August 26, 2019
Over the weekend Colts’ quarterback, Andrew Luck startled the NFL world with his decision to retire at the relatively young age of 29. As Ken Belson writes, in the New York Times, “Luck belongs to a young generation more carefully weighing the dangers of the game against the financial rewards.” He’s also one of a very small sector of NFL players who are able to walk away from the game on their own terms. Belson writes:
Luck, a former first overall draft pick and one of the league’s brightest stars over the last seven seasons, said Saturday he could no longer take the years of pain and rehabilitation from a host of cringe-worthy injuries: a lacerated kidney, injured ribs, at least one concussion, torn cartilage in his throwing shoulder and, most recently, a calf and ankle injury.
It was not the first time a young player had stepped away supposedly in the prime of his or her career — several have done so in recent years — but it was one of the more vivid examples of the changing dynamics of a league striving to portray the game as safer than ever while its players increasingly weigh the consequences of continuing a career where the long-term physical issues only build as the seasons pile up.
Luck’s injury record isn’t atypical. Truth be told, it may even be lighter than the norm, and this isn’t said to in any way to minimize the trauma Luck experienced. Rather, I make the point to demonstrate that as a quarterback and first-round draft pick, Andrew Luck had options not available to most players.
Belson correctly notes, “Unlike in earlier eras, when players had to grind out a decade or more to maintain a high standard of living, the financial arrangements of today’s top players often make it easier to retire comfortably before they hit 30,” and this is certainly a very important factor, considering Luck is reported to have made $97 million in his 7-year career.
This, however, is atypical. For every player who fits Andrew Luck’s profile of a highly paid player at a valued position and high draft pick, there are hundreds of other players struggling to secure a spot on the team at league minimums. NFL career lengths have been averaged at between 3 and 5 years, depending on the figures used, and since this represents the average, it should go without saying that many players don’t even survive in the league long enough to vest and have access to any post-career benefits.
Most of those who do manage to forge a career in the NFL aren’t the names you hear regularly from the mouths of broadcasters calling the games. They’re the guys on second-string, hoping for a breakout season. They’re the guys on practice squads who take the same poundings as guys with more familiar names, but for a small fraction of the pay and little if any glory.
Andrew Luck entered the NFL via Stanford University. Ironically, the tale of another Stanford alumnus tells the more typical story of NFL life. Amon Gordon forged a nine-year career despite a heavy injury toll that eventually forced him into retirement after having spent time on eleven teams during those nine years. Imagine the stress of constantly being on the move, rehabbing continuously, and having to uproot your family every few months, only to be rewarded with life-long injuries and a dementia diagnosis shortly after retirement at age 33.
The following is a rare look at an NFL career exclusively through medical records that have become a part of the court record. The following excerpts are taken verbatim from Gordon’s medical files:
[From a 2012 medical exam just after his retirement and prior to an official dementia diagnosis]
Mr. Gordon…started playing football at the age of 9 in a Community Football League and continued playing during high school. In 9th grade, he played varsity football and continued doing so for all 4 years of high school. He played on both sides of the ball; he played running back and linebacker…
He then went to Stanford beginning in 2000. In college, he became a linebacker and played many positions, including special teams, as a varsity starter. He began playing on the varsity team as a freshman; during that year, he sustained a right shoulder injury which later necessitated a surgery. He was medical redshirted after the shoulder injury in game 4 of that year and missed the remainder of the season. He had the surgery during his freshman year and then returned to play in his sophomore year. In spring practice of the sophomore year, he sustained an elbow fracture; his arm was placed in a sling and recovered over the course of several weeks. He recovered in time to be at full strength for training camp…In game 1 of his junior year, he sustained a fracture in his left hand. He was casted and continued playing for the remainder of the season…In his senior year, he played the entire season without any substantial injuries. He recalls having his “bell rung” one time in a kick-off return during his junior year… Other than the routine sprains and strains of the game, to the best of his recollection, he played for that entire season. He does recall that there were several orthopedic injuries that were not fleeting, including a left high ankle sprain as well as bone chips in his ankles, which did limit his playing time at certain points along his college playing career. He cannot recall the specific details of exactly when these injuries occurred.
The patient completed college and was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in 2004. He started on special teams and played through the pre-season. In the first play of the regular season, he sustained his first concussion in the NFL on a kick-off return. He recalls placing a hard hit on his man and feeling disoriented; he describes it as if he was looking into the sun. Even though the play was still going on, he began walking back towards the sideline. He was not taken out of the game and kept playing through the injury. He continued playing on special teams and was a rotation player for the regular downs for the last 5 games of the season. There were no major injuries to the best of his recollection for the remainder of that season.
In the pre-season of 2005, he was wearing modified protective knee braces along the outside of his knees. The brace on the left knee was not functioning properly and in the course of the practice, he felt like his left knee “needed to pop”. It was thereafter that he began developing chronic knee issues, including episodic swelling of the knee and pain. In the last pre-season game against the Chicago Bears, he made a move and his left thumb got trapped in the offensive lineman’s mask while approaching the quarterback; this resulted in a traumatic fracture of the left thumb. He was placed on injured reserve (IR) after this for the entire season as he recovered from these injuries. He did have microfracture surgery performed on the left knee during this time as well.
In 2006, he was waived by the Cleveland Browns during the off-season and was picked up by the Denver Broncos during the off-season. He played with the team for the pre-season through the regular season. He was on the practice squad with the intention of being activated in week 3; however, during the practice preceding his being activated, he sustained an injury to the right knee. An arthroscopic knee surgery was performed during the 2006 season, and he underwent rehabilitation. He was able to rejoin the team during the regular season after 6 weeks. He remained on the practice squad for the remainder of the season due to the knee injury and subsequent rehabilitation.
In 2007, he rejoined the team for the pre-season, played the regular season as a regular starter for 5 games, and was then waived. He was picked up by the Baltimore Ravens and finished the season as a rotational player for the remainder of the season.
In the 2008 season, he rejoined the Ravens. He played with them through the pre-season and was cut immediately prior to the regular season beginning (“last cut”). He was then picked up by the Carolina Panthers; during a practice with them, he injured his left hip/adductor muscle. He was then cut by Carolina.
Subsequently, he worked out with Jacksonville and Tennessee. He was picked up by the Tennessee Titans around week 6 and remained on the practice squad for 7 weeks prior to playing the last 2 games as a rotational player. He does recall starting one game. The Titans cut him prior to entering the playoffs, and the Philadelphia Eagles claimed him off waivers. He could not play with the team in the playoffs; rather, he had to wait for the subsequent season to join the team.
In the next season, he joined Philadelphia for off-season workouts. Immediately before a mini-camp on May 25, 2009, he ruptured his left Achilles; the team kept him on IR until another linebacker was picked up in the pre-season, at which point the team settled out his contract. He subsequently had an Achilles tendon surgery in 2009. The patient then rehabbed from the Achilles injury and began to recover.
He recalls that for the 2010 season, he was picked up by the New England Patriots several days before the draft. He went to the team’s off-season workouts. He did have an episode where his lumbar spine “went out” while squatting. He had conservative treatment modalities and returned to practice after 2 to 3 days. After mini-camp in June, he was released by the Patriots.
The patient then joined the mini-camp in Tampa Bay, but that team did not pick him up. He then joined the Seattle Seahawks during the second week of the pre-season. He continued with Seattle through the pre-season but was cut during the “last cut”.
He then was picked up by the Titans for the regular season. He played for approximately 8 games as a rotational player for that team but then was waived. He then went to try out for the Houston Texans, who did not pick him up; subsequently, he returned and finished up the season with Seattle. He played 6 regular season games and 1 playoff game with the team. After playing the season with Seattle, the team did not renew his contract.
The following year, which was the 2011 season, he was picked up by the Kansas City Chiefs and played all pre-season games with the team. He had a left hip pointer during the first pre-season game. He only had conservative treatment modalities and no extensive workup was done, although he continued to have discomfort during the entire season on the left hip as a result of this. A week into the regular season, he sustained a bone bruise in the left knee. He did get Xrays of the knee, and there appeared to be some structural damage to the knee including some cartilage tears. In the course of the season, he also had a hip bruise on the right side. He also began having some left shoulder pain. He had an X-ray after the season was over, which showed some structural damage to that shoulder. He was told that it was a rotator cuff tear. Later imaging revealed that there was far more extensive damage than just a rotator cuff tear.
In 2012, he participated in offseason workouts again with the Kansas City Chiefs. He had Synvisc injections done on both knees prior to beginning the pre-season with the K.C. Chiefs. The day before the last pre-season game in 2012, he had the Synvisc injections repeated because of the amount of pain he was experiencing in his knees. He was also experiencing worsening pain in his left hip at that point and was unsure as to whether it was due to an acute injury or a chronic problem. He missed the last cut with that team. At the end of his stay with the Kansas City Chiefs, he was experiencing chronic injuries. The team also told him that he did not pass the physical examination, and he was cut. The patient then sought out an evaluation of his various orthopedic complaints and discovered that he had extensive anatomical problems in multiple parts of his body.
Cognitive problems. The patient reports having short-term memory loss. He recalls that, frequently, he will have the experience of getting up to do a task but on his way to performing the task, he will lose track of what he got up to do. This is a recurring problem at this point. He also recalls returning to Stanford in 2013 to finish up his [master’s] degree and having substantial difficulties with reading comprehension, where he could literally read a sentence and immediately not recall the content. He reports that he was previously a very proficient reader and had a real love of reading, and thus the loss of basic comprehension skills was a very scary experience for him; this unfortunately has been something that he has experienced on multiple occasions. He also reports having difficulty with visuospatial relationships. He gives as an example that he has worked in multiple parts of the country and has a very good sense of direction; he now struggles to determine where he needs to go.
He also reports having difficulty with concentration, whereas before this was not an issue.
In general, the patient does not describe himself as being a depressed person. He is an optimistic person by his nature. He does report that he has developed depression, especially when he thinks about how his career with the NFL ended, the multiple injuries he has accrued, and the difficulty he has been having in seeking the appropriate care for his injuries.
REVIEW OF SYSTEMS:
Hand numbness. The patient reports that when he maintains a position for a period of time, he will have a glove-like distribution sensory loss in both hands. This occurs also while he is sleeping, but this is present more if he sits in one position for a prolonged period of time. Straining the elbow and moving his fingers will help improve this sensation, although it can recur without maintaining a regular position. As a result of this, this sensation is a regular occurrence every night; he will have to hold his arms over the bed in order to get it to resolve. On the left hand, he has a focal numbness reflecting a digital nerve injury, most likely in the ring finger on the radial side of the finger and on the index finger on the ulnar side of the finger.
Low back pain. The patient reports having axial low back pain with symptoms radiating down his legs. The pain is more pronounced on the left than on the right side. He has a chronic axial complaint and a radicular complaint that is more of an episodic shock-like sensation. The axial pain is 6/10 in intensity. The shocklike episodes are 8-9/10 in intensity. He reports having some focal weakness in the left leg, which is pronounced at the hip as well as in the calf.
Neck pain. The patient reports having a tight compressed-type sensation in his neck that actually feels as if the neck needs to be cracked. The symptoms are on the midline and axial in nature. The pain is 5-6/10 in intensity. He also reports having a clicking sensation and sound when rotating his head laterally. Multifocal orthopedic injuries. The patient, as previously described, has sustained multiple injuries to his body. He reports that his knees in particular are very sensitive to barometric pressure changes. He reports having substantial stiffness, suggestive of an early arthritic problem which is multifocal. As he stands up, he will hear cracking in multiple joints. The patient reports having positional nerve compression symptoms in multiple parts of his body. This includes the left arm falling asleep and the legs falling asleep if he maintains a position for any period of time… Similarly, if he sits on a chair in any type of position for a prolonged period of time, his legs will fall asleep. He reports having difficulty walking on uneven surfaces due to a gait impairment.
Sleep. The patient reports that he is not sleeping well at night, primarily due to anxiety and stress. He also reports that the pain contributes to his inability to get into a comfortable position. He has tried different mattresses, including getting a Tempur-Pedic, and although he has noticed the increased comfort of this type of mattress, it has not led to better sleep due to his multifocal complaints.
History of football play
2. Cognitive complaints
3. Hearing loss/dizziness/tinnitus
4. Chronic pain/orthopedic injuries
5. Behavioral/mood disturbance
This patient does have cognitive impairment affecting multiple areas of function and should undergo neuropsychological screening
Amon Gordon filed a claim in the NFL concussion settlement with four-years of records supporting his claim of Level 1.5 Neurocognitive Impairment (early dementia) by his treating physician, Dr. Michael Lobatz, a world-class board-certified neurologist and intensive neuropsychological testing by Laura Hopper Ph.D., as well as other supplementary medical evidence. Despite this after initial approval by both the claims administrator and AAP panel and a subsequent random audit after which his claim was approved again, his award was overturned by an NFL appeal using a neuropsychological report by an NFL Disability Plan physician which didn’t account for Gordon’s pre-morbid superior IQ.
Because of the incorrect application of the settlement’s “generally consistent” standard and evaluation of his decline, as a person with an IQ of 122 and the NFL’s demand that his level impairment meet the equivalent of someone with a much lower IQ, Gordon claim was wrongly denied and he is the first player to appeal his denial to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, with a requested stay while a Rule 60 motion is filed with the district court in hopes of correcting an obvious error.
From neuropsychologist Laura Hopper Ph.D.
Mr. Gordon performed better than his peers on tasks of verbal comprehension. His general fund of knowledge is broad and intact. He is articulate and well–educated. It is due to this strength that Mr. Gordon is able to appear problem-free. He performed similarly to peers on tasks of perceptual reasoning and working memory, but performed significantly lower on tasks involving processing speed. He takes longer than others his age to process information and produce a response. This is a particularly important finding when relating his score in this area to scores in other areas. In fact, the difference between his scores on processing speed and all other areas was so large that it is not often seen in the general population. When differences such as these are seen, it is often associated with a traumatic brain injury.
Mr. Gordon demonstrated difficulty with both auditory and visual memory. He had difficulty recalling verbally presented information. He demonstrated the ability to learn and improve when provided with multiple trials; however, he was still not able to perform as well as his peers on these tasks. His performance on these subtests measuring auditory memory is below what would be expected given his level of intellectual functioning. Mr. Gordon also struggled with visually presented information. He was able to reproduce designs presented to him with an average degree of accuracy. However; the time in which he took to complete these designs was far longer than his peers. It was even more difficult for him to remember where designs were placed on a grid. He indicated that he did not feel there was enough time for him to look at the designs. This could be influenced by his deficits in processing speed, whereby he is unable to remember the information because he has not processed it fully in the time allotted.
Taken together, this suggests deficits in both speed of processing and memory. His performance on memory tasks is significantly lower than what would be expected given his overall level of cognitive functioning. Again, differences such as these are suggestive of damage to the brain, particularly in the temporal and frontal areas.
From his treating neurologist, Dr. Lobatz:
In my own ongoing observation of, Mr. Gordon now at approximately four years as his treating physician, I have no doubt that he has cognitive impairments and associated impairments in the domains of memory, judgment, problem-solving, home/hobbies that achieve a combined CDR of 1.5 One does not need neuropsychological testing to know this man’s deficits. That said, while I have great respect for [NFL Disability Plan neurologist] Dr. Delis, I must concur with Dr. Hopper and offer that her interpretation of the data fits with what I know about this man.
In an interview for a prior article, Amon’s wife, Roxanne related, “They said my husband went to Stanford. There’s nothing wrong with him because he went to Stanford…and to think about it, my husband had he went on to work after his career. He retired in 2012 he has a Stanford education. He could have went on and did well, but you know, his brain is so messed up…I see a man with a brilliant mind and a man that’s not the same man that I met, you know, years ago.”
The Gordons, after already over two-years of delays await yet another ruling to see if Mr. Gordon will finally be compensated.
Meanwhile, over the weekend another relatively recent retiree’s trauma played out in full display on Twitter:
Le Ron McClain’s tweets are painful to read. After I saw them, I contacted some NFL alumni to point them out and suggest reaching out to him. I was told that several players had made contact, so hopefully, they will be able to provide at least some of the emotional support he needs. Gordon and McClain are much more representative of the players we see every Sunday, Monday, and Thursday throughout the NFL season, than Andrew Luck. He’s one of the fortunate few in that he was able to leave on his own terms, but like all the rest, in five years his health insurance will be gone, and he’ll be on his own. He’d do well to save as much of his NFL salary as possible because he’ll probably need it for medical treatment as the injuries from the game he left behind continue to take their toll.
This ladies and gentlemen is the NFL.
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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.