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Smith keeps word to improve lot of NFL retirees

by | CBSSports.com National Columnist
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The story has been told before, but it's incredibly relevant now considering some of the most important news in NFL history just occurred. It has to do with the NFL's longtime shame: its unabashed, at times horrid, treatment of some of its former players.

A former 49ers DT, George Visger says his memory began fading in 1982, after two years playing pro ball. (Reuters)  
A former 49ers DT, George Visger says his memory began fading in 1982, after two years playing pro ball. (Reuters)  
DeMaurice Smith, head of the former union, some time ago began calling ex-players and making them a promise: we will take care of you. We will correct the wrongs of the past. I promise. Repeatedly, Smith made these calls. To debilitated players. To desperate ones. To healthy ones. To the skeptical ones.

The calls and visits persisted even when the response was angry. Smith called George Visger and, according to the former 49er, the call went like this:

"George, D. here."

"D. who?"

"D. Smith."

"What the [expletive] do you want?"

"I'm on my way back to New York to meet with the owners. Wanted to call you to personally tell you I am fighting for benefits for players such as yourself."

"Let me ask you something, D. Did you ever play ball?" "A little in high school."

"Yeah, I figured as much. And you're an attorney, right?" "Yes."

"Well, back in the day there was a saying: Talk is cheap. You take your sorry attorney ass back to New York and get something done. THEN call me. Otherwise, don't waste my time. I'm a very busy man."

To say some former players didn't think Smith would back his words with action was an understatement.

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But this week, a funny thing happened. Smith's promises came to fruition. He proved truthful in a way that is vital, historic and groundbreaking.

This week, owners and players reached agreement on adding an additional $1 billion in benefits for retired players over the 10-year life of the collective bargaining agreement including pension increases of $620 million. The group of older retired players, the pre-1993 retired players, will benefit greatly from these increased monies.

When talking to current and former players over the past year, Smith spoke of doing the right thing by older retired players. He used phrases, I'm told, like moral obligation to generations of players past.

While owners and Roger Goodell also deserve credit, this was an issue pushed by Smith and retired players. This was their fight and they finally won.

This new money has the potential to change lives. Lives like Visger's. Visger attended Colorado and played in the Orange Bowl in the 1970s. He was drafted by the New York Jets and signed a three-year deal for $35,000 and received a $15,000 signing bonus. He later played for the 49ers and on the first play of one particular game, he says, suffered a major concussion.

The next day, remembering nothing, trainers told him they went through 25-30 smelling salts during the game as he went in and out of dizziness. In another season, he blew out his knee and, he said, had to have 65-70 cc's of blood drained from it weekly. Knee surgery, he said, led to a dangerous condition called hydrocephalus, or water on the brain.

Team doctors told him it was high blood pressure; they prescribed diuretics while his brain was hemorrhaging, he explained, and three weeks later Visger was in emergency surgery with a tube in his abdomen to drain spinal fluid. Four months after Super Bowl XVI, the shunt failed and Visger went into a coma, which led to two additional brain surgeries and one set of last rites.

All of this happened before Visger's 24th birthday.

There was once a legion of Visgers -- broken men, shamefully ignored.

Now, finally, they are taken care of.

Thanks to Smith and others.

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