#78 Keith Van Horne
Keith Van Horne was drafted by the Bears in the first round of the 1981 draft and held down the right tackle position for his entire 13-year career. Despite the fact he was there for almost every game from 1983 to 1986 as the Bears led the league in rushing four consecutive years, he never got much credit for his contributions to the team at the time.
Last year a Chicago Tribune article noted, “Consistency and longevity take a while to appreciate, and now — after 25 years of watching tackles who mostly haven’t come close to his level of play — Bears followers seem to acknowledge Van Horne as one of the better linemen in team history.”
“Very underrated,” former Bears offensive line coach Dick Stanfel told the Tribune’s Bob Verdi on Dec. 11, 2005, 12 years after Van Horne’s last season. “Keith never got the credit he deserved. My guys never sought any publicity. Maybe I should have done it more for them. Wasn’t my style, or theirs. We just did our jobs.”
Van Horne joined Richard Dent and Jim McMahon in the painkiller lawsuit. In an interview on “The McNeil and Spiegel Show” on WSCR-AM 670 shortly after the lawsuit was filed, Van Horne told the hosts, “I’m just mad at the system. As we all are.” He went into detail about how those who were supposed to be the players’ caretakers–the team doctors and trainers had failed them.
The court documents reveal that Van Horne recalls a playoff game against the New York Giants in which he couldn’t lift his arm. He informed the team doctor and head trainer of the problem and instead of resting him or examining they gave him two Percodan for the first half and two more for the second half to keep him in play. He was never given warnings or told about the side effects. This, however, was not his first experience with Percodan. Early in his career, he obtained a prescription for Percodan related to an ankle injury from a physician not affiliated with the NFL. Days later, head trainer Fred Caito called Van Horne into his office and lambasted him for obtaining the Percodan because it led the DEA to issue a letter to the Bears inquiring as to why Mr. Van Horne was obtaining Schedule II controlled substances. Van Horne explained that he had obtained a prescription from his physician. Trainer Caito dismissed the explanation and had the temerity to say that Van Horne had put him in a bad spot by lawfully obtaining Percodan from a licensed physician after an examination, which is the way it is supposed to work. Caito was upset because he ordered controlled substances, including Percodan, before the season, in bulk, in players’ names (unknown to the players and whether or not they had need of them), all of which are violations of the Controlled Substances Act.
Perhaps the worst infraction of all was one he related in the radio interview. He revealed that he broke his leg during a road game against the 49ers. When the medical staff X-rayed him, he said, “I asked them, ‘Did I break my leg?’ And (the doctor) said, ‘No, it’s just a bad contusion.’” He explained how for a month afterward he used a special boot to help reduce the swelling and with the aid of strong painkillers continued to play.
It was five years later when he finally learned the truth. He had broken his leg just as he suspected after a different doctor X-rayed him for a different injury.
He explained how players were pressured to ignore their injuries.
“I wanted to play,” but you have to understand also that the environment (back then) was different. (Teams) owned us. There wasn’t free agency. The threat of losing your job was always there. And they used that. Trust me. ‘If you’re not out there, somebody else is going to be out there.’ There were hints dropped from your coaches and ownership. You combine that with the fact that, yeah, you certainly want to be out there and just the mentality of being a football player. … I mean, that’s how you’re brought up. Suck it up. Be tough. Play through the pain.”
Since retirement Keith Van Horne has suffered two cardiac ablations and continues to suffer from atrial fibrillation and ventricular contractions; he believes this is a result of the overuse of painkillers and NSAIDs from his career. He says that not once did anyone inform him of the risks of medicating in the way that he was encouraged to medicate. He has also suffered from tachycardia and regularly suffers from musculoskeletal pain from injuries like the broken leg that were never permitted to heal properly.
#72 William Perry
William “The Refrigerator” Perry had an eventful rookie season. Taken as the 22nd pick in the 1985 draft, his first season led to a Super Bowl win. Though Perry, at just shy of 350 lbs., was officially a defensive lineman, early in the season he was snubbed by defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, but determined not to let his first-round draft pick go to waste, head coach Mike Ditka started using him on offense. He scored three touchdowns as a fullback during his rookie season and trampled Patriots linebacker Larry McGrew on his second career handoff. In the rematch against the Patriots in the Super Bowl, Perry scored a touchdown in the third quarter, helping to cement the team’s victory and earning him a size 25 Super Bowl ring–the largest ever!
Unfortunately, Perry’s rookie year turned out to be the peak of his career. Though he spent nine more seasons in the league, he only played 138 more games, limited by injuries and problems with his weight.
Two years after he retired from the NFL he tried a season in Europe, hoping to make a comeback, but it didn’t happen. He dabbled in boxing for a while and then attempted a music career as a rapper but only sold two records. He attempted to market a line of barbeque sauce in 2006 but that too fell flat.
In 2008, Perry was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a chronic condition that causes nerve damage. As a result, he was hospitalized one year after, and it was later revealed that he was losing his hearing, a common ailment among retired NFL and often a result of concussions. He lost 100 pounds that year.
Per a 2019 article on medium.com:
But that was just the beginning of the fall of the Refrigerator.
In 2011, ESPN reported that due to his health problems and heavy drinking, Perry’s weight had ballooned to 400 lbs and that he could barely walk without the support of a cane. Shortly afterward, Perry, whose weight had increased to 425 lbs, was wheelchair-bound and diagnosed with diabetes.
In order to pay off his expenses, Perry had to sell his own gigantic Super Bowl ring for money. But it still wasn’t enough. As of September 2015, William Perry has never left the house of his late father, where he lives with his brother and guardian Michael. Perry’s only income comes in the form of monthly government disability insurance, social security, and NFL pension payments.
#98 Tyrone Keys
Tyrone Keys’ life is a study on adversity and overcoming it. He presents a perfect example of the highs and lows common to many former NFL players. Like most other players who were part of the 2% of college players to make the cut from college to the NFL, he was wildly successful in high school and college. He was the clutch player in Mississippi State’s landmark, 6-3 upset of Alabama when Keys made the tackle and forced a fumble on Alabama’s final offensive play sealing the victory.
Despite the key play, Keys went undrafted and played for the CFL’s BC Lions for one year before the Bears brought him in in 1983. From there he went on to a stellar six season NFL career, with its apex, the Bears 1985 Super Bowl victory. He was also a member of the Shufflin’ Crew on percussion at the rear-right of the stage.
In 1986 he was traded to the 2-14 Tampa Bay Buccaneers and reflected on the experience, comparing it to “going from the penthouse to the outhouse.” He was dealt to the San Diego Chargers in 1988 where his season and career ended due to injuries. He tried to focus on getting healthy again and underwent several surgeries for his knee, shoulder, and back prior to applying for NFL Disability in 1991. He also developed heart problems during this time at only 30 years of age, likely due at least in part to the painkillers that were so plentiful in 1980s locker rooms.
He initially applied for the NFL’s Line of Duty (LOD) disability benefits that are awarded to players who present substantial disability shortly after retirement but aren’t considered “totally disabled.” The doctor who examined him found that he had a 50-59% loss of use of his back, 20-49% loss of use of his shoulder, and a 60-79% loss of use of both his knees. His LOD claim was almost immediately approved.
The LOD benefits were set for a maximum period of 5 years and during this time, Keys’ condition only deteriorated so he applied for Total and Permanent (T&P) Football Degenerative disability at this time. Inexplicably the Disability Board denied his claim.
He appealed, but prior to the decision Keys was involved in a fender bender in which a motorist rear-ended him at low speed. Since he already suffered from impairment and pain in his back, knees, and shoulder, it’s not surprising that the accident left him in a lot of pain. Keys’ disability claim was eventually approved, Keys, used his remaining abilities to inspire and mentor underprivileged youth, affording many a college education through his foundation All-Sports Community Service.
Though sometimes Keys must do mentoring over the phone due to his physical limitations, he often goes the extra mile when it comes to severely ill children who are hospitalized. He has a letter of commendation from Commissioner Roger Goodell to place beside his later disability denial, in which the Retirement Board, led by Groom Law Group seeks to claw his benefits away and paint him as a fraud.
In 2011 the Disability Board deadlocked on whether to continue Keys’ benefits due to their review of a 2009 tax return in which he showed some income. An audit by an accountant shows that the income was derived from NFL related appearances and charitable work which is permitted under the disability rules. Nevertheless, when the commissioner’s representative was called upon to break the tie, he voted for denial, but since Keys’ income was permissible, they now claimed that he obtained his benefits fraudulently because his disability was the result of the 2002 fender bender. Now they have stripped him of income, leaving him with only Security Disability and the fragments he might earn from appearances as they attempt to take what little he has to repay the benefits he was paid since 1999—three years before the car accident when Dr. Unger found him disabled and the Plan’s own doctor projected that his condition would continue to degenerate.
I can think of nothing more shameful than what the NFL is doing to Tyrone Keys.
#58 Wilber Marshall
Wilber Marshall was drafted by the Bears in 1984 and became part of the celebrated top-rated defense of the Super Bowl XX champions. In 1988 he became the first NFL free agent in eleven years to sign with another team. He won another championship in 1991 with Washington’s team. In all, his career spanned 12 years and 6 teams. He finished his career in 1995 with the New York Jets.
Unfortunately, the violence of the game took a heavy toll on Marshall. He filed for NFL disability in 1997-two years after he retired, but is typically the case, he was denied. Though he is hobbled by degenerative arthritis in his knees, ankles, hands, elbows, and spine the disability plan refused to budge forcing Marshall to take his case to federal court. In 2002 he was forced to file for bankruptcy as the litigation dragged on.
Though the Disability Plan relied on a solitary doctor’s report–one by one of their contracted “neutral” physicians and discarded multiple years of medical reports, the U.S. District Judge Gerald Lee of the Eastern District of Kentucky found that the Plan’s decision was reasonable. It wasn’t until January 2008 that he was reversed by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals and Marshall was finally awarded disability compensation.
William “Dan” Sullivan, Marshall’s attorney told Legal Times that the NFL pension plan contains “an inherent potential for inconsistencies” not only from conflicting disability reports from different doctors but also the Retirement Board’s actions.
“What seems to be most inconsistent is the board’s treatment of the facts they get in a particular case in what I would say is a stingy approach to recognizing the pain and the suffering and the disabilities that last a lifetime after 12 seasons of playing rough as a linebacker in the NFL,” Sullivan says. “These things crush people. If they’re going to have a pension plan that is intended to deal with what the NFL does to its players over the course of years, they ought to have a pension plan that deals with it rather than trying to slough off its responsibility.”
27 Mike Richardson
Mike “LA” Richardson was a cornerback on the Super Bowl XX team and a soloist in the Super Bowl Shuffle video. He spent the first 6 years of his 7-year career with the Bears, playing his final season in San Francisco. He finished his career with 20 interceptions, which he returned for 247 yards and a touchdown. He also recorded 4 fumble recoveries.
Post career, he began to struggle with addiction, and three years later, and perhaps outside of Dave Duerson, has paid the highest price of all for his NFL career. Like McMahon, Richardson left the league hooked on drugs. He spent much of his 30s and 40s bouncing in and out of rehab and jail including two four-year terms in state prison.
During a routine traffic stop in September 2006, Richardson police found 28 grams of crack cocaine and 10 grams of methamphetamines in his car left that left him looking at a 13-year prison sentence. Coach Mike Ditka and teammates Tyrone Keys and Richard Dent advocated for him being sent to a rehab facility over prison. Ditka offered to pay for Richardson’s treatment and wrote in his letter, “I will help in any way necessary to try and find a way to help him through this tough time,” Ditka wrote. “I believe his life is worth trying to save.”
His sister, now an attorney told the court how he’d supported her while she was in law school, and how the death of their parents had taken a toll on him.
“There is no question he is an addict,” she said, “but there is a line between those who are addicted and have no promise, no hope, no direction, no opportunity, no foundation and those who are not. He is the exception to the rule. … When he is present, he is an exemplary person.”
Unfortunately, while the judge was initially lenient, Richardson was found in violation of his probation by associating with a known drug dealer, at which time, the judge ran out of patience and sent him to prison for the full sentence.
Like the others, Richardson was administered an abundance of medications of nearly every kind to keep him on the field, put him to sleep when he was restless and wake him up when it was time to go again. Added to the mental challenges of growing up in a rough LA neighborhood. and the difficult transition to life after football and possibly loss of impulse control from being repeatedly hammered in the head, Mike Richardson’s downward spiral serves as a cautionary tale. We don’t yet know why some people are very adversely affected while others seem to emerge from their football careers relatively unscathed, but scientists are beginning to lean toward a belief that genetics is a factor.
After his release from prison, Richardson told ESPN, “I can’t dodge the fact that I put myself in the position to go to jail.” He said that he “feels very lucky” and was thankful to be able to move forward. Mike Richardson has made good on his words to turn his life around and now serves as a mentor to developing players.
#31 Ken Taylor
Defensive back Ken Taylor has a happier story but could have easily wound up disabled had he not taken what many tend to refer to as an “early retirement.” 1985 was his rookie season with the Bears. He played in all 16 regular-season games as a cornerback and returner, getting three interceptions and forcing three fumbles. He also helped Mike Singletary choreograph the Shufflin’ Crew video and can be seen wearing number 31.
The next year, Taylor was traded to the Chargers and played 14 games before stepping away. “I had a very large back injury, at the same time that Joe Montana had his back injury,” he told Chicago Sun Times. “They sent me up to San Francisco to see the same doctor he was seeing. The doctor told me at that time, ‘OK, you have a 20 percent chance of being paralyzed if you get hit just right,’ and I was like, ‘I’m out.’ I was done.”
Even though he only played for two NFL seasons, he had three surgeries to repair cartilage in his knees in addition to the spine injury. Fortunately, he listened to the doctor and his body and did not sustain permanent damage. A Super Bowl ring AND a healthy brain and body. Not too shabby at all for two years.
Taylor, with a bachelor’s degree in exercise and sports science and biomechanical movement, now owns a business in Houston, TX doing speed training with athletes, helping them to move their bodies more efficiently.
Coach Mike Ditka
Coach Mike Ditka has been much more compassionate toward disabled players than the NFL or even their own union.
The NFL is resistant to spend any money that doesn’t benefit it 32 billionaire owners, and the NFLPA has also turned a blind eye leaving players to navigate an intimidating maze to collect on the benefits they thought they bargained for.
It seems that the objectives of both the NFL and NFLPA are to grow the retirement and disability fund while releasing as little as absolutely necessary to suffering players. Pre 1993 retirees typically survive on a below poverty level pension, and the disabled seldom fare much better. Regardless of a player’s injuries, whether physical or neurological, if they qualify for benefits it’s normally for such a small amount that many players have to supplement with Social Security Disability and Medicare and/or Medicaid at taxpayer, rather than league expense.
Mike Ditka felt there should be an obligation to the men who built and grew the game of football—men like his 1985 Bears. He now leads the Gridiron Greats Foundation whose mission is to aid former players who have fallen into dire need. From their website:
Many NFL players who helped build, shape, and mold the NFL into what it is today, are paying the price physically, mentally, and emotionally from their on-the-field efforts as an NFL player.
And some retired players, who played in past NFL eras, have not benefited from some of the benefits and pensions of the modern era. Hence, they lack adequate disability, rehabilitation, health insurance, and retirement programs to allow for, and maintain a quality of life and financial security for themselves and their families.
Today, as a retired NFL player, many players find themselves with physical limitations, medical issues or other hardships. Many older retired players are unable and cannot cover the medical and other expenses needed for the treatment of the effects of their football-related injuries. They are faced with the insurmountable costs and have nowhere to go for help.
And yes, some of these older players, who have given so much to the game during their NFL careers, often feel embarrassed by their predicament, become hopeless, living in loneliness and isolation, desperate for help.
I contacted Gridiron Greats a couple of years ago hoping to tell the stories of some of the players they’ve helped, but most are just too embarrassed to let their plight become public.
When the Chiefs meet the 49ers in this year’s big game consider the toll on those who came before and likely the toll these players will face in a few too-short years. This is a CBA year. Stand with the players, not the owners. It’s the players who’ve given us years of memories and enjoyment. Now it’s time to return the favor.
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Sheilla Dingus founded Advocacy for Fairness in Sports in October 2016, after a stint with Defenders of the Wall, a New England Patriots based blog where she dived deep into the legal aspects of Deflategate. Along the way, she observed many inequities in sports and felt a need to address some of the under-reported stories in sports law. She draws from her background as a former professional dancer, who like many of the athletes she writes about, took an early retirement due to orthopedic injuries. After a return trip to college she worked for a legal software company, with seven years as a Project Manager and Analyst. She brings her analytical skills to the table in breaking down complex lawsuits, and enjoys pursuing her longtime interest in journalism.
Derek Helling is a journalist out of Chicago. Illinois, who covers the intersections of entertainment and sports with business, law, media and technology. He publishes a newsletter, "The Ninth Circle of Helling," that focuses on labor issues in North American sport.