd loved his offensive line coach, a guy named John Michaels, and worshipped the man they both worked for in Minnesota, the god-of-thunder head coach Bud Grant. Even as a rookie Boyd was a mainstay on a line that included two Hall of Famers, and the only way a lineman left a game, he says, was if they carried him off in a box. And so he played through the haze and smoke in his head and managed to slog on till the final gun. With all the concussions, major and minor, that followed over the course of seven years, this got to be something of a habit with him, and he discovered he was actually adept at it.

"We had a drill with the Vikings where they mimicked concussions, though guys called them 'dingers' then and laughed about them, like you'd had a few too many at a party," says Boyd. "They'd lie you facedown on the Astroturf, spin you around 12 times, then roll a ball out in the other direction and tell you to go get the fumble. Well, sooner or later you'd learn to get that ball when your legs wouldn't go in that direction."

Boyd, a soft-bellied, wheat-haired man whose manner suggests an affable dentist, is 50 now and has reason to regret his nonchalance on closed-head wounds. After wandering, post-football, through his 30s and mid-40s in a dizzy, dog-tired stupor, he saw a neurologist who peered inside his skull and found irreparable blunt-force trauma. The lesions are in his brain's vestibular region and have left him with the equivalent of an incurable migraine, in constant, vise-grip pain that can't be quelled. He has bouts of vertigo that knock him off his pegs two or three times a day, exhaustion that fells him after a couple of hours upright, and nausea and cold sweats that come from nowhere and render him a dripping mess. His life, or what passes for one, is a crawl of appointments with doctors and physical therapists, and the counter in his kitchen is lousy with drugs that don't seem to do him much good.

It has been like this for Boyd since 1986, his last year in the game. A third-round draft pick from UCLA, where he graduated with honors in 1980 and hatched long-range plans to become a lawyer, he learned all the positions on the offensive line and became the second rookie ever to start a game for Grant, whose disdain for playing kids was loudly known. But in his second season Boyd tore a ligament in his knee and, after major reconstruction, began taking an anti-inflammatory that compounded his on-and-off headaches. Between the side effects of the drug and his frequent concussions, he found it harder and harder to manage his symptoms, and in 1986 the Vikings cut him midseason, after he'd played for half a year on a broken leg. Exhausted, he retired at 30, having earned about a half-million dollars over seven years.

For the next two decades Boyd sputtered and stalled like a Yugo in the breakdown lane. He got a job selling insurance, but couldn't remember appointments and often had to stop en route somewhere and nap for an hour in his car. He and his first wife divorced, and Boyd, with his small son Anders in tow, free fell down the economic ladder. By the summer of '99 he was officially homeless, having sent Anders off to live with his mother while he slept in a car borrowed from his pastor.

In the spring of 1999, though, he got in to see a psychiatrist who asked him, for the first time ever, if he'd had a concussion. An exhaustive three-day assessment was done by a neurologist, using SPECT scans and MRIs. It located the lesions in the brain's vestibular region and ruled emphatically that the damage there was causing his multiple symptoms. Boyd applied for disability, using the report to back his claim. He says a union liaison named Miki Yaras-Davis scoffed at him on the phone, saying that the owners "would never approve a claim for concussions," adding that "they wouldn't open this can of worms because the problem was too widespread."

Nevertheless Boyd was sent to a physician picked out by the NFL. Dr. J. Sterling Ford echoed Boyd's doctor and approved him for disability. The appeals board deemed Ford "equivocal," however, and sent Boyd to a psychiatrist for a second opinion. He too found on Boyd's behalf, and Boyd, who by now had enlisted the help of a lawyer friend, the powerful baseball agent Barry Axelrod, demanded the board obey its own findings. After hemming and hawing, it gave him the minimum of $18,000 a year. But Boyd insisted on his due, and the board shipped him to Baltimore for yet a third opinion, this one from a neurophysiologist named Barry Gordon. The tests there were conducted by a grad student, not Gordon, who popped in only to tap Boyd's kneecaps and shine a light in his eyes. Gordon wrote a report noting Boyd's records were "incomplete," despite his substantial history of doctors' visits. He was out of appeals.

Boyd, who hasn't worked since 1999 and is all but housebound by his symptoms, lives in Nevada with his second wife Gina and Anders, who is now 19. They are crowded into a 900-square-foot cottage with leaks they can't afford to fix. In a flush month they get out to see a first-run movie, though Boyd rarely has the energy to do so and can't easily follow what he's watching. "If I'm like this at 50," he worries, "what's 60 going to be like? Is that when the union finally cuts us a check, to have someone come in and change my diaper?"

This is a reference to a rare benevolence from the league – the so-called 88 Plan. Named (or numbered) for the great John Mackey, the Baltimore Colts tight end who was afflicted in his 50s with severe dementia, it provides a sum of money for the care of ex-players beset by Alzheimer's or comparable brain conditions. There's a catch, naturally: Survivors of athletes on the 88 Plan don't receive any disability from the NFLPA, and payments don't kick in till the patient has been deemed unfit to care for himself. If Boyd ever does get the money he's owed, he may not be intact enough to know it. In the meantime he seethes over his treatment by the union and shakes his head at the shameful way the league has addressed brain trauma.

"Every reputable expert says that blows to the head'll cause damage if they happen enough," Boyd says. "But the NFL happens to have the only neurologists who say that the jury's still out."

In 1994 the NFL established the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, with Dr. Elliot Pellman as its chair. If the league has little trouble finding experts to discount the link between concussions and early-onset dementia, Pellman may be why. His specialty is rheumatology, not brain trauma and neurology, and his committee reports, including one that backed the practice of sending players with concussions back into games, have been widely scorned by neurologists. In 2005 the 'New York Times' reported that he'd misstated his bona fides for more than a decade. Two years later he stepped down as chairman.

This summer, unable to ignore the startling news – Andre Waters' suicide in November 2006 and the release of forensic exams that showed he had the brain of an 80-year-old Alzheimer's patient – the league staged a "concussion summit" in Chicago. At the conference, whose stated aim was to share knowledge of brain trauma, brain scans of Justin Strzelczyk done by Dr. Bennet Omalu, a neuropathologist at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, showed that Strzelczyk, like Waters, Long, and Webster, had the brain of a much older man, or a severely punch-drunk boxer. The NFL committee's doctors downplayed this as exceptional and sneered at their credentialed critics, dismissing their work as "soft science."

"They'll go to their graves denying that concussions hurt guys, and in Upshaw they've got the perfect stooge," Boyd says, adding that the summit was nothing more than PR. "Gene'll do and say anything the owners want, as long as he gets his money."Jennifer smith spent a week with the DeMarcos, getting their rent paid and utilities settled, then persuading a wealthy friend of Gridiron Greats to buy the family a used truck. All told, the fund has given them more than $20,000, though it can't extend itself much further.

"We're a new nonprofit with a tiny staff, and there are a lot of guys out there who need our help," says Smith, a vibrant blonde in her early 40s who quit TV and film producing to run the fund. It raises money primarily through its online auction of football memorabilia (gridirongreats.org), and has so far taken in about $400,000 in the seven months since opening its doors. "What Brian needs – what all our guys need – is for the league and union to honor their obligations. We're a Band-Aid at best."

Smith put DeMarco in touch with Cy Smith (no relation), the lawyer who helped win almost $2 million for the children of the late Mike Webster. DeMarco will file – again – for his disability benefits, this time with Smith over his shoulder. "I can't tell you how grateful we are," DeMarco says. "If Jennifer hadn't stepped in when she did, we'd've been out in the street with our two kids. We're nowhere near safe yet, but –" he stops himself short, perilously close to tears "at least we're part of the way there."

Before Smith left town she enacted one last mercy. On a smoldering June day she piled the DeMarcos into a truck and took them to a pawn shop in north Austin. She'd called ahead, and owner Mark Ekrut had the goods in question ready for their arrival.

Out of a plastic bag came a weathered pigskin that had been signed by every member of the Jacksonville Jaguars, a keepsake given to DeMarco by his teammates from the Jags' inaugural season. Smith had redeemed the ball to auction online; all proceeds will go to the DeMarcos for living expenses.

DeMarco, who'd been hovering near tears all morning, clasped it to his chest and broke down. In a near-empty store on a Thursday morning, his sobs echoed off the hocked golf clubs and band saws and dusty Jesus crosses in the case. "Thank you," he croaked to Ekrut, who'd advanced him $1,000 and never put his treasures up for sale. "Forget it," said Ekrut. "I knew you'd come back. You're a good man who fell on hard times."

DeMarco thanked him again, then thanked and hugged Smith, laughing, crying, and wincing all at once. Taking up his football, he started for the door, a long, slow haul on one good leg.

Additional reporting by Jordan Heller