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Casualties of the NFL: Mike Ditka Sounds Off

This is a rush transcript from "On the Record ," August 29, 2007. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, HOST: You know coach Mike Ditka. He is a Hall of Fame Coach and board member for the Gridiron Greats. Tonight, Mike Ditka is fired up. He says the NFL Players Association is dropping the ball when it comes to some of its former players, including former NFL player Brian Demarco.

Coach Ditka and Brian join us, along with Paul Solotaroff, contributing editor for Men's Journal magazine. Welcome to all of you gentlemen.

First to you, Coach. Coach, what's going on? What's happening to these retired players?

MIKE DITKA, FORMER NFL COACH: Well, the system is broke, that's all. Just fix the system. Take care of these guys. People have short memories.

These guys are the reason the league is so successful today. They had a major — played a major role in the success of what's going on right now. It started a long time ago. It's continued.

A lot of these guys got dementia. They got a lot of other ailments. Take care of them. Don't make the system so complicated that you can't get disability, and that's what they've done.

VAN SUSTEREN: Is it — Coach, are they just simply ignoring it? I mean, because it — I mean, I've never even seen pictures of Johnny Unitas and how almost crippled he looked in the last few years of his life. You know, there are a lot of players that get so banged up, are they not being taken care of at all?

DITKA: John, before he passed, he could not even lift his right arm. And he had filed for disability with the National Football League, and the league turned him down. You can talk to his wife, she will tell you exactly what happened.

I always thought John was bitter. But I don't think—she said I don't think he was as bitter as he was disappointed.

You have got to remember—at one time, Greta, John Unitas was the face of the National Football League. Every kid wanted to be Johnny Unitas. Number 19 was the most popular jersey.

And, listen, if a guy can go that is that good, or that great, or meant that much to the league, can fall out of Grace that badly when he was disabled, and his disability did come from playing football, then it can happen to anybody.

VAN SUSTEREN: Brian, I guess you are the "anybody." You are only 35- years-old and you are so banged up. What is your physical condition?

BRIAN DEMARCO, FORMER NFL PLAYER: Well, you know, I have had major surgery on my back and on both elbows. I have titanium rods and screws in my back. I have had multiple fractures in my spine. Both elbows have been destroyed. I have extensive nerve damage. And I have been dealing with this since 2001, since the Fall of 2001.

VAN SUSTEREN: Do you ever have a day when you have no pain, Brian?

DEMARCO: No. Never. No. There is never a day.

VAN SUSTEREN: Can you work, Brian?

DEMARCO: No.

VAN SUSTEREN: Do you get any money at all in disability from the NFL, from the player's association?

DEMARCO: No, there is nothing. The only thing I have received from them is the Dire Assistance Fund, and that's something that I talked about in the first press conference I had with Coach Ditka that I made everybody aware that it was $9,000 and some change that they helped me with dire assistance.

We were about to be homeless again at the time, and that's what they helped me with. So, since 2001, until that time in 2006, that was it.

VAN SUSTEREN: Paul, your article in Men's Journal, even if you are not a huge football fan, and, frankly, in this country it's hard not to be a big football fan, and it makes your hair stand on end when you look at your article. What does Upshaw saying, the head of the union?

PAUL SOLOTAROFF, MEN'S JOURNAL: What does he say?

VAN SUSTEREN: Yes.

SOLOTAROFF: Hard to know since he never returns phone calls. He avoids Congress's invitation to testify before a congressional subcommittee.

Gene has been AWOL. The few times that Gene has deigned to speak publicly about these matters, he's mainly called people names. He has called Mike a barnyard name. He has threatened to break Joe Delamalir's(ph) neck—Joe another hall of famer on the Gridiron Greats board of directors.

Gene has been completely missing.

VAN SUSTEREN: Coach, how does he stay in this job? Is it because he keeps the owners happy?

I have seen these players. I mean, look at Brian. Brian can't hold a job. He is in pain. You don't need a doctor to know how he got that painful situation.

DITKA: Well, the system is broken. But he has been there for a long time, and he's got his group of guys that will keep him there. He is elected by the present players. They do it.

The former players of the league have no say at all in the election of the director of the player personnel—not player personnel, but the Player Association. So, it is what it is, really. He has got a job that's probably a lot more secure than the Pope's, I will be honest with you.

VAN SUSTEREN: I ask you in a second, coach, about Gridiron Greats. But how about the fans that are watching tonight? Do you have any advice to get them—is there anything they can do to help the players like Brian? Brian and those players that are going to play in this season and don't know they are going to be in Brian's position.

DITKA: I think the one thing you can do is log on to gridirongreats.org and just see what's going on there. If it interest you and you want to help, fine.

Let me make a point, though. This is not the responsibility of the public. Yes, we would like their help, the players would like their help. This is the responsibility of the National Football League, its owners, it's commissioner, and the Players Association.

This problem can be solved by them, not by us. All we can do is put a band-aid on it. And we will put a band-aid on it. We will do what we can do. But it should be solved by them.

VAN SUSTEREN: Brian, when you say that you have a disability from playing football, what do they say?

DEMARCO: Well, the last conversation I had with the PA was if you don't start helping yourself we can no longer help you. And this was in a position of begging and pleading with them on the last forms that I have sent in for my disability of what's going on.

But, listen, it's like Coach Ditka said, this is just about justice. This is just about what's right. And that's all anybody wants out of this. None of the guys have given up their youth and their quality of life in this game want to live life and go down this road of poverty and living on the streets and living in storage units and doing similar things, because there is a lot of guys out there that are just like me, that have been in this situation.

And all we are asking for is justice. The money is out there. The NFL has this money, and it's there for the guys. So just do what's right, and let's just make this a just thing.

VAN SUSTEREN: It's Gridirongreats.org. Log on. I will put it in the Gretawire tomorrow in case the viewers have forgotten the address.

Coach Ditka, always nice to see you. Brian, Paul, thank you all, and good luck. The NFL does need to take care of its players. It truly is an outrage. Thank you, gentlemen.

DITKA: Thank you.

VAN SUSTEREN: To learn more about gridiron greats, or to make a donation, you can visit www.gridirongreats.org.

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