Before the 2013 season, the NFL agreed to pay $765 million to settle a lawsuit in which former players contended league officials knew about the dangers of concussions.
Almost six months later, the case drags on for 4,500 former players, including former Oklahoma State quarterback Rusty Hilger. The Southeast High product got involved in the lawsuit after talking to former OU running back Marcus Dupree's attorney.
One condition to the proposed settlement is this can't be viewed as an admission of guilt by the NFL.
“The cover-up is what bothers me,” said Hilger, who played five NFL seasons. “I was knocked completely out three times. Now we know a real concussion basically is when you see stars. I had 15 or 20 or more of those.”
Steve Zabel, who played at OU in the late 1960s, is in his second stint as president of the Oklahoma chapter of the retired NFL Players Association, an organization that raises money for scholarships and charities at its annual golf event at Oak Tree National.
Zabel was on the sidelines 35 years ago when a horrific injury raised health-risk concerns in a violent sport. Zabel watched Raiders safety Jack Tatum lower his shoulder in a preseason game. The infamous hit on wide receiver Darryl Stingley, Zabel's teammate on the New England Patriots, paralyzed for life. The hit was legal in 1978.
“It was a different era,” Zabel said. “We now know things weren't done the right way. I one time got knocked out blocking on a kickoff return. They waved ammonia capsules under my nose. I played the rest of the game. Back then, you never heard the word concussion.”
Langston University athletic director Mike Garrett played seven years in the NFL. The 1965 Heisman Trophy winner out of Southern Cal said he suffered two or three concussions, including one in Denver while he played for the Kansas City Chiefs.
“I landed on my head, and my left side — I couldn't stop my left arm and shoulder from wiggling,” Garrett said. “The team doctor told me to lay down or sit on the bench for a little bit, but I told him I needed to get back in the game. I went back in and told (quarterback Len) Dawson that I'm not worth a hill of beans right now and just move me in motion.”
When the Chiefs returned to Kansas City, Garrett was hospitalized overnight. Now 69, Garrett said he has not suffered any side effects from concussions.
“So far so good with me,” he said.
It's uncertain how many of the roughly 20,000 retired NFL players will be compensated. Under the proposal, younger players will receive more than players who discovered they have a severe brain injury after they turned 45. In the fine print, estates of players who died before 2006 will be excluded.
Former players with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, could receive up to $5 million. Families of players who committed suicide and were found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) might receive up to $4 million. Players with Parkinson's or Alzheimer's might receive as much as $3 million.
But earlier this month, federal judge Anita Broday denied preliminary approval, citing concerns there's not enough money to cover all the qualifying players. It probably will take another 30 to 60 days before negotiators can refile the preliminary approval motion.
Several players' attorneys are eager to reach a settlement to assist clients suffering from debilitating neurological issues that require immediate medical treatment.
Former OU and Kansas City defensive end/linebacker Jimbo Elrod, who lives in Tulsa and works in the home health care business, is concerned delays will hamper needed treatment for ex-players that need help.
“Some of the stories you hear just break your heart,” Elrod said. “I just want to see guys that really need help be able to get the help they need.”