Brent Novoselsky has been out of pro football for 18 years. He can’t recall the number of concussions he suffered during his NFL career and hears his body moan every time he gets out of a chair.
At 47, the former Bears and Minnesota Vikings tight end has started to feel the aftershocks of a life spent around football. Doctors routinely ask how many car accidents Novoselsky has been involved in when they examine X-Rays. His answer is always the same, pinning the condition of his neck and spine on nearly 100 NFL games and making more than 100 special teams tackles.
Three years shy of his 50th birthday, the former Ivy League honors graduate from the University of Pennsylvania fears what his future looks like. He’s not alone.
Despite progress that’s been made since the NFL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement was ratified in 2011, former players like Novoselsky and Emery Moorehead – the starting tight end on the Bears’ 1985 Super Bowl championship team – still face an uphill climb as they settle into real life for what they hope is the long haul.
But that life, players say, is filled with uncertainties after playing a sport that has taken its toll on the minds and bodies of the nearly 12,000 living former NFL players.
“People say they’d give their left leg to play in the NFL and it sounds good to start with,” Novoselsky said at a meeting of Chicago-area retired players last week in McHenry. “But then, when you live it and you have to live in the nightmare that [former Bears quarterback] Jim McMahon is living in and you have to go through what [late Bears safety] Dave Duerson went through, it’s a bit scary.”
Novoselsky and Moorehead are part of a group of more than 4,000 former players who are suing the NFL over the league’s treatment of head injuries and concussions, according to a Washington Times database. Novoselsky alleges that the NFL “categorically lied” about the impact repeated blows to the head and concussions have as it relates to longer-term health.
The league insists it never intentionally mislead players and that it did its best to protect them. But plays say that it’s not until they leave the game that the real work begins in trying to get the league to take care of them
“The NFL needs to do more,” said Marques Sullivan, president of the Retired Professional Football Players of Chicago.
Moorehead said he’s pleased with the progress that has been made under NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and National Football League Players Association Executive Director DeMaurice Smith.
The current CBA provides for a health savings account up to $300,000 and protects the Former Player Life Improvement Plan, which provides educational programs, vested life insurance, neurological care and other benefits for retired players. It also gives players access to a $620 million Legacy Fund, which was designed to assist players who competed in the 1960s, 70s and 80s who were vested by the league before 1993.
The CBA also provides for better pensions for players once they leave the game, improving on a plan players like Moorehead fought so hard for.
Moorehead, who was part of two player strikes fighting for a bigger piece of the revenue pie and then for free agency, says he knew at the time the impact of his efforts wouldn’t be felt until much later. Novoselsky says players in his eras were merely “guinea pigs” for the benefits enjoyed by today’s NFL players.
But for Moorehead, who is 59 and who retired in 1988 following a 12-year career with the Giants, Broncos and Bears, the future wasn’t always as bright. It wasn’t until the concussion story and other health concerns among aging players became a priority for the NFL that the league discovered some of its former players needed help.
“They sacrificed their lives for the NFL, they’ve given a lot of time, a lot of body, and just a lot of abuse,” Moorehead said last week. “[The league] is and just now finding out that when these guys get into their 50s, 60s and 70s, there’s all kind of health problems – dementia and things like that. They’re just starting to realize that and [now] the owners and the NFLPA are trying to rectify that situation.”
Sullivan wants to be part of the solution.
Sullivan spent five years as an NFL offensive tackle, playing with the Bills, Giants and Patriots before retiring in 2004. Too many players, Sullivan said last week, are ill equipped to face retirement, especially after putting their bodies through years of abuse during their playing careers.
While Goodell has vowed to make the game safer, Sullivan said the message hasn’t always reached the team level. Sullivan said he was routinely instructed in practice to use his helmet as a third hand, taught to make “Riddell to Riddell” contact every time the ball was snapped. Sullivan declined to name the coach who gave the instructions.
“We were like programmed robots – out to achieve a goal and honestly, that’s all I thought about,” Sullivan said.
“You didn’t think about it. It was just ‘Do your job or you’ll be cut.’ “
Almost two decades after his NFL career ended, Novoselsky is now living with the effects of concussions. He remembers sitting on his couch in the offseason, nodding his head and “literally hearing the ocean because the brain was sloshing around.”
Like with Sullivan, Novoselsky didn’t consider the risks of later-in-life injuries because he was just doing his job. But still, he knew something was wrong.
“You would have a quarter where you were just seeing fuzzy stuff – if you threw a ball at me, it would stick in my facemask because I couldn’t really see particulars,” he said. “I felt like I was out of my body looking down but I was playing special teams and so I could hit the opposite color.
“That was OK. You shake it off. You weren’t tough if you came out of the game and we didn’t know what we were doing.”
Since then, the league has changed its practices. The NFL’s CBA outlawed full-padded practices in the offseason and limits teams to 14 such workouts during the regular season. The league has also made strides in taking former players, who Moorehead said for a long time were forgotten once they retired, left to fend for themselves when it comes to adjusting to normal life.
It’s a phase Rashied Davis has just started.
Davis, a former wide receiver with the Bears and Detroit Lions, retired after the 2011 season. He has received plenty of help from a support system made up of friends and family, but is just investigating what his next step will entail.
He has a charitable foundation but says he’s still working to find out what he is best suited to do. Like most players who don’t make what he refers to as “elite, Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs-type money”, he won’t be able to retire on what he made during his NFL career.
Sullivan says Davis’ story is common. The Retired Professional Football Players of Chicago has worked to help build a support system for former players. The group gives members access to mentors and to career fairs as players begin life anew outside of football. It’s a reality that Sullivan, whose first job interview outside of football was for sales representative job with a Chicago-based wine and spirits company, says many of his contemporaries aren’t ready to face.
“A lot of us think that can’t happen to us, but it does,” Sullivan said. “It happens to every last one of us. But it’s something that needs to be driven home because it’s going to happen – sooner or later so you want to make sure you’re prepared.”