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?"