Football Notes

Lucas’s plight a cautionary tale for current players

By Greg A. Bedard
February 13, 2011

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When Bill Parcells kept undrafted free agent Ray Lucas on the Patriots roster in 1996, it was because Parcells loved the toughness he saw out of his fellow New Jersey native.

Lucas went on to play special teams in the Super Bowl XXXI loss to the Packers, and had a seven-year career in the NFL with the Jets (again with Parcells) and the Dolphins before retiring in 2003.

That was almost a life ago.

Lucas, 38, said neck pain brought about by an old injury, a lack of help, and a growing dependency on pain killers left him contemplating suicide recently.

“It started about a year and a half ago,’’ Lucas said at the Super Bowl in Dallas, where he was trying to shine a light on the problem of post-career care for NFL players. “I was on 350 pills a month. I had severe depression from taking all that medication for eight months. Nothing was working.

“I called the NFL, I called a couple different places, and the last one I called, I said, ‘I’m really considering killing myself. I need some help. I need help now.’ ’’

The person on the phone said there was nothing she could do.

“I told her, ‘I hope you can sleep at night when you read about this in the paper that I killed myself,’ ’’ Lucas said. “I thought it was the end of the world.

“I really thought, ‘That’s it. Nobody’s going to help me. I can’t keep doing this.’ Plus, I was killing myself from inside anyways. You can’t take 350 pills a month and expect to live.’’

Eventually, someone from the NFL told Lucas, “You didn’t get this number from me, but call Jennifer Smith.’’

That’s when Lucas heard the words he had been longing to hear.

“We’ll take your case,’’ Smith said.

“I couldn’t believe it, I actually had a second lease on life,’’ said Lucas, who is a Rutgers radio and SNY Jets television analyst. “I’ve been a bad husband, bad father, bad best friend, bad son, bad brother. I was just not fun to be around. P.A.S.T. saved my life.’’

P.A.S.T. is the Pain Alternatives, Solutions and Treatment Retired Athletes Pain Management and Medical Resource Group, and Smith is director of player programs. The nonprofit organization offers pro bono care to former athletes without insurance.

Among the former NFL players the group has treated: former Buccaneers center Randy Grimes, Chiefs running back Christian Okoye, and Packers Hall of Fame cornerback Herb Adderley.

The group set Lucas up with a New Jersey spinal surgeon, and after Super Bowl XLV, Lucas headed to 38 days of rehab for his addiction to pain killers.

“I was embarrassed,’’ said Lucas, the father of three girls. “I’m a Jersey boy. You have to be tough or you get pushed around. You don’t show weakness. You just don’t do it. So it was embarrassing for me to have depression and not be able to function.

“I lost my home, lost my business, and I should have lost my wife. I don’t know what the hell she’s doing with me. I have a chance to make it all right again. Only because of P.A.S.T.’’

Lucas’s plight, unfortunately, is similar to those of many ex-players who didn’t strike it rich during their careers but paid the price physically.

The care of NFL players after their careers end should be what the fight over the next collective bargaining agreement is about.

It used to be that players received five years of medical coverage after their careers. It has since been altered that they get a year of coverage for every year of service.

Doesn’t seem right. What if the injuries don’t show up for six or seven years or aren’t severe enough to be covered under disability?

“The whole idea when we put in the five-year plan to continue the insurance, in that kind of time a player would have a job, have employer coverage, and be prepared to take it over himself,’’ said Harold Henderson, the NFL executive vice president of labor relations. “There was never a thought to carry it for a lifetime. Now, the safety net is if the guy can’t afford it, he can get assistance from the Player Care Foundation on an ad hoc basis for medical needs.’’

Obviously, that safety net isn’t effective enough since a smart guy like Lucas couldn’t get help.

And why isn’t there “a thought’’ to give former players a lifetime of medical coverage since the game — and large fortunes for the owners — are being built on the backs of these players, many of whom don’t get to see a mega-contract?

“How many other jobs give you five years of medical after you retire?’’ a league spokesman said.

In how many other jobs do you repeatedly crash your car into a wall, which is essentially what an NFL play is?

There aren’t many, which is why Lucas is hoping his fellow players go to the mat during CBA negotiations to get medical coverage.

“You know what I want them to know?’’ Lucas said. “I don’t care when — and it will probably be a little bit of time after — but they’re going to be sitting exactly where I’m sitting. And they have the power to make sure they’re taken care of when they’re done.

“There’s 2,500 of us ex-players. Write a check, get us some insurance. You’re making the money off the backs of people that played the game, and we get a great salary, don’t get me wrong.

“But eight years in the league, I never made that much money. I just think it’s important for them to realize that they’re going to be sitting where I’m sitting at some point.’’

Incidentally, post-career medical coverage is one way the union wants to see owners spend any savings they might get from a rookie wage scale. So far, the league has balked at that.


Perhaps only a lockout can stop these Packers

The Super Bowl champion Packers are about to embark on a title defense few have been through, both for negative and positive reasons.

First there’s the possibility of a lockout by the owners March 4. After the previous two work stoppages (both player strikes), the defending champions posted losing records.

The 49ers appeared to be a dynasty in the making when they won their first title under Bill Walsh in 1981. In the strike-shortened ’82 season, San Francisco went 3-6 and didn’t make the playoffs. Quarterback Joe Montana was very much on the front lines — for being against the union’s stance — and a rift developed between some players.

The Giants went 14-2 on the way to the Super Bowl title in 1986. They went from first to worst in the NFC East (6-9) and missed the playoffs.

If it comes to a lockout, Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers is the team’s union rep.

“Once March rolls around, based on the information available, our scheduling is going to happen based on what happens with the labor front,’’ said Packers coach Mike McCarthy. “But as a coaching staff, we have to be prepared. There’s work to be done, just like there is every year, just like every team is going through right now.

“We’re going to probably go about it the same way, as far as the targets we hit each month as a coaching staff, but just the priorities are going to move around as far as how I see that.’’

But when the labor front returns to normal, the Packers may be the most talented defending champions ever with the players they’ll get back from injured reserve, including tight end Jermichael Finley, running back Ryan Grant, linebacker Nick Barnett, safety Morgan Burnett, defensive end Mike Neal, and linebacker Brad Jones.

“The most important thing is, we need to be the best football team again next year,’’ said McCarthy, who could lose, among others, defensive end Cullen Jenkins and guard Daryn Colledge in free agency. “We can be maybe the most talented and best football team. But sometimes the most talented team doesn’t win.

“We were the best football team in the National Football League this year and lost a lot of talent due to injuries. It’s a great experience to learn from.’’


Owner-player battle in its preliminary stage

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, or in this case the leaks about negotiations between the NFL and the union over a collective bargaining agreement.

No, things did not go well in the first formal negotiating session Wednesday, which led to the cancellation of Thursday’s bargaining session and Tuesday’s owners meeting.

While that wasn’t good news, and the clock is ticking toward a March 4 lockout, don’t get too alarmed yet.

If anybody can recall a time when two sides in a labor fight got right into a room and got along from the get-go, we’d love to hear about it.

It just doesn’t happen.

What we know is that both sides are very much entrenched and all signs point to a lockout. The union doesn’t want to give anything back, and the owners are willing to sacrifice games to get the financial football field tilted back in their favor.

One owner told me last month that his team could stand to lose a season if it came to that, although he conceded that some — about half — could not.

We could argue all day about whether they’re right, but that’s the thinking on that side.

The owners are banking that players, desperate for money, will cave at some point, possibly with the help of an uprising against NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith from within.

One more thing on the lockout. While it is a fact that health insurance for players and their families would be cut off in the event of a lockout, it’s disingenuous for the union to be playing the sympathy card about players with pregnant wives or children with long-term illnesses.

The fact is, players, like every other worker in this country, will have the right to purchase Cobra health insurance in the event of a lockout.

The union knew this day was coming since May 20, 2008, when the owners voted to opt out of the CBA.

If the players haven’t been saving for coverage, or the union did not make them adequately aware before now, then they’re both to be blamed for that.

Dubious passer ratings for former quarterback We told you just shy of a month ago that you’d be hearing even more about Auburn quarterback Cam Newton in the run-up to the draft, and we got a jump start this past week when Newton held a workout for the media — not scouts — in San Diego. He didn’t disappoint, if you listen to ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer, who raved about Newton after taking in the workout. As we reported last month after speaking to several NFL personnel people, there is little doubt Newton is a phenomenal athlete who would surely work out well with no defense around. But many believe he will take at least a year of learning to go from a simple Auburn offense to a more complex NFL system. Let’s also go back and look at Dilfer’s track record as a personnel evaluator. He said Sam Bradford, chosen first overall by the Rams in 2010, “is not even close to the best player in the draft.’’ He also said Jimmy Clausen, taken 48th by the Panthers, was the most game-ready, and that Colt McCoy, selected 85th, would likely be the best of the trio down the road. Bradford was the league’s Offensive Rookie of the Year and nearly led the Rams to the playoffs after a 1-15 season. Clausen and McCoy each had nice moments but neither is likely to even start in 2011.

The Colbert report Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert is one of the league’s top personnel men, and doesn’t mind sharing his opinion about an upcoming draft class. Here’s what he had to say about this year’s crop: “We’re just now starting on what impact the underclassmen are going to have, but in general, I feel pretty good. I think it’s going to be deep, it’s going to be deep in certain areas. Offensive linemen, wide receivers, and corners are exceptionally deep groups from what we know at this point. Now we’ll get to the combine, we’ll get to the physical process, the workouts and all that stuff will solidify it and sort it out. But right now I feel pretty confident that we’ll be able to get some good players.’’ As for talk that this year will have very good 3-4 ends available (the Patriots could use a few), Colbert agreed: “I don’t know why, but the spread offenses have kind of given birth to the — I don’t want to use the term ‘spread defenses’ — but we’re a 3-4 team like 14 other teams, but a lot of colleges don’t play 3-4. But because they’re spreads, they play a 3-5-3, so there are some similarities and body types and responsibilities more so than a traditional 4-3. So maybe that type is coming around. Last year was strong in that position as well.’’

Short yardage The Patriots undoubtedly will place the franchise tag on All-Pro guard Logan Mankins by the Feb. 24 deadline. No teams have used the tag yet. That may have something to do with the fact that, as a league source told me, the NFL Management Council has yet to determine the tender amount for the franchise and tender tags. And there is no certain date for when those numbers will be available. Still, there is nothing preventing teams from tagging players, in the league’s view . . . The Broncos and new coach John Fox aren’t having a very good offseason, especially at receiver. First, Eddie Royal needed hip surgery, though he should be back by training camp. And then Demaryius Thomas tore an Achilles’ tendon during a workout in Atlanta. Those can be painful injuries to come back from, so Thomas, who showed promise as a rookie last season, will need at least six to eight months. That would leave next season very much in doubt . . . New Eagles defensive line coach Jim Washburn told reporters he won’t be dropping end Trent Cole, the team’s best pass rusher, into coverage. That will make Eagles fans happy. Former coordinator Sean McDermott dropped Cole into coverage 43 times last season, according to The other two top ends, Darryl Tapp and Brandon Graham, dropped a combined 49 times . . . It will be interesting to see how former Packers assistant coach Jimmy Robinson, who was named assistant head coach/receivers for the Cowboys Friday, will handle Dez Bryant. Robinson, a former NFL player from 1975-81, is no-nonsense and a perfectionist. He is a stickler for little things like foot placement and stride length. Bryant, while a talent, has carried over the reputation from his college career at Oklahoma State for being late for meetings and not being very attentive. Robinson is either going to bring the very best out of Bryant, or the two won’t be able to work together very long . . . Wonder how many noticed that the Super Bowl winners, the Packers, aren’t a “one-voice’’ team. Coach Mike McCarthy lets all of his assistants speak to the media in one-on-one settings twice a week, and players are always available in the locker room. Seemed to work out OK for them. Once again, a team’s method for dealing with the media has little to do with whether it’s successful.

On the surface The NFLPA conducted a poll on playing surfaces this past season. Some interesting results:

7: Ranking for Gillette Stadium by players among the 12 artificial surfaces.

16.4: Percentage of Patriots players who rated Gillette Stadium’s surface “excellent.’’

54.1: Percentage of Patriots who voted it “good.’’

24.6: Percentage of Patriots who voted it “fair.’’

3.3: Percentage of Patriots who voted it “poor’’ (2 of 61).

6: Teams that had more than a 10 percent “poor’’ vote for their own surface — Bears (53.8), Steelers (21.1), Raiders (20), Bengals and Texans (10.6), and Eagles (10.3).

69.4: Percentage of players who prefer grass.

82.8: Percentage of players who feel there should be a leaguewide standard that all playing fields have to meet.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @greg_a_bedard. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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