A question lingers in Len Hauss‘ mind, like the bite from ammonia capsules trainers used to wave under his nose. Once, Hauss seemed indestructible. One hundred ninety-two consecutive starts over 14 seasons at center for the Washington Redskins earned him a spot in the team’s Ring of Fame. He was knocked silly and knocked out and, if he could get his eyes open with help from the pungent capsules, he stayed on the field. Job security, even for a six-time Pro Bowler, meant playing. Now the 69-year-old with a gentle Georgia drawl wonders about football’s toll.
“You covered up your hurts. Is that smart or is that stupid?” Hauss said. “In 1965, I thought it was pretty smart. They thought you were invincible. Thirty-five years later, looking back you think, ‘Damn, I wish I wouldn’t have played in that game.’”
Hauss endured five surgeries on his left knee, two operations each on his elbows and back. His right arm is weak. Walking is difficult some days. Headaches come and go. So do gaps in memory.
Retired after a second career in banking, Hauss estimates he sustained between five and 10 concussions during his 14 years with the Redskins. But, he wonders, do occasions when he returned to the huddle dazed after a collision count as concussions, too? How about times when someone didn’t know where to line up because of a blow? What of the repeated licks, like one at San Francisco in 1976, where he didn’t return to reality until “a good while” after the game?
Unease and uncertainty lurk behind each word and, in that, Hauss is not alone.
Over the past 11 months, 2,397 former players have have sued the NFL over concussions, according to a review by The Washington Times of the 90 lawsuits filed through June 14. The plaintiffs, including 19 members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, combined to play 168,020 NFL games.
Paul Anderson, who chronicles the issue at NFLConcussionLitigation.com, believes the number of plaintiffs could double in coming months, from a pool of at least 12,000 retired NFL players.
Three members of the Redskins‘ Ring of Fame — Hauss, Billy Kilmer and Art Monk — are among 205 ex-Redskins in the lawsuits. Twenty-five former Redskins with 12 or more seasons of experience have sued, the most of any team in the league.
“You’re not so macho when you need help to go to the bathroom or you need help to put your clothes on and be helped to do normal things,” former Redskins cornerback Mike Bass said. “Macho doesn’t even begin to play into it anymore. … You never know when these types of troubles are going to materialize.”
“I worry,” said Mark Rypien, the former quarterback and MVP of Super Bowl XXVI who struggles with memory loss, “about the next 10 years.”
Lives once defined by seeming invulnerability on the field now are haunted by questions without answers. Some are bitter, viewing these lawsuits as an extension of long-standing conflicts over pensions, health care and use of their likenesses. Others feel betrayed. Will they succumb to depression or dementia or Alzheimer’s? Will they end up like Junior Seau or Ray Easterling, who killed themselves in the past three months?
“They’re scared, there’s no doubt about it. They’re feeling like it’s going to be them or the guy sitting next to them,” said Dr. Randall Benson, who studies traumatic brain injury at the Center for Neurological Studies in Novi, Mich. “This is life-altering [expletive].”
A lingering problem
The lawsuits have become a weekly occurence, filed in state and federal courts from California to Georgia, but are being consolidated in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. They accuse the NFL of, among other things, concealing the long-term consequences of head injuries from players. Some of the thousands of pages appear rushed and riddled with errors, from misspelled first and last names of plaintiffs to incorrect positions, teams and years of service. Details of alleged injuries often are limited to the same vague catch-all sentence for each plaintiff.
There are even 115 players named in multiple lawsuits (one complaint involving 55 of those duplicates was voluntarily withdrawn); four players are named in three suits each. One attorney involved in the litigation reported his clients, who already filed suit, were repeatedly solicited by other firms via email and phone calls.
Other complaints attempt to quantify the toll of concussions, from former Green Bay Packers defensive tackle Gilbert Brown alleging he suffered 50 to 100 undiagnosed concussions during his 10-year career to Tommy Barnhardt, the Redskins‘ punter in 2000, claiming concussions left him with “insomnia, suicidal thoughts, vision issues, and ears ringing.”
“Many of them cannot work, can’t hold a job,” said Thomas Girardi, whose firm, Girardi Keese, filed the first concussion-related lawsuit against the NFL in July 2011. “This isn’t something that’s going to go away.”
Added Fred Heather, another plaintiffs’ lawyer: “There’s a conflict with these guys. They don’t want to look publicly like they have their hat in their hand.”
Monk, the Hall of Fame wide receiver, suffers from speech difficulties, Charley Harraway, the running back, has early-onset Alzheimer’s and Alvin Garrett, who caught a touchdown pass in Super Bowl XVII, has dementia, according to their lawsuits.
Mark May, the ESPN college football analyst and Redskins offensive tackle who was a founding member of “The Hogs,” sued last week.
Almost a third of the plaintiffs played three or fewer seasons in the NFL. Most started their careers in the 1980s or 1990s. Twenty percent of the plaintiffs who played a regular-season game in the NFL are defensive backs, more than any other position. Even 31 punters and kickers are involved, including Chip Lohmiller, who kicked seven seasons for the Redskins.
Plaintiffs span seven decades, from 84-year-old Edgar Henke, whose 123-game career kicked off in 1949, to four players who retired after the 2011 season. One hundred ninety-eight plaintiffs never played a regular-season NFL game, spending time in NFL Europe, on practice squads or in training camp. Eleven are dead. That includes at least six wrongful death claims against the NFL.
“You can’t take and give these hits over this period of time,” said Benson, the neurologist. “It’s physically and mechanically impossible not to have brain damage.”
‘We have taken the right steps’
The NFL has called the litigation’s claims without merit and maintained that player safety has long been a priority.
In a motion filed last November to dismiss Easterling’s lawsuit, the NFL maintains the concussion litigation is “fundamentally a labor dispute” and subject to the collective bargaining agreement.
“We obviously believe the charges that we have not been responsible in this area are not factually correct,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell told reporters last month during the league’s spring meeting in Atlanta. “We have taken the right steps. We have been leaders in this area. We have not waited for science.”
Starting in 2010, the NFL posted warnings about concussions, their symptoms and potential consequences in each locker room. Rules have changed, too, from preventing defenseless players from being hit above the shoulders in 2010 to kickoffs being moved up five yards to the 35-yard line last season. And at the NFL’s rookie symposium next week, players will be warned about long-term effects of traumatic brain injury.
“The NFL has long made player safety a priority and continues to do so,” a league spokesman said in a statement to The Washington Times. “Any allegation that the NFL sought to mislead players has no merit. It stands in contrast to the league’s many actions to better protect players and advance the science and medical understanding of the management and treatment of concussions.”
The NFL has until Aug. 9 to file a motion to dismiss the master complaint in Pennsylvania.
“If they succeed at this stage, not only will the case itself go away, but they’ll be able to avoid the discovery stage,” said Marc Edelman, a sports law expert and professor at Barry University School of Law, “meaning the expense, the team and possibly the public relations nightmare of documents coming out that may be perceived negatively toward the league.”
‘Take some Advil and move on’
To Rypien, a concussion felt like an out-of-body experience.
His head rang and shook. There was noise like a high-pitched saw.
“Your jaw is feeling like, ‘What the heck is going on inside my mouth?’” Rypien said. “It’s not natural.”
Rypien, who sees a neurologist, was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit with 125 other former players filed in March, after the 49-year-old grew alarmed over memory lapses he could no longer attribute to aging.
One violent hit sticks in Rypien’s mind. He described a playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings when Lohmiller kicked the game-winning field goal. But the game was Oct. 25, 1992, not during the playoffs. It’s another pothole in his memory that leaves Rypien unsettled.
In the fourth quarter, Rypien was flushed from the pocket and hit as he slid. A woozy Rypien jogged to the sideline to get the call for the final play to set up Lohmiller’s field goal. Coach Joe Gibbs told him to run a 50. Rypien insisted the call, a staple for the Redskins, wasn’t in the playbook.
The next week Rypien started against the San Francisco 49ers.
“You take some Advil and move on,” said Rypien, who believed he had four or five concussions in his 11-year career.
Rypien’s words are conflicted, his love of football, a game he calls the greatest in the world, colliding with basic details from conversations and daily life slipping from his mind like the ball from a receiver’s hands.
“Ninety-five percent [of the plaintiffs] exhibit the same symptoms or worse than Mark,” said Craig Mitnick, Rypien’s attorney. “This is a very, very real thing.”
‘They’ve turned their backs on us’
Mike Bass hurts. His shoulders. His ankles. His knees. His neck that eventually forced him to retire after intercepting 30 passes in seven seasons with the Redskins and, in Super Bowl VII, returning Miami Dolphins kicker Garo Yepremian’s fumble for a touchdown. Getting out of bed each morning isn’t easy.
But Bass, 67, considers himself fortunate. He had three, four, maybe more concussions. A study he participated in two years ago found an unspecified “indication of deterioration.” He mentions former players who are in assisted-living homes or worse. He doesn’t feel like he’s in bad shape. Instead, he feels used.
A meager pension. No compensation for highlight films of his play on Yepremian. Head injuries take his frustration further. His voice rises as he mentions Dr. Ira Casson, the neurologist dubbed “Dr. No” who worked for the NFL. Casson told HBO’s Real Sports there wasn’t a link between head trauma and long-term brain problems in a 2007 interview.
“Is there any evidence, as far as you’re concerned, that links multiple head injuries among pro football players with depression?” Bernard Goldberg, the interviewer, asked.
“No,” Casson said.
“Early onset of Alzheimer’s?”
“Is there any evidence as of today that links multiple head injuries with any long-term problem like that?”
“In NFL players? No.”
In written testimony before the House Judiciary Committee in 2010, Casson, who resigned as co-chairman of the NFL’s committee on brain injuries in 2009, accused the media of distorting his position but added: “There is not enough valid, reliable or objective scientific evidence at present to determine whether or not repeat head impacts in professional football result in long term brain damage.” Casson’s name is splashed throughout the lawsuits.
“I really hate deceit,” said Bass, who provides high-end loans for entrepreneurs. “These things would not have materialized if the owners, the NFL had treated players with just a little bit of respect, had given us just a little dignity as we move from playing football into a normal, regular life which after playing football, is never going to be normal or regular.”
Bass remembers being taught to aim his forehead at what he wanted to hit. Repeated hits can damage the brain’s frontal lobe, according to Benson, causing depression, anxiety, impulsivity and easy anger. But subconcussive hits that don’t result in a clinical concussion, such as the routine banging of an offensive lineman’s head into a defender’s chest, can be more dangerous over the long term, Benson said.
Eight surgeries? Part of the game to Bass. But the suicides, the NFL’s response, the creeping uncertainty about a concussion-clouded future bothers him.
“We were not educated as to the ramifications of how things would be 20, 30 years later,” Bass said. “None of us really want to hurt the NFL. But they’ve kind of turned their backs on us.”
‘You knew you had to play’
Back when Len Hauss wore No. 56, long-term consequences of blows to his head didn’t matter. Keeping his job did. He figured a handful of his backups over 14 seasons were better than him. If they couldn’t play, no one would know and he would keep his spot. So, he rarely missed a down.
“If you got hurt, you did your dead level best not to let anybody know that,” Hauss said. “You didn’t let the trainers know and you certainly didn’t let the coaches know because you wanted to be on the club. … You couldn’t afford to let somebody else get your job.”
Financial help isn’t what Hauss wants from the lawsuits. Medical evaluation and attention, improving the quality of life for ex-players suffering residual effects matters more. The master complaint filed earlier this month in Pennsylvania requests NFL-funded monitoring and treatment for plaintiffs. An NFL filing in response to a concussion case filed in U.S. District Court in New Jersey estimated a baseline evaluation would cost $6,200 to $8,600 per person.
“You knew you had to play,” Hauss said. “We’ll worry about the concussion later.”