During an eight-year NFL run, mostly with the Miami Dolphins, Eugene Edward “Mercury” Morris dazzled fans and flummoxed opponents with his quicksilver bursts of speed and breathtaking elusiveness.
Today at 66, he can amble into a room and not remember why he is there.
Among the 4,500 former players who sued the NFL, claiming repeated blows to the head had left them cognitively impaired, are 276 retirees who once wore the Dolphins’ aqua and orange.
“It’s like I’m a participant and a spectator in my own life,” said Morris, who once broke his neck playing football in front of a national TV audience.
After years of acrimonious litigation, the suit has been settled, the NFL announced Thursday. The league has agreed to pay the players $765 million — plus legal fees — yet admitted no guilt to the charges that it hid the effects of blows to the head while profiting on those very hits.
Asked his first thought when he learned of the settlement, Morris laughed a bitter laugh and said: “First of all, any time the NFL enters into a settlement agreement it is because they know they can’t win. They’re going into the season, so this is something they don’t want dragging into the season. The foundation of who these people are is they do not want to pay benefits of any sort.”
Morris’ fellow former Dolphin, Bob Kuechenberg, one of the leaders of the 1972 undefeated team, “can’t remember yesterday at all.” That’s why he joined the historic lawsuit.
Asked to comment on the settlement, Kuechenberg said wryly, “I guess it’s better than a poke in the eye.”
A Miami Dolphin of more recent vintage, offensive lineman Keith Sims, had a less cynical view: “I was actually pretty surprised. It sounds like it’s a pretty decent structured settlement for the players. I love the fact that lawyers fees won’t be taken out of it. Players will be evaluated, and the worst players will be given up to $5 million. That’s phenomenal for me.”
The deal, which is subject to approval by a federal judge, came just days before the first game of the 2013 season, removing a major legal and financial threat hanging over the NFL.
The settlement would cover all 18,000 former NFL players. The vast majority of the settlement will go to compensate athletes with certain neurological ailments. It would also set aside $75 million for medical exams and $10 million for medical research.
Individual payouts would be capped at $5million for men with Alzheimer’s disease; $4 million for those diagnosed after their deaths with a brain condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy; and $3 million for players with dementia, said lead plaintiffs’ lawyer Christopher Seeger.
The NFL, which has annual revenue of about $9 billion, has insisted that safety has always been a top priority, and in settling the thousands of cases it admitted no wrongdoing.
“This agreement lets us help those who need it most and continue our work to make the game safer for current and future players,” NFL executive vice president Jeffrey Pash said in a statement.
He said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the team owners told pro football’s lawyers to “do the right thing for the game and for the men who played it.”
The plaintiffs include Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett, Super Bowl-winning quarterback Jim McMahon and the family of Pro Bowl selection Junior Seau, who committed suicide last year.
All former NFL players are eligible to seek care, screening or compensation. The amounts they receive will be based on their age, condition and years of play.
Players’ lawyers said they expect the fund to cover the ex-athletes’ expenses for 65 years. Current players are not covered.
Senior U.S. District Judge Anita Brody in Philadelphia announced the proposed agreement and will consider approving it at a later date.
The settlement most likely means the NFL won’t have to disclose internal files about what it knew, and when, about concussion-linked brain problems. Some observers had warned that the lawsuits could cost the league $1 billion or more if they were allowed to move forward in court.
“I think it’s more important that the players have finality, that they’re vindicated, and that as soon as the court approves the settlement they can begin to get screening, and those that are injured can get their compensation. I think that’s more important than looking at some documents,” said lawyer Sol Weiss of Philadelphia, who filed the first lawsuit on behalf of former Atlanta Falcon Ray Easterling and a few others. Easterling later committed suicide.
In recent years, a string of former NFL players and other athletes who suffered concussions have been diagnosed after their deaths with CTE, including both Seau and Easterling. More than 4,500 former players eventually joined the litigation. The number of claims, including spouses and survivors, could top 20,000, the NFL said.
While some of those who sued suffered brain ailments, others were worried about future problems and wanted their health monitored.
The lawsuits and a growing awareness that concussions — once routinely laughed off by football players as “Getting your bell rung” — can have serious long-term effects have already spurred research into better helmets and changed the way the game is played.
Miami Herald sports writer Adam H. Beasley and The Associated Press contributed to this report.