- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 26, 2002

Johnny Unitas, 69.

Bob Hayes, 59.

Mike Webster, 50.

Three famous football players, gone in the space of two weeks. Each one younger than the last. It's enough to make any fan choke on his Cheerios.

Surely there's a message in there somewhere, something other than "carpe diem." When arguably the greatest quarterback of all time doesn't make it to 70, when the former world's fastest human doesn't make it to 60 and when a Hall of Fame center barely lives to be 50, you want an explanation. You want understanding. Is it genes? Is it fate? Is it the game?

And what of their incredible shrinking lifespans? What are we to make of that? That the lives of pro football players are becoming increasingly nasty, brutish and short?

It's an easy conclusion to draw, and maybe not entirely accurate. A three-year study conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in the early '90s found that ex-NFL players weren't dying earlier than the rest of us. In fact, the results showed they lived slightly longer than the average American male (72 years at the time). The study also showed, however, that linemen are more prone to heart disease than the general population, mainly because of their size.

This is interesting, because Webster once claimed to have gained and lost more than 200 pounds during his 17-year pro career. And such fluctuations, doctors will tell you, can take years off anyone's life. If you want to know how ridiculous this bulking up craze in the NFL has gotten, take a look at Mark May sometime. The former Hog played at around 300 pounds in his last few seasons, but now he could be mistaken for an underdeveloped tight end. I'm guessing May has dropped 75 pounds since he traded his forearm pads for a microphone a quarter of his body weight.

So perhaps it's not football, per se, that's sending ex-players to early graves. Perhaps it's the football culture. A culture that says bigger is almost always better (Webster). A culture awash in painkillers and drugs (Hayes). A culture that, like other sports, can be difficult to leave behind (all three).

I came across something interesting about Unitas the other day that speaks to this last subject. It seems Carroll Rosenbloom, the Colts' owner during most of the Johnny U. years, liked to structure his players' contracts with deferred income. It made business sense for the club, and it gave the players some security down the road, when they were out of the game and presumably dealing with a smaller paycheck.

"Every player who came back to the Colts and negotiated a payoff of the deferred money he was owed, was, Rosenbloom said, broke within a few years," former agent Mike Trope wrote in "Necessary Roughness." "That included Johnny Unitas, who took a payoff on his deferred money, apparently made some poor investments and later filed for bankruptcy."

After which he developed the heart problems that eventually killed him.

Going from a life of excess in every imaginable way to a life of limits can put a real strain on an athlete. After former Cowboy Mark Tuinei died of a heroin overdose in 1999, fellow Hawaiian Jesse Sapolu told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin: "You can't imagine how tough it is to adjust to life without football after you've played as long as Mark and I did. I literally woke up in a cold sweat one night last July because my body wanted to go to war. It's hard getting used to a normal life after doing nothing else."

A number of years ago I interviewed Glenn Presnell, who had played with Dutch Clark on the old Portsmouth Spartans teams and was closing in on 90. Glenn was in terrific shape, told great stories just a joy to be around. I hear he's now the oldest living former NFL player, still alive and kicking at 97. Of course, he played in a different era, when 200-pound tailbacks like him were tackled by 195-pound defensive ends like Bill Hewitt. You went to the trainer's room in those days, and he'd give you a couple of aspirin and say, "Go."

I wonder how many if any players from the last few decades will make it to 97, what with the steroids and the concussions and all the rest. (Except, of course, for Darrell Green, who will probably still be on the Redskins' active roster.) I'm also not entirely trusting of these studies. I mean, shouldn't pro football players live significantly longer than your typical American male? They're the strongest of the strong, not the pale-faced kids who were always blowing their nose in class. If they're only living an average number of years, that says something, too.

Johnny Unitas, Bob Hayes, Mike Webster it's hard to know what to make of it all. I just know three more former football players have died way too soon.


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