December 10, 2017
Many former NFL players are challenged to deal with the physical toll of playing football along with all the other struggles that life can present. The story of former NFL defensive back Bill Cesare is one such narrative. As a result of brain trauma suffered while playing football, Cesare’s relationships with his family have become strained, he has lost his once-promising post-football career, and now struggles to obtain the medical care he needs.
Born on June 2, 1955, Cesare spent much of his childhood in Brooklyn, New York. When his parents separated late in his elementary school years, he moved with his mother, Barbara, to Miami Beach, Florida. It was there that he began playing football.
“I got into sports a little bit. I couldn’t catch a football but I could hit, ” Cesare explained. “I was a snotty-nosed kid who got into lots of fights. I had a lot of family around with a variety of older cousins. You fought. You had that attitude. When I got into football, I enjoyed it.”
Through his junior high and high school years at Beach High in Miami Beach, he continued to play and was recruited by the University of Florida as a defensive back. He ended up starting his collegiate career at Memphis, but then returned to Miami and was a walk-on with the Hurricanes to finish his time playing college football. Cesare says that he remembers head trauma being a part of the game at those levels.
“…I mean, it was 10 pounds of a blow to your head. If you got hit in the head and you saw black for an instant or snow for instance, that was considered a concussion,” Cesare stated. “I got lots of them, actually thousands from what I can remember. Everyone was concussed, maybe not the kickers…I played defensive back, when you hit somebody with your head, you black out, sometimes a little worse than others, so that’s how that went.”
Cesare is confident that his experience while playing in the NFL for the better part of five seasons wasn’t unique, but actually quite common among football players who like him had aspirations of playing the game professionally.
“This is how it went, you wanted to make the team as bad as you could,” Cesare elaborated. “Walter Payton made $750,000. The minimum wage was $22,500. I made $22,500 and I was glad to make $22,500. So if I needed to run into that wall to make the team, I would run into the wall because I wanted to make the team. You did things you had to do, played hurt, you took what they gave you and you kept your mouth shut. You hoped you didn’t get hurt because every Tuesday someone was there to take your spot. You were always worried about losing your job. I wasn’t a top-end player and even the top-end players, if they got hurt, they were gone. Owners depreciate their players. No one told us that we were going to have these issues at a younger age than normal. No one told us while they were giving us all the painkillers and stuff. We took it because we didn’t want to be in pain and lose our jobs. It was a different environment then. Players take better care of themselves now. When I was playing, if you got knocked out, you went out for a couple of plays and then you were back in there.”
Despite the brain trauma that Cesare knows he was a victim of, the economic realities of his situation make him question if he would do anything differently if he could go back with the knowledge he now has.
“I think I would have still played it…,” Cesare commented. “If they would have told me that you are going to go braindead, I don’t know what I would have done, but you stand up and look at what other options you had. You take the best one you have.”
The realities of his situation growing up and through his football career have taken more of a toll than just giving him the back and neck issues that he complains of today, however. Toward the end of his football career, Cesare became interested in training horses to race and planned to make a life-long career out of doing that.
“I knew a guy named Lynn Goodman who was an agent for jockeys, and I had a friend who I played high school ball with named Cecil, his brother was involved with the thoroughbreds so I kind of got around it there,” Cesare said. “My second year in the NFL, I bought some property around Tampa and started buying some horses with the intent of doing that after I quit. If I had known how much coaches are making now I probably would have went into coaching, but they weren’t making any money then. So I piddled with it and I started breaking some babies at the race track. Usually you have to go to the farm or the track to break yearlings to two year olds. Just kind of prep them up and get them ready for racing. Takes probably a year, sometime a little longer. That’s how it kind of evolved, the longer I played the more I wanted to train horses. I think I was 31, I went to the USFL, and after I quit playing I got a contract that was going to enable me to train horses for a little while. I went to work for Fred W. Hooper.”
During his time training horses, Cesare found a horse that he believes had a shot to compete in the top-tier of the sport. Second of June was at one time considered a competitor for races like the Belmont Stakes and Kentucky Derby, which got Cesare some fame in a February 2004 L.A. Times article.
“In horse racing, you’re only as good as your stock,” Cesare added. “I bought Second of June from a guy I had known for a long time. When you go to a sale, you want confirmation. You want everything to look good and be perfect. Being born in June is a negative because horses are a year old January 1. When he was born in June, you aren’t going to run him as a two-year old, maybe wait and let him develop a little longer, maybe run him as a 3-year-old, you have more of an investment in him. Anyway, June turned out to be a good horse, you can only get there [to the Kentucky Derby or Belmont Stakes] if you have good stock. When I went to work for Mr. Hooper, he was 76 and I was in my 30s. He had been to the derby in 1945 and won it with Hoop Junior then came back and he had a couple of seconds and a third. He died at 103 and he never got back there. He had over 220 brood mares, and he would keep like 40-50 horses out of that 220 babies a year. He never got back there from 45 until he passed away.”
Despite his success in training horses and love for the work, Cesare became impeded by the symptoms of the brain trauma he still suffers today.
“I live in the country. It’s mostly ag land, two-lane highways,” Cesare recounted. “I passed my house because I forgot where I live and didn’t know where I was…I quit training horses in 2012. I just couldn’t deal with it, I couldn’t remember stuff, I just kind of lost interest. I wanted to do it, but I got forgetful to be honest with you. I would talk to an owner and forget what I’m telling him. Again, things were going from carrying 30 head of horses to five or six. It got easier the less I had. I just quit. I got tired of it, I just came and moved to the farm because I didn’t like being around people, dealing with people. I think that I was getting more violent. When people would piss me off, instead of walking away I would want to get into it. So I came to the farm, locked the gate and kind of bunkered down. I would consider all of it [to be due to the brain trauma from playing football]. I could train horses until I die. Most trainers train until they die or people don’t want to give them horses anymore. It had a lot to do with it. You live your life and you go through stages in life. I enjoyed the horses. I got to the point where I didn’t have the temperament to be around the people anymore. That’s what started it all and it carried over to my family. I just left. I left everybody and went to the farm by myself. That’s how it’s been.”
Those same symptoms have kept Cesare from finding more gainful employment to the present day, and now he finds himself struggling to avail himself of the resources that are supposed to be available to him under the concussion settlement.
“I kind of started having issues in 2012, I worked but I spent the money,” Cesare explained. “I got lucky and bought a piece of land and I sold it, then I bought another piece of land and paid for it. I just got about 20 pages to fill out regarding the settlement and even though I don’t have any money, any job, because I own 200 acres of land, I don’t get anything. We had the hurricane two months ago, I applied for FEMA, I got an email from the NFLPA and they gave about $2,000 to help repair the roofs and stuff so I can’t totally say that they aren’t generous in the times of dire emergencies. When they send you stuff, and say that they if you ever need help let us know, and you do, and they get all the information they can out of you, they want to know everything, your taxes, everything, they find that stuff out and say I’m sorry we can’t help you. My sister told them I wasn’t working, after I quit training horses there was one guy who was kind of paying me to do some stuff for him but that ended abruptly. I haven’t been working, I’ve been selling cows but the cows are getting low in numbers. Anyway, this lady sends me things and says oh we’re going to help you, that’s all fine and dandy but after you find out I own 200 acres, I got an asset, do you want to buy it? Then I’ll have some money. That’s how that stuff goes.”
Part of the struggles in Cesare’s being awarded a claim has resulted from what he sees as negligence on the part of those who are supposed to be assisting him in doing exactly that.
“February of this year was the final stuff [medical examinations]. I had all of my stuff that I submitted,” Cesare claims. “I submitted it all to my lawyers and I don’t know if they did anything during that time. They kept telling me that they had all my stuff, I have two letters which say that they had all my stuff, but come to find out that they never received my medicals. I called Seeger’s office and spoke to some guy, and he told me I was registered but I had no medical in. Anyway, I found out that they never received anything from one of the doctors. In one day, I got all the information in for them, but I got two letters from them saying they had it all. The lawyers are getting theirs. They are going to make a lot of money. I would like to get some of that money so I can go get my back looked at and my neck looked at. The doctor told me your brain isn’t the problem, your neck and your back is. That’s an everyday thing.”
Cesare’s pleas toward the NFL aren’t for a life of luxury in perpetuity for himself and the players he played with or have played since, but rather just for them to be able to live out their lives with the dignity that any other human being would prefer.
Football is a violent sport,” Cesare summated. “It wasn’t until all the brain stuff came out that they started limiting the days you can wear pads, and do away with all the head-hitting and stuff. Go back and watch the films. That’s the environment I grew up in and I played in. It’s kind of tapered down a little now. The sucky part is that they need to help us. They should take care of us because there aren’t that many of us. We’re dying. I get emails all the time, so-and-so died waiting for the money. I have back and neck issues.”
The story of Bill Cesare is that of a young man who enjoyed playing the game of football and saw it as an escape from the community he was raised in. He was able to not only reach the highest levels of the game, but turn the resources he earned from that success into what looked like an enjoyable and productive career for himself. It appeared that he made it.
In a cruel twist of irony, the vehicle which transported him to where he wanted to be has ended up being the device which has also now taken all of that away from him as well. Now trying to make the best of his situation again, he is faced with further unnecessary frustration placed upon him by the people who continue to profit off the labor of current and future “Bill Cesares” today.
As counsel for the NFL and NFLPA continue to press for new ways to deny claims for retired players like Cesare, Cesare’s story highlights the human cost of that litigation. The names on these forms are connected to living, breathing, people who are in pain and need help. Unfortunately for many like Cesare, that assistance appears to be fading like the memories they once had.
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.