The Long Game

I’m at the center of a legal battle with one of the most powerful sports organizations in the world. For nine years, my name was on the back of a Miami Dolphins or Chicago Bears jersey. Now I see my name on thousands and thousands of court documents.

But let me get to that in a minute.

After a lifetime of playing football, a typical day for me has nothing to do with sports. I’m a financial advisor. I come into my office in the morning, check the markets and answer emails and calls from clients. These days, with the increased volatility in the market and uncertainty in the world economy, I’m getting a lot of calls and messages. When my clients are stressed, I feel it. It’s my job to put market changes into perspective for them. I take a lot of pride in helping guide them.

The financial world operates on computers, but it’s still about people. You’ve got to understand people. You’ve got to acknowledge why they might be panicking. I work mostly with retirement funds, so my job is about creating a safety net and managing risk for my clients. It’s about people’s lives and livelihoods. You don’t take that lightly.

In the financial world, my mentality goes back to the way I get started with a new client. Before someone even becomes a client, my philosophy is: Play the long game. I say to a client, basically: Hey, the market’s not just going to go up right away — it might even go down a lot when you least expect it — but if you play it smart over the long term, it will usually rise steadily.

There will be some roller-coaster rides along the way, and it’s all about gauging the client’s risk tolerance and how much he or she can stomach the ups and downs in their portfolio. I always try to play it like football and come up with a game plan.

So, financial advisor — that’s my job. But these days I have an unofficial second job, and it’s one of the most important things I’ve ever done. Along with Kevin Turner, I’m one of two class representatives for the NFL concussion settlement. I have the honor of representing retired players who do not currently suffer from serious cognitive conditions like dementia, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s or ALS, but who are worried and need protection for the future.

It’ll be a random time of day and I’ll get a call from a former NFL player. Sometimes they’ve played with me, from my era, and sometimes they’ve just heard my name or seen it on a court document. I’ve talked on the phone, or met in person, with hundreds of ex-NFL players. I hear a similar worried tone in their voices, but this time, it’s not about their portfolio.

It’s about their health.

They all want to know: What’s going on with the concussion case?

I’m not a doctor or a lawyer, but I’ve become the connector between ex-players and the legal team that’s been fighting this case in court for nearly five years.

The guys all fit a similar profile — they’re retired and worried about their long-term health. Usually they’re older, but I hear from a lot of younger retired guys, too — guys in their 30s or 40s who are already concerned, even without experiencing symptoms yet.

Most ex-players who I talk to only really get piecemeal news about the case — what they learn from this or that news article or this or that study being done on retired players. I see myself as a translator. I want to make it clear what’s in this settlement.

This is what I tell them about the NFL concussion settlement:

Why is the settlement delayed? A federal judge approved the class-action settlement this spring, which would open the faucet so that benefits can begin flowing to those in need. After years in court and extensive negotiations between retired players and the League, the judge ordered these benefits to be paid. However, a number of appeals have been filed, further delaying the settlement’s benefits. With 99 percent of ex-players supporting the settlement, we’re at a critical moment. The appeals filed by a tiny minority of the class are now delaying compensation and care for thousands of players who are in real need. The sooner we get past these appeals, the sooner we can start getting these men and their families the benefits they need and deserve.

Compensation for those who are sick today: The settlement provides substantial monetary awards for ex-players who have been diagnosed with dementia, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s or ALS. The compensation fund is uncapped and guaranteed to last for 65 years, ensuring that compensation will be available for any retired player who develops one of these conditions in the future.

Baseline cognitive assessment: The settlement will allow retired NFL players to receive a free “baseline assessment,” which is a battery of tests to help determine their current state of cognitive health. This is a critical benefit, especially considering that many players lack adequate general health care, not to mention cognitive care. Retired players who are diagnosed with moderate cognitive issues can also receive medical benefits to help them manage their condition.

No causation: You don’t have to prove a connection between your injury and NFL football in order to receive benefits under this settlement. This is a big deal. If a retired NFL player develops one of the conditions covered by this settlement, he will be compensated. There will be no need to demonstrate that the injury was caused by the time spent in the League. This removes one of the biggest barriers that retired players would have faced if we had continued to press our case in Court.

Awareness and education programs: The settlement also includes an Education Fund that will be established to fund programs promoting safety and injury prevention for football players. That’s one way the settlement will make the game of football safer at all levels.

Retired players maintain existing benefits: A lot of guys worry that the settlement will nullify or complicate their collectively-bargained benefits, but it won’t. No former player will be forced to choose between collecting his benefits from programs such as the 88 Plan or other NFL disability programs and receiving benefits under this settlement. Retired players will also still be able to pursue workers’ compensation claims.

Independent administrators, qualified doctors: The settlement’s benefit programs will be run by independent administrators, working under the court’s supervision. Physicians who participate in the settlement’s programs will be selected based on their credentials and geographic proximity to retired NFL players. The NFL will not decide who is eligible for benefits under this agreement.

As a former pro football player, this is personal for me.

You know that scene in Jerry McGuire? Where that receiver gets knocked out? That was me. I was lying in the end zone, just waking up after being knocked out and I literally couldn’t move my arms.

It was my first NFL game, the first preseason game of my rookie year, and I was excited to be named a starter that week. Dolphins against Tampa Bay, around the 13th play that I was in that night. I go to make a tackle in the end zone and next thing I know, I’m being taped to a board and put on the side of a helicopter. I’m thinking my career’s over in 13 plays. I was released from the hospital the next day. Diagnosis: neck soreness and a bad stinger. That’s it. A “stinger.” I was back on the field at the next practice with a cowboy collar. Looking back, I’m sure I had a pretty bad concussion.

We’re waiting for this settlement to go through, but already the concussion conversation is changing. I really do believe this case has changed the whole dynamic of that conversation. The vocabulary itself around head trauma is changing. I’ve seen it change in my lifetime. We used to call hits to the head “dings.” We used to call concussions “stingers.” Concussions used to be considered “pain” but not “injury.” In recent years, we’re finally calling head trauma what it is: injury.

Sometimes I hear this from football fans: You made all that money, why is this such a big deal? Why are our tax dollars being tied up in federal court? It’s “millionaires fighting billionaires,” some people say. But I talk to these guys every day. Out of 20,000-plus retired players, I know for sure that a lot of them aren’t millionaires. Did most of us make a good living? Yes, we did. But a lot of these retired guys played in an era when the money wasn’t like it is today. Decades of life and health care costs carry a big price tag.

When I played, you weren’t diagnosed with a concussion unless you were throwing up and having visible problems functioning that day or the day after. There was no such thing as a doctor on the sideline saying, “Oh, you might have a concussion. Let’s do an assessment test back in the locker room. Take two weeks off.” To get back into the game, a coach or training staff member just asked you something like: “Who’s the president? What’s your number? What’s your number backwards?”

If you “passed,” they handed you your helmet and you got to go back in the game.

Every football player knows the game is not 100 percent safe. But the understanding of head injuries has changed drastically just in the time since I walked away from the game. I just had lunch with a former player who played in a different era and is a little bit older than me, and he said, “We all knew there was a possibility, every time you stepped on the field, of a career-ending ACL tear or a broken bone. But none of us knew about head trauma.”

Imagine that: being more worried about a knee injury than a traumatic brain injury.

I want to tell you about Kevin Turner, a former fullback for the Eagles and Patriots and the other class representative in the settlement. I played at the same time as Kevin and I actually played against him my rookie year. Kevin and I played positions that didn’t have high notoriety back then — not too many safeties and fullbacks were household names — but we were proud to be grunts.

Today, Kevin has ALS. And he’s around my age. Think about that for a second. When we first started this legal battle, Kevin Turner was able to travel, he was able to talk and he was even able to go in front of Congress to speak. Today, none of that is possible. He’s on a feeding tube and needs 24-hour care. It’s tough to realize that this is what could happen to an NFL brother.

That’s why this settlement is so important. I never became involved in this settlement for personal attention and I don’t want to punish the NFL or the game of football. I’m doing it for my brothers. It gives a player and his family a support system for head trauma — for the first time. The majority of the guys that signed up for this, I do not believe signed up to hurt the game of football. We all just want a safety net for guys who got injured. And if it goes through, we’ll be able to say we got one of the biggest sports organizations in the world to change. Just like financial markets, it’s about the long game.

We’re down at the goal line. We’ve made it this far. We just had a 99-yard drive. It’s heartbreaking to see our brothers and their families have to wait as this appeals process drags on.

Let’s get that extra yard and get it into the end zone.