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Column: Like Mongo, players pawn in bigger game

There's a new face behind the head injury lawsuits against the NFL, a former All-Pro defensive tackle from the Detroit Lions some may recognize better as the lovable lug of a father from the 1980s sitcom "Webster."

Before that, Alex Karras played the equally lovable Mongo in "Blazing Saddles," uttering one of the movie's best lines when he declared: "Mongo only pawn in game of life."

He's 76 now, and suffering from dementia. His wife said this week that a man who used to love to drive his cars can no longer get behind the wheel. She said a man who used to be an amazing cook of Italian and Greek food doesn't cook anymore because he can't remember what his recipes were.

He's among 1,200 former players now suing the NFL, claiming the league misled players about the risks of head injuries and was negligent about their treatment. Many of them are suffering from brain damage, and none of them are getting any better.

For the most part, fans seem to have pretty much discarded them as yesterday's news. They would rather focus on whether the Cleveland Browns should draft an offensive lineman in the fourth round than whether a former journeyman linebacker or backup safety can tie his shoes or remember what house he lives in.

"It's the same thing as back in the gladiator days when the gladiators fought to death," said attorney Craig Mitnick, who represents Karras and hundreds of others in the suit. "Fans care about these guys when they're playing and they are heroes. But as soon as you're not a hero and not playing the fan doesn't really care what happens to them."

Maybe it's time we started caring. Debate the merits of the suit all you want — and the NFL will certainly do so — there's no doubt a lot of former players are paying the price for taking hits to the head during a time when the significance of concussions was either minimized or not entirely known.

Some you may not have ever heard of, or have long forgotten about. Others were once your heroes, taking the field every Sunday for a big paycheck and the chance to bring glory to the franchise.

Jim McMahon was one of those guys. The quarterback who helped bring Chicago a Super Bowl championship was a rebel who clashed with the league, and a fan favorite who prided himself on his toughness and ability to take a hit. Now his girlfriend programs the GPS for their house in case he gets lost, and he gets angry and frustrated at all the things he can't recall.

"I won't remember a hell of a lot about this interview in about 10 minutes," he said in a recent interview on ESPN's "Outside The Lines."

Tony Dorsett is a Hall of Famer and one of the greatest running backs in the history of the league. At 57 he's still relatively young, but the former Dallas Cowboy already forgets people's names or where he's heading while driving on the highway. Doctors have told him he's not getting enough oxygen in the left lobe of his brain, and he fears his memory issues are getting worse.

Yet he and other retirees have no medical insurance from the league, no compensation for their deteriorating health other than the money they earned while they were in the field.

"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 told The Associated Press just before the Super Bowl. "And yet when the time comes, you turn your back on me? That's not right. That's not the American way."

Other names you might recognize who are plaintiffs include former Lions cornerback Lem Barney, Buffalo offensive lineman Joe DeLamielleure, and Brent Boyd, a former Vikings offensive lineman. Boyd's lawyers say he is the only living player to be diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disease often found in boxers who have taken too many punches to the head.

They've come forward for help, and in doing so they've put a human face on the lawsuits.

At issue in the lawsuits is whether the NFL either turned the other cheek when it came to blows to the head, or was willfully negligent. As late as 2009, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell appeared before Congress and would not acknowledge a link between head injuries suffered on the field and brain diseases later in life.

That's changed for the most part, with the league now actively involved in concussion studies. There's a 10-year, $100 million program in place now to study ways to limit and respond to concussion-related injuries, and there is now strict protocol in place for players who show signs of concussions. The penalties handed down recently by Goodell in the Saints bounty case went far beyond what many in the league expected, almost surely because he realized the delicacy of the issue in light of the lawsuits over brain damage.

There's also the "88 plan," co-funded by the league and the player's union and named after the late Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey's number. Mackey died at the age of 69 after a long battle with dementia, but not before he and his wife helped bring about the creation of the plan that provides help to those with dementia.

Forgive most of those left behind, though, if they feel like they've been cast off and forgotten. The league didn't take care of them then, and it's not taking care of them now.

Some made a lot of money, sure. Many others didn't, and they're hurting in a lot of ways from playing a sport where hurt is a given.

Much like Mongo, they were only pawns in the game of the NFL.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg