Conrad Dobler exhales cold air from his helmet like Godzilla breathing fire. A handlebar mustache adds to the menacing look on the face of this 6-foot-3-inch, 250-pound offensive lineman.
In this 1988 National Football League film called Tough Guys, a seven-minute vignette shows a shaggy-haired, taped-up Dobler blazing a warpath of leg whips, trips, stomps and elbows to a booming drumbeat. Dobler brags about playing in the "gray area" of the rules, hitting opponents so hard that mucus would bubble up in their nostrils. He named his phlegm-producing sticks "snot bubblers." His style of play earned him three trips to the Pro Bowl.
The video's highlights include Dobler, who starred on Don Coryell's "Cardiac Cardinals" teams of the mid-1970s, jamming his elbow under the facemask of a defensive lineman for the New Orleans Saints, stomping on a fallen Giants player, torpedoing another Giant with a headfirst dive at the guy's legs and pancaking Merlin Olsen, the Los Angeles Rams Hall of Fame defensive tackle who admits losing his cool and throwing a punch at Dobler. "The game is violent," Dobler testifies in the video. "I'm not."
But time catches up with everyone, even gridiron immortals.
Thirty years later, the violence of the game has left the 56-year-old reliant on canes and walkers. "It's a beautiful sport," he says of the game that ruined his body. "Man against man. It goes back to the gladiator days." The old gladiator is being pieced back together one artificial part at a time. In June Dobler had surgery at Barnes-Jewish Hospital to replace the busted artificial knee in his left leg that he'd been hobbling on for two years. Today he carries the recently returned broken knee in a plastic biohazard bag. The surgery was Dobler's seventh on that leg within a year. "I didn't realize how much pain I was actually in until I got this knee recently," Dobler says. "I was masking it with the drugs and stuff. Not only that, but I thought that's just the way that it's supposed to be."
Before that surgery, Dobler spent 100 days between February and October 2006 in and out of the hospital with a staph infection that developed after having knee surgery in late 2005 at Overland Park Regional Medical Center outside Kansas City. The doctors removed all of Dobler's artificial parts and replaced his knee using concrete spacers loaded with antibiotics. "They kept having to take them out and put them back in again," Dobler says. "And every time they took them out, they would scrape the infection off the bone again, and they could never get rid of it. Then I had a pulmonary embolism, which I had blood clots go to my lungs and almost kill me. So I had to get out of Kansas City and get to a hospital where maybe I had a chance of surviving." Dobler busts up laughing. After the staph infection finally cleared up last October, Dobler had his right knee replaced at Barnes-Jewish.
On a morning in mid-July, Dobler is scheduled to have the 71 staples removed from his left knee at College Park Family Care Center in Overland Park, Kansas. His walker clanks against the concrete floor like shoulder pads after a snap. He gingerly steps down the stairs leading out of his office building and shuffles slowly toward his Toyota Sequoia SUV. Dobler is one of about 8,000 retired NFL players, many of whom face a litany of health problems ranging from post-concussion syndrome to knees and hips that need replacing. Now, the battle-scarred tough guys of the past are standing up to the league, demanding a better disability plan and pensions similar to those of major-league baseball players.
The retired players' fight began at the 2006 Hall of Fame induction ceremony, when Harry Carson, a linebacker for the New York Giants from 1976 through 1988, gave an speech pleading with the league's leaders to take care of retired players. "If we made the league what it is," Carson implored, "you have to take better care of your own."
This past June, retired players testified before the U.S. House of Representatives. Gruff former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka vouched for his comrades, who told hard-luck stories of ending up homeless, penniless and unemployable. Lawmakers heard former players tell how numerous surgeries had led to amputations and how repeated and untreated concussions had ended in brain damage and suicide. They spoke of failed marriages and a mess of red tape that prevented retirees from collecting disability. The retired players will go before a U.S. Senate subcommittee on September 18.
NFL officials claim that the league pays 317 retired players and their families $20 million a year in disability benefits. But of the retired players eligible for benefits, only 144 receive long-term disability payments. In July the league and the union announced a $7 million fund to help ex-players pay for joint-replacement surgeries.
Dobler applied for disability in 1994. An NFL-hired doctor said his legs were 90 percent impaired. The league sent Dobler to another doctor, who conceded that Dobler had severe injuries but could do inactive labor. The league rejected Dobler's disability application. Since then, he has been denied twelve times and has exhausted his appeals.
The NFLPA retirement board consists of three representatives for management and three for the players. Chiefs owner Clark Hunt represents management, along with Arizona Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill and Baltimore Ravens president Dick Cass. Kansas City-based superagent Tom Condon (he represents Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning and San Diego running back LaDainian Tomlinson, among others), Atlanta Falcons broadcaster Jeff Van Note and former pro safety Dave Duerson represent the players. "We have $1.1 billion in the pension fund, and they think it's great," Dobler says.
But few get disability payments from the fund. "We have no health insurance," Dobler says. "Most of us can't get health insurance. That's the only reason I work because I get health insurance from my company." Dobler operates a business called Superior Health Care Staffing that deploys nurses to jobs throughout the Kansas City area. Even though he's insured through his business, those payments cost more than he will receive from his pension, he says.
Dobler folds his walker when he reaches the SUV and climbs behind the wheel. He steers the vehicle through morning traffic. As his right hand slides across the wheel, a crater becomes visible between his thumb and index finger. Dobler's hands are a mess. He doesn't have any knuckles in one hand; the other is permanently bent, as if holding a glass. "I don't have any nerves here, either," Dobler says, extending his right hand. "I have no meat here, either."
Dobler pulls into a handicapped parking spot. He slowly gets out of the SUV and opens the back door. He unfolds his walker and clanks across the pavement into the medical center. "The 8,000 of us will be thinning out every year," Dobler says. "That's less and less they have to deal with." The NFL has enough money, he says, to hold out against players' claims indefinitely. "It's deny, lie and watch 'em die."
Fred Arbanas' career nearly ended before it began. In 1961, the Dallas Texans drafted Arbanas out of Michigan State University. The young man was stacked with 240 pounds of muscle. He would later be called the prototypical tight end.
In his first exhibition game, Arbanas caught a pass up the middle. Denver Broncos safety Goose Gonsoulin leveled him. "I got cracked in the back in sort of a whiplash-type deal," Arbanas recalls. "And that was it."
Arbanas collected himself and hobbled off the Fort Worth football field. He'd hurt his back once before, during his junior year at Michigan State; he played every game of his senior season, his back frozen with Novocain. His back began to heal in the off-season, but the injury with the Texans required surgery. "I got a staph infection and damn near died," says Arbanas, who lives in Lee's Summit and is in his fourth decade as a Jackson County legislator.
The staph infection that nearly killed a young man now haunts an old man. The 68-year-old Arbanas recalls lying in the hospital bed running a high fever before the stitches in his back burst open. Pus and fluids of various colors ran down his legs to the floor. "The kid's dying in here," his hospital roommate screamed to the nurses. "Come help him!" That's why he's putting off knee and hip replacements.
"I've been getting shots in my right knee, and, in fact, I got my third series of three, I got that today, and then I get shots in the right hip," he says. "If I went in and got staph now, they'd have to take both shoulders out and they'd have to take my left hip out until they got rid of the staph. If I lived through it."
Four years after Arbanas moved from Dallas to Kansas City, the Chiefs downed the Buffalo Bills 31-7 in the American Football League Championship, earning the right to play in Super Bowl I. Arbanas entered that January 1967 game with a dislocated shoulder he'd suffered in the victory against the Bills.
"The Super Bowl was, like, two weeks later, and they had to freeze my shoulder," Arbanas says. "Before the game, they gave me four shots in the shoulder, and they taped my shoulder up tight. And at halftime, I got more shots.You didn't realize that if you froze something up, then you were probably going to have to pay ten times for it later in life."
He has had shots ever since: cortisone in his right hip, and something else he can't quite name in his knee every six months. "It's sort of a lubricant fluid that they put in there." Pain and stiffness force Arbanas to schedule most of his meetings in the afternoons and evenings it's just too hard for him to get going in the morning. He says his colleagues understand.
He takes arthritis medication twice a day but refuses to take pain pills. Arbanas won't talk about the amount of pain he suffers on a daily basis. "I don't want to go into that part of it," he says softly. "In fact, I don't even like talking about this stuff, because it just gets me upset."
Arbanas receives disability through his own business, Fred Arbanas Inc., a national phone-book advertising agency. The NFL's disability board rejected his disability claim. That was so many years ago Arbanas can't remember when he applied. "The way they had it set up, it was almost impossible to get approved," Arbanas says. "I got two titanium shoulders. I've got a new hip. I've got to get another hip on the other side and then another knee. So there are a lot of problems. They said back then, 'Well, you didn't file soon enough to qualify.'"
Based on the NFL's standards, it's hard to imagine who would qualify. As Arbanas points out, "Normal people don't have both shoulders wear out and have to have titanium shoulders put in." And, he adds, "the equipment back then isn't near as good as the equipment they have now. Plus your head injuries back then, the word 'concussion' was never mentioned. It was, 'I got my bell rung,' and you might not be able to think right for four or five days or a week." The league later approved Arbanas for non-playing disability, but he says it pays him little.
Last spring Arbanas called the NFLPA's leader, Gene Upshaw, to talk about pensions and disability. Arbanas had played against Upshaw when Upshaw was with the Oakland Raiders, and the two had played together in college all-star games. Arbanas says they had "a real nice conversation," but it didn't go anywhere. Arbanas says he thought Upshaw and other members of the players' union knew him well enough to know he wasn't trying to cheat the league out of money for his injuries. "To have guys from your own era turn you down, I don't think it's fair."
With a first down in sight, Chiefs quarterback Trent Green scrambled. He cleared the necessary five yards before a pair of Cincinnati Bengals defenders zeroed in on him. Green spotted them and began a feet-first slide to avoid a bone-rattling hit. But as Green slid across the grass, Bengals defensive end Robert Geathers lowered his shoulder into the quarterback's chest. Green's head whipped back as though he were a test dummy in a car crash, snapping violently against the turf.
Green didn't move for the next eleven minutes. A silent crowd stared at his limp body sprawled on the ground. EMTs immobilized Green and rolled him off the field on a stretcher. He would be diagnosed with a concussion, and after this first game of the 2006 season, he wouldn't play again until week thirteen. Against the Cleveland Browns, though, he wasn't the same. The Chiefs went on to lose four of six with Green as a starter. The team sneaked into the playoffs, only to be dominated by Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts, who were on their way to the NFL championship.
The sight of Green crumpled on the field like roadkill was familiar to Chiefs fans. It was the second consecutive year a prominent Chief was knocked out of the game, not to return for weeks. Trailing the San Diego Chargers 21-3 with nine minutes left in the third quarter on October 30, 2005, running back Priest Holmes took a handoff on a second-and-ten from the Chiefs' nine-yard line. After Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman cracked helmets with Holmes in the backfield, Merriman got up. Holmes didn't. Finally, a wobbly Holmes wandered off the field. Doctors diagnosed him with pressure on his spine, and he sat out the rest of the 2005 season and all of 2006. In fact, Holmes still hasn't played a down of football since Merriman's potentially career-killing hit. (Holmes is attempting a comeback this season. After he returned to training camp, the Chiefs placed him on the non-football injury list, meaning he cannot practice or play for the first six weeks of the season.) Other players have been even less lucky.
The death of Mike Webster is widely cited as the most egregious example of the NFL disability plan's failures. He's also a case study in the effects of undiagnosed concussions on former football players.
Webster was the hard-nosed Hall of Fame center who earned the nickname "Iron Mike" and played fifteen seasons for the Pittsburgh Steelers between 1974 and 1988, helping the team win four Super Bowl championships in six years. But Webster's legacy off the field may be more significant. "Mike Webster got screwed so bad, you can't believe it," says Vince Costello, a '60s-era linebacker for the Cleveland Browns and the New York Giants. "They let him die."
Webster retired a Steeler after the 1988 season but came back in 1989 to play one more year, with the Chiefs, when newly installed president and general manager Carl Peterson signed him and former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski to provide veteran leadership on a team that had gone 4-11 the previous year.
Webster earned the starting spot at center. The Chiefs' public-relations director, Bob Moore, hasn't forgotten the way Webster bolted out of huddles to the line of scrimmage. "He'd run like crazy to be the first guy at the line of scrimmage, no matter how tired he was or what type of game that it was," Moore says. "It was almost like a psychological thing to the other team. They'd see this guy running to the line, and they're tired as hell, and this guy is still playing."
After 1989 Webster retired and retreated to Wisconsin and then Pittsburgh. Garrett Webster says his father's downward spiral was noticeable during his stint with the Chiefs. His father started forgetting things, and his weight ballooned to 300 pounds around the time he called it quits. In 1994 the Chiefs brought Webster back as a strength and conditioning coach. Garrett Webster believes his father's final football job was a sympathy hire. "Mentally, he wasn't able to keep up with making sure that players were doing their reps and stuff like that," he says. "His car was a mess. I know he was living out of a hotel room."
"Carl [Peterson] wanted to help Mike," Moore says, "and helped him by giving him something to do here." Some nights Webster slept in the Chiefs' locker room. He'd ride the exercise bike, sit in the hot tub and sleep in the weight room or the locker room using a towel for a pillow. He didn't last the season.
In the final years of his life, Webster lived out of his pickup truck and sometimes slept in it behind a friend's grocery store. Or he'd crash at an Amtrak station in downtown Pittsburgh. He wouldn't eat for days. He passed time at a 24-hour Kinko's, copying his NFL disability forms. His friend and caretaker, Sunny Jani, would stash $50 and $20 bills in Webster's truck for those late nights when Webster would become lost and confused.
In 1997 Webster was induced into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Two years later, police in Rochester, Pennsylvania, arrested him for forging Ritalin prescriptions. In November 1999 the NFL disability panel approved Webster for benefits. His was classified as "football degenerative disability pension," and he received $100,020 annually and a retroactive payment of $309,230 to cover the 1996 through 1999 seasons. He sent most of the money back home to his family.
Three years later, on September 24, 2002, a 50-year-old Webster, suffering from depression and dementia, died of a heart attack. Doctors concluded that, during his career snapping footballs, he had suffered the equivalent of 25,000 automobile crashes.
In 2004 Webster's family sued the NFL for disability payments dating back to March 1991. The Websters claimed their father was disabled five years before he started receiving benefits. His estate won a $1.6 million judgment in federal court last December. A federal judge wrote that the NFL's management of the plan "indicates culpable conduct, if not bad faith."
But even after that decision, union head Upshaw was far from conciliatory, saying he'd fight the same fight over again. "The NFL says it's Mike Webster making bad decisions," Garrett Webster says. "Well, if your brain's messed up, you're going to make bad decisions.
"They'll have to answer for it one day, whether it's to a judge or to God or whatever," adds Webster. "This is a human being that the NFL went out there and basically destroyed and left for dead. It cost him his family. It cost him his manhood. It cost him money, time, everything."
But Garrett says the NFL doesn't care what happens to a player's family as soon as he's off the field. "It's like you go to the butcher shop, you buy a nice $40 steak, take it home, marinate it, put nice spices on it, throw it on the grill, cook it, you eat it, you enjoy it while you're eating it and then later on you just shit it out. And you don't care. You flush it down the toilet."
Conrad Dobler traces his knee problems to the 1978 season. After six years of dominance on the Cardinals' offensive line, Dobler suited up with the New Orleans Saints. The third game of the season pitted the Saints against the Philadelphia Eagles at the New Orleans Superdome. The early-season matchup found Dobler facing a familiar foe, Eagles linebacker Bill Bergey.
New Orleans had the ball coming out of its end zone. Saints running back Chuck Muncie took a handoff and followed a bulldozing Dobler, who collided with Bergey. In the ensuing crash, Bergey pushed Dobler, whose feet tripped on the AstroTurf, tearing the cartilage in Dobler's knee. "I went out and got it taped up and got a little medicine injected on the sideline," Dobler says. "It was just a little tear in the cartilage."
Dobler returned to the game. But on another rushing play that ended in a dog pile at the line of scrimmage, Dobler's body bent in a way bodies aren't supposed to bend. In the tangle of arms and legs, Dobler's bum knee twisted, giving way under his weight and shredding his anterior cruciate ligament. His season was over.
The next day Dobler had surgery to repair the ligament. He returned for another season with the Saints (during which he exacted revenge, tearing up Bergey's knee and ending his rival's season). The following year the Saints traded him to the Buffalo Bills. "To tell you the truth, I never recovered from it," Dobler says of the cruciate tear. "I played three more years, but I would pull and drag the leg."
Since 1978 Dobler has undergone eight surgeries on that leg three knee replacements and five procedures between the cruciate and the cartilage to clean out the knee. Almost three decades later, Dobler sits on an examining table while Dr. Randall Madison removes 71 staples. Dobler's bare knees are a mangled mess of lumps and white-and-purple scars. With the staples, Dobler's knee looks like it has a zipper.
Dobler boasts about his battle wounds to a nurse and two medical assistants. He tells anyone who will listen about footage of the knee-replacement surgery appearing on The New York Times' Web site. "You should have heard the doctor cussing on the film," Dobler says. "The noise of him pounding that thing out. Do you have a metal shed? If you pound the metal shed with a baseball bat, that's what it sounded like. I think he was taking full swings at it."
Dobler's faces scrunches up, his voice goes to a high-pitched wail as he imitates the doctor. "'Dobler, this should only have taken an hour and a half. I've been down here five hours. I've got three surgeries backed up that I'm going to have to reschedule.'"
Dobler's attention returns to Madison. "Look at the technique he uses," Dobler commands the medical assistants, nurses and others crammed in the room. "I haven't made him bleed or cry. Have you noticed that?" Madison asks the onlookers, before turning back to Dobler. "Got any good jokes for me?"
Dobler proceeds to tell a rambling joke about a man and a woman in bed: The man runs his fingers all over the woman's body. The woman gets turned on and repositions herself, only to have her hubby roll over. The woman demands to know why he stopped. "That's OK, honey," Dobler says. "I found the remote."
The nurses crack up. Dobler has another one: A man gets rear-ended by a midget. The midget gets out of the car and says, "I'm not happy." "Then which one are you?" the man says.
Madison asks Dobler about the status of the retirees' lawsuit against the NFL, and they joke a bit more before Dobler gets serious. "There's a lot of people worse off than me," he says. Madison asks about Dobler's wife, Joy, who was paralyzed in 2001 when she fell out of a hammock on the Fourth of July. Dobler kicks everyone out of the room so he can put on his pants. And then he's clanking down the hallway with his walker.
Later, in his Overland Park office, Dobler says he's probably due for a couple of new hips. To manage the pain, he pops hydrocodone and Valium.
He rips into a couple of fan letters seeking autographs. He gets ten to fifteen every week. Dobler signs a handful of cards and stuffs them into the self-addressed stamped envelopes. "You owned Merlin Olsen," one letter says, as if the writer believes that stroking Dobler's ego will help his chances of getting an autograph. But Dobler's ego is still strong, even if his body isn't.
Back in January he appeared on HBO's Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel to talk about the retired players' disability fight. Near the end of the seventeen-minute segment, Dobler hinted at committing suicide. "I don't really know," Dobler responded to Jon Frankel's question about his future. "I don't think it's really good. But you just take it, I guess. Find some way to handle it. If you can't handle it, make the choice to check out."
"You're serious?" Frankel asks. "Yeah, if you have something that's not going to get better and you know that your quality of life is going to get worse and you're going to be a burden to people around you, you know, they shoot horses, don't they?"
Eight months later Dobler doesn't back away from that stance. "To survive and keep after it as long as I have is an attribute that I probably achieved from football, by never giving up," Dobler says. "But it is depressing. But that's the cards you're dealt. That's the cards you gotta play, and the only way to get out of the game is to get out of the game."
But not yet, he says. "I'm still fighting the wolves."
Justin Kendall is a staff writer for Riverfront Times' sister paper in Kansas City, the Pitch.