Dorsett joins concussion suit, reels from concussion

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The helmet-to-helmet shot knocked Tony Dorsett out cold in the second quarter of a 1984 Dallas Cowboys-Philadelphia Eagles game, the hardest hit he took in his Hall of Fame NFL career.

"It was like a freight train hitting a Volkswagen," Dorsett says now.

"Did they know it was a concussion?" he asks rhetorically in an interview with The Associated Press. "They thought I was half-dead."

And, yet, he said, after being examined in the locker room -- a light shined in his eyes; queries such as who sat next to him on the bus ride to the stadium -- Dorsett returned to the game and gained 99 yards in the second half. Mainly, he said, by running plays the wrong way because he could not remember what he was supposed to do.

"That ain't the first time I was knocked out or been dazed over the course of my career, and now I'm suffering for it," the 57-year-old former tailback said. "And the NFL is trying to deny it."

Dorsett traces several health problems to concussions in his career (1977-88), and he has joined more than 300 former players -- including three other members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and at least 32 first- or second-team All-Pro selections -- in suing the NFL, its teams and, in some cases, helmet-maker Riddell. More should have been done in the past to warn about the dangers of concussions, their lawyers argue, and more can be done now and in the future to help retired players deal with mental and physical problems they attribute to their NFL careers.

In interviews conducted by the AP over the past two months with a dozen plaintiffs, what emerged was, at best, a depiction of a culture of indifference on the part of the league and its teams toward concussions and other injuries. At worst, there was a strong sense of a willful disregard for players' well-being.

Players complained that they carried owners to their profits in an industry that now has more than $9 billion in annual revenues, but there were no safety nets of guaranteed contracts or lifetime medical insurance.

"Yeah, I understand you paid me to do this, but still yet, I put my life on the line for you, I put my health on the line," Dorsett says. "And yet, when the time comes, you turn your back on me? That's not right."

Head injuries are a major topic of conversation every day of the NFL season. With the Super Bowl as a global stage, the NFL will air a one-minute TV commercial Sunday highlighting rules changes through the years that have made the sport safer.

The owners of the teams playing for the Lombardi Trophy in Indianapolis -- Bob Kraft of the New England Patriots and John Mara of the New York Giants -- acknowledge the issue's significance.

"There's more of a focus on it now, without question, and I think that's a good thing, and I think it'll continue to be a focus. Because none of us want to put players in perilous situations like that," Mara says. "I don't want to see guys that are on this team, 20 years from now, with debilitating injuries, no matter what they are."

Says Kraft: "We know this is a physical game, and, when people play the game, they know it comes with certain risks. We have tried to stay ahead of it."

The most accomplished and best-known plaintiff in the flurry of lawsuits -- a star for the Cowboys after winning the 1976 Heisman Trophy at Pitt -- Dorsett did two interviews with the AP.

"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.

"There's no doubt in my mind that ... what I went through as a football player is taking an effect on me today."

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 is heading while driving on the highway.

Other players describe an off-camera NFL that is darker than the carefully scripted show presented in 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 '88-91, 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 are pentagons) disbursed freely by someone coming down the aisle on team flights.

• 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 in a career in which he caught more than 600 passes for the Kansas City Chiefs, New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons from 1996-2007.

• Being scorned by teammates or coaches if unable to return to a game because of injury and a seeming total dismissal, particularly in the '70s, '80s and '90s, 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 '77-82, 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.' "

Citing the pending litigation, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello says the league would not comment on specific allegations and referred to a written statement initially released in December: "The NFL has long made player safety a priority and continues to do so. Any allegation that the NFL intentionally sought to mislead players has no merit. It stands in contrast to the league's actions to better protect players and advance the science and medical understanding of the management and treatment of concussions."

Jack Yeo, who works at a public relations firm representing Riddell, says the equipment company does not comment on legal matters.

As public as the plight of current players is, former players say their stories are not widely known.

"I'm just so happy that the senators and congressmen and congresswomen took notice of how they have been cheating us," says Ronnie Lippett, a New England Patriots cornerback from '83-91. "And that's the only reason [players are] getting the help that we're getting now. And it's only been in the last two years that anything has started to change."

Soon after a House hearing in October 2009, when lawmakers grilled commissioner Roger Goodell about the league's concussion policies and the connection between injuries on the playing field and later brain diseases, the NFL made several changes.

But players like Dorsett and Duper, who played long before that greater awareness and vigilance, did not have any safeguards.

"They weren't as cautious back then. We played with concussions. I didn't know what a concussion was, really, when I was playing football. We got hit, we got up," Duper says.

That attitude extended beyond head injuries, according to the plaintiffs the AP interviewed.

"The game of football and the money that was out there -- they wanted the best players in the games, no matter what. If he was 80 percent well or 75 percent, they believed that he, the starter, was better than the second guy behind him, and they'd rather have a less-percentage guy. They didn't protect us at all," Lippett says. "They had to know of the ramifications of going back out there with different injuries. The money aspect of it just forced them to not pay attention."

Mara, the Giants owner, says he can't speak for other teams, but insists his medical staff takes "any kind of injury seriously.""

Giants long snapper Zak DeOssie's father, Steve, also played for New York, as well as New England, in his '84-95 career. The elder DeOssie was approached about signing on as a plaintiff against the NFL but has not because, he says, "I'm not 100 percent sure if my concussions have affected me."

Players have differing motives for suing their former employers, and the 20 or so lawsuits against the NFL seek varying remedies, although lawyers are reluctant to discuss specific monetary damages.

"I just want to make sure there is some recognition given to the fact that, 10 years from now, if I come down with something ... that I have some kind of recourse," says Cedric Brown, a safety for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from '76-84.

Asked what advice he would give current players, Brown said: "First thing is, wear every pad. ... And pay attention to your body. When you get to be 50 or 60, those little injuries you have now, guess what? They're coming back."

Dorsett acknowledged he's not familiar with details of the lawsuit that includes him among the plaintiffs.

He was approached about joining other former players, and he agreed, figuring his name would call attention to the issues of mistreatment he sees as being at the heart of the case.

"I'll stand up on a mountaintop," Dorsett says, "and tell the world it's not right."

Former Los Angeles Rams offensive lineman Dennis Harrah, like most former players interviewed by the AP, is not too optimistic about a quick resolution. "They're just waiting until we die," he says of the NFL. "They're just waiting for us old guys until we pass -- to quit complaining, and we die."



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