"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."