NEW YORK – Gene Upshaw was taken aback when he first saw the list of retired NFL players applying for financial help under a new program to help those with dementia and Alzheimer's disease.
"I played with or against quite a few of these guys," the executive director of the NFL players' union said Wednesday. "I knew one or two were having problems, but I never knew the extent."
Upshaw, a Hall of Fame guard for the Oakland Raiders from 1968-82, is one of four people being honored Thursday night by the Alzheimer's Association of New York for helping start the "88" plan. It provides up to $88,000 from the NFL and the union to help with the care of players afflicted with dementia or related brain problems.
Since the plan took effect Feb. 1, 35 retired players have been approved for aid, with 19 more applications pending. That's up from 21 players two months ago, when the league and union were still trying to go beyond what Upshaw called "word of mouth" in identifying players.
Now the identification is being done through the Bert Bell retirement fund, which handles pensions for more than 9,000 retired players, with the money coming from a trust fund administered by the league and union. So far, according to the NFL, 103 potential candidates for aid have been identified. There are 54 applications, and no one has been turned down. The applications of 19 players who have not yet been certified are to be reviewed.
But it's still hard to know many ex-players need help.
"A lot of people are embarrassed to talk about it or to acknowledge they have a problem," says Dan Rooney, the Pittsburgh Steelers owner and a member of the NFL committee that oversees the plan. "They can have lucid moments when they think things are going all right."
The plan is part of the labor contract agreed upon in March 2006 by the league and union and is administered by Upshaw and Harold Henderson, an NFL senior vice president. The "88" is the number of Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey, one of the first former players who qualified. His wife, Sylvia, was instrumental in persuading Upshaw and former commissioner Paul Tagliabue to include aid for dementia in the new contract.
NFL and union officials say the correlation between NFL players and Alzheimer's is anecdotal rather than scientific, and experts in the field agree.
But the heightened interest in the subject follows the death of Andre Waters, who committed suicide last November at 44. Reports concluded he had brain damage that resulted from multiple concussions during 12 years as an NFL safety. In addition, The Boston Globe and The New York Times reported in February that 34-year-old Ted Johnson, who spent 10 years as a linebacker with the New England Patriots, shows early signs of Alzheimer's.
Activists view the NFL/NFLPA program as a landmark.
"This is the first union and industry program of its kind and it's the first that recognizes the burden the disease puts on families," said Lou-Ellen Barkan, president and chief executive of the New York Alzheimer's Association. On Thursday, that group will honor Upshaw and Henderson as well as Sylvia Mackey and Dr. Eleanor Perfetto, wife of Ralph Wenzel, the only other former player who has been publicly identified as part of the program.
Under the program, players can receive up to $50,000 a year for home care and up to $88,000 if they are institutionalized. Barkan said that's part of an ignored part of the burden of Alzheimer's — those with dementia or Alzheimer's need full-time care, and spouses or children must quit jobs to give full-time care.
"Something like this allows them to hire help," Barkan said. "It allows them to keep jobs without the burden of also being a full-time caregiver.
Those involved with the program say they can't demonstrate clearly that dementia among football players correlates with football.
"I'll leave it for the doctors to decide that," Upshaw says. "A lot of the guys we're talking about are pretty much up in age, so it's hard to know why they have the problem."
Barkan agrees but notes: "Just from what doctors tell us, there is a strong correlation from multiple concussions and the onset of problems.'