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
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.