FENNO: Like other NFL concussion plaintiffs, Dexter Manley tired of suffering

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The stream of words from Dexter Manley shuddered to a halt.

“Hamlin?” he said. “Hammel?”

The name of a wedge-busting Redskins teammate floated around the edges of Manley’s mind Wednesday afternoon. Nicknamed the “Secretary of Defense” for the vicious hits that built his reputation as one of the NFL’s feared defensive ends in the 1980s, Manley was stumped.

“A defensive tackle … could play special teams … I can’t even remember the number he wore,” he said.

Two brain surgeries in seven years, including a 10½-hour procedure to remove a cyst in 2006, have cut into his memory. Manley blames football.

“I don’t think his name was Steve,” he said. “I don’t know his name.”

The search ended without success. This isn’t new. Last year, Manley joined the more than 4,600 former players suing the NFL over head injuries. And Manley’s boisterous voice won’t be found grumbling about the proposed $765 million settlement reached last week.

The words pick up again.

“I’m one of those victims,” Manley said. “A lot of days I get up and I don’t remember my wife’s name. My wife will tell you I suffered. I just want to get better. Get my thoughts back together. Whatever it takes to do that.”

The 54-year-old recently completed occupational therapy. The experience challenged him, humbled him. Each day, he hopes, is a bit better than the one before.

“I don’t want to suffer like that,” Manley said. “I don’t want to suffer. I don’t want to suffer.”

The settlement, which needs to be approved by Judge Anita Brody in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, includes $675 million to compensate former players suffering from cognitive impairment. The program’s mechanics remain vague — the estimated 15,000 to 18,000 living retired players are eligible — but half the money is scheduled to be paid in the first three years.

Urgency guided the plaintiffs. Not betting on the uncertain outcome from four of five years of legal discovery. Not as player after player is pulled into the oblivion of neurodegenerative disease. They wanted immediate help. That urgency to settle, lost amid complaints about the distant relationship of the settlement amount to the NFL’s $9.5 billion annual revenue, underscores the shape so many former players are in.

“They’re viewing it with blinders on,” said Paul Anderson, the Kansas City, Mo., attorney who tracks the issue at NFLConcussionLitigation.com. “They’re not calculating the substantial amount of risk that was at play. … The plaintiffs started at zero and went to $765 million.”

But, really, what price would be enough?

A billion dollars? Ten billion? Fifty billion?

The ugly, uncomfortable truth is no amount of money, no settlement can unravel the generations of damage.

No settlement can rid Steve Smith, the D.C. native who became a bruising fullback for the Raiders and Seahawks, of Lou Gehrig’s disease that forces him to rely on a ventilator to breathe.

No settlement can end former Chiefs All-Pro Otis Taylor’s reliance on a feeding tube as he struggles through Parkinson’s disease and dementia, unable to walk or speak.

No settlement can pull Pro Football Hall of Famer Willie Wood from the fog of dementia that clouds his days in a Washington assisted-living facility.

And no settlement can return Manley’s memory. Some memories, though, will never leave.

“You have a few concussions and you get back on the field,” he said. “If you don’t, people start giving you names. You’re not tough. You can’t cut it. You try to get up and go to the huddle. You didn’t want to show weakness or the people you play for, the people you play with will label you soft.”

Manley wishes he played the game differently after what he’s learned in recent years. That much is clear. He would still play the game. But he’d get his head out of the way for hits like the one when he knocked out Cowboys quarterback (and fellow concussion plaintiff) Danny White in the NFC Championship game in January 1983. The second-guessing is too late. The damage has been done.

“I’ve been in the pain,” Manley said, “but I have to stay on my knees praying for God to get me through this.”

He’s thankful help could be on the way. Thinks both parties did right by the game that made him feel like a gladiator. No, the NFL didn’t admit wrongdoing in the settlement. The money sends a different message, though. That’s good enough for Manley.

The settlement isn’t perfect. Maybe more could’ve been wrung from the NFL by dragging the litigation on for a few more years. At least this does something. The game, after all, is one Manley can’t escape.

“It left an everlasting impression on me,” he said. “Football is a very violent sport. It leaves everlasting scars on you.”

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