‘They use you up’: Hall of Famer Dorsett suing NFL

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“I don’t want to get to the point where it turns into dementia, Alzheimer’s. I don’t want that,” says Dorsett, who ran for 12,739 yards, the eighth-highest total in league history. He is, in that moment, sad and deflated _ in others, pumped up and angry, fists flying to punctuate his words. “There’s no doubt in my mind that … what I went through as a football player is taking an effect on me today. There’s no ifs ands or buts about that. I’m just hoping and praying I can find a way to cut it off at the pass.”

He spreads two pages’ worth of brain scans on his coffee table and says doctors told him that red regions in the color-coded scan mean he is not getting enough oxygen in the left lobe of his brain, the part associated with organization and memory. He already forgets people’s names or why he walked into a room or where he’s heading while driving on the highway, and fears his memory issues are getting worse.

Dorsett’s had surgery on both his knees, and problems with his left arm and right wrist. He says then-Cowboys coach Tom Landry once told him he could play despite a broken bone in his back. Not even the flak jacket Dorsett says he wore beneath his jersey could bring relief, the injury so painful that “tears would just start flowing out of my eyes, profusely and uncontrollably” during practices.

“They would see me and just point to the training room. `Go to the training room, get some ice and heat and come on back out here,’” Dorsett says.

And during games?

“They were hitting me, and I’d be squealing like a pig,” Dorsett says, imitating the guttural sound. “It was so bad that the other team was telling our coaches, `Get him out of the game.’ You know that something’s wrong then. And like a fool, I stayed as long as I could. They’re going to our sideline, telling our coaches, `Get him out of the game!’ … You know it’s bad when the opposition feels sorry for you.”

Other players describe an off-camera NFL that is darker than the carefully scripted show presented during Super Bowl week. Their recollections, based on playing careers that touched every decade from the 1960s to the 2000s, include:

_ “Midnight snack” buffets at a team hotel the night before games that would consist not only of food and drink, but also painkillers so that, as Rory Graves, an Oakland Raiders offensive lineman from 1988-91, puts it, “The next day, you feel like a kid. You could run into a car _ no pain! You didn’t feel nothing.”

_ Cans of beer tucked into airplane seat pockets before players would board, so they’d have something at the ready to wash down the prescription drugs such as the painkiller Vicodin (commonly called “footballs” by players because of their oblong shape) or the muscle relaxant Flexeril (“home plates” because they’re pentagons) disbursed freely by someone coming down the aisle on team flights. “We took those drugs because we wanted to play, but there was nobody stopping us,” Turley says. “We’re young. We’re 10 feet tall. Nothing can harm us. If you’re giving it to us, we’re going to take it.”

_ Widespread and regular use of Toradol, a medicine intended for pain relief, generally after an operation, and a central part of one of the lawsuits that says the drug could put someone with a head injury at increased risk. “If it wasn’t torn or it wasn’t broken, to me, Toradol fixed it and allowed me to keep going. I was so used to using it that I wanted to make it a weekly ritual to make sure that if I did get hurt, I wouldn’t have to be taken out of the game,” says Joe Horn, who estimated he got four or five concussions during a career in which he caught more than 600 passes for the Chiefs, Saints and Falcons from 1996-2007. “To be honest with you, we were kind of _ what’s the word for it? _ addicted. But I always thought it was OK; the NFL doctors were giving it to us.”

_ Being scorned by teammates or coaches if unable to return to a game because of injury, and a seeming total dismissal, particularly in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, of the notion that head trauma could cause significant problems, immediately or long term. “Get back out there” was a phrase repeated by the ex-players, citing words they heard during practices or games. As Joe Harris, a linebacker with five teams from 1977-82, says: “I know I had nine or 10 concussions, because I played through them. A lot of times, I’m out there and I was dazed, and I heard guys say, `He’s knocked out, and he don’t even know it.’ And then you talk to your coach, and they bring out smelling salts. `Give him a hit of that, and put him back out on the field.’ And they show you fingers, and you say it’s three when it’s two. And they say, `Get back out there. Just hit the one in the middle.’”

_ A day-to-day, post-football existence that is difficult because of, for some, depression, dementia, migraine headaches, memory lapses, along with balky hips and knees and shoulders. “My body hurts all the time,” says Mark Duper, who caught more than 500 passes as a wide receiver with Dan Marino’s Miami Dolphins from 1982-92. Duper is more concerned, though, about the ringing in his ears, the loss of memory, “having a conversation and, all of a sudden, I just forget what I’m talking about.”

“I try not to take medicine. I don’t want to be a zombie,” Duper adds. “What little left I’ve got in my brain, I want to keep it normal.”

Dorsett describes making the trek to the annual Hall of Fame induction ceremony and being saddened by once-hearty men deteriorating before his eyes.

“Bodies that were just mangled, just beat up. Twisted up. Hit with arthritis and the knuckles and the bones, the twisted bones. It’s `Wow!’ It’s very enlightening to see that,” he says, wincing at the images he describes. “And then when you hear that these guys don’t have insurance, that the league won’t give them insurance, that the league is saying that it didn’t happen on their clock. That’s bull.”

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