7-21-07 - Daryl Johnston is one of the lucky ones. Despite breaking his neck opening holes for Emmitt Smith, he walks without a cane or a limp and is able to hold down a lucrative second career in broadcasting.
Yet Johnston sympathizes with broken-down former players who need help with medical bills and aren't getting it. His own experience with the system was eye-opening.
So the former Dallas Cowboys star and current Fox NFL analyst jumped into the ongoing battle over disability payments on Monday, albeit with a twist. Rather than continuing the name-calling that has overshadowed many of the issues, Johnston went with a new tactic by making a plea to commissioner Roger Goodell.
"The system is broke and it needs to be fixed. That's the issue," Johnston said. "I think we have the guy as commissioner to get this fixed."
Johnston spoke out at a news conference organized by Gridiron Greats, a nonprofit organization started by Jerry Kramer and fronted by Mike Ditka, Gale Sayers and others to help down-and-out former NFL players. Fourth & Goal is another group waging a similar campaign.
They've gotten the attention of Congress and drawn notice from the league office and from their real target, the NFL Players Association.
Lately, though, there's been more anger than progress, from face-to-face shouting matches to NFL Players Association boss Gene Upshaw threatening to break the neck of Gridiron Greats board member Joe DeLamielleure.
"We've got to get these guys together and stop the bickering, stop the arguing and start moving forward in a positive direction," Johnston said. "Because Gridiron Greats and Fourth & Goal are simply Band-Aids to hold this system together until it gets corrected."
The biggest problem facing the ex-players is a lack of leverage. Because they are represented by a union whose primary concern is current players, all the exes can do is what Johnston did Monday -- appeal for public sympathy. They're hoping enough of an outcry will push everyone to "do the right thing," which happens to be the Gridiron Greats' motto.
It's also the crux of their plan to have Goodell shake things up.
The commissioner has often said his father, Charles Goodell, did exactly that in September 1969 when he put his seat in the U.S. Senate on the line by speaking out against the Vietnam War. The move indeed cost Goodell his spot in Washington, but his son proudly keeps a reminder framed on his office wall. The commissioner also has shown a commitment to cleaning up the league's image with his tough line against Michael Vick, Pacman Jones and other violators of the league's personal conduct policy.
"We've got a commissioner who, to me, looks like he wants to do what's right. All you have to do is skim the surface of this topic and you know what's right," Johnston said. "If Roger Goodell is who I think he is, his power trumps the NFLPA in this situation."
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello noted Monday the commissioner already has been involved. He spoke about it just last week during a visit to Lions camp, and last month the league and the union launched a program that includes a $7 million medical fund.
"I'm very sensitive to retired players that are facing medical issues," Goodell said. "They helped us build this game. They're important and we are working on a number of programs to be responsive to that. ... I've met with a number of former players and will be meeting again with a number of former players to try and understand the issues better and try to create some solutions."
Until then, the players will continue telling their story through heart-wrenching first-person accounts.
An example Monday was Brian DeMarco, who needed help from Johnston and Conrad Dobler just to stand and walk a few feet to a podium.
DeMarco's back is held together by a titanium rod screwed into his hips. He has rebuilt knees and a painful shoulder. He's been homeless several times and spent several months living in a storage facility.
He's also only 35 and was in the league as recently as 1999. He's thought about killing himself just so his wife and kids could have his death benefit.
Then there's Dave Pear, a nose tackle who was the first Pro Bowler for Tampa Bay and who played for Oakland in the 1981 Super Bowl. He's had four disks fused, has four screws in his back that need to be replaced and needs both hips replaced. He takes about 25 pills a day and draws disability through Social Security.
With tears dripping down his cheeks, he described the agony he's put his family through.
"My wife has to carry a big load," he said. "It's not fair."
Johnston was a bruising fullback who helped the Cowboys win three Super Bowls in the early 1990s. A crack in his neck was fused, then he returned and hurt his neck again. He retired at the urging of his doctor, but was denied disability status because NFL doctors said he could still work.
Thanks to his job at Fox, he had insurance to cover a back operation two years ago.
"If you don't have insurance ... it depletes your finances regardless of how much you had when you retired," he said.
Johnston noted that if the union was doing as much as it says, why doesn't it hold news conferences to counter ones like this.
"Where is the positive spin?" Johnston said. "It doesn't exist."