Casualties of the NFL
Credit: Brian DeMarco speaks with his wife during a congressional hearing on the NFL's system for compensating retired players. Win McNamee / Getty Images

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.