This was the place where his dreams went to die: Surrounded by the royal blue Pacific, bright Hawaiian skies, powder-white sand, posh pools and palm trees. “Best sunsets in the world,” Keith Sims remembers, until he couldn’t focus on sunsets anymore.
Yes, it was there, at Maui’s Grand Wailea, a fountain-laden, four-star resort where Sims first felt a tingle in his left ankle — the same one that had been reconstructed. It was there, surrounded by luxury and fame and heaven on Earth, that his body didn’t care. It was there back in 2001 at a union meeting when, unbeknownst to the former Miami Dolphins guard, his career would end with something as simple as walking up a hill.
That was when the burning started.
When it didn’t stop, he called his doctor in New York, who told Sims to make the 10-plus hour flight and get his ankle examined immediately. He did, and an X-ray showed Sims was suffering from a loose bone spur. He just needed to have it removed and everything would be fine, he thought. But about 30 minutes into the surgery, the doctor left the operating room and approached Sims’ wife.
“I know you thought this was an outpatient surgery,” he told her, “but you need to go get a room.
“It’s like a bowl of spaghetti in there.”
Sims’ Achilles had exploded as he walked up that hill. The reconstruction hadn’t held, and it took 30-40 staples to put his foot back together. No amount of staples or stitches, meanwhile, could bind his shattered goal of an NFL comeback.
Sims’ story isn’t unique. Many NFL players have had their careers end via injury. It’s part of the brutal nature of the game. And sometimes, as players know, the effects of those traumas don’t show up until later in life.
That’s caused some middle-aged former players to agonize, accept and ask questions. How will they feel in the coming weeks, months and years? They’ve absorbed stories of their declining predecessors, which “force us to confront our own mortality,” Sims said. They’re also forced to think back on their own ailments.
Former Dolphins quarterback Jay Fiedler, 45, endured nine surgeries during his college and pro careers and sustained a career-ending shoulder injury. Former Dolphins defensive end Jeff Cross, 51, underwent a career-ending back operation. Former Dolphin and seven-time Pro Bowl left tackle Richmond Webb, 50, was forced to retire following a repair to his left pectoral muscle. Former Dolphins receiver Oronde Gadsden, 45, also had nine surgeries. And former Dolphins running back Mark Higgs, 51, weathered multiple knee surgeries and injections to his lower back.
Now, all of them are confronting the central concern that comes with those experiences: What happens now?
As they stop moving farther from the beginning and start getting closer to the end, are they destined for deterioration and dementia? If so, will it be swift or brutal? And even if not, what about the constant dread that they could fall apart at any time?
They also have the same concerns as other middle-aged folks. About rewards and regrets. Would they do it all again?
Most players say yes, which forces two questions. First, what — if anything — can be done to help them if they start to lose their bodies, minds and spirits? Second, why would they do it all again given the consequences — the depression and arthritis and heartache — that could result?
‘We’re pretty much like gladiators’
Sims was summoned to Redskins Park in late 2000. He’d been playing for Washington when he first tore his Achilles, and soon after his surgery, coach Marty Schottenheimer wanted a word. His agent warned him he might be asked to take a pay cut.
“No problem,” he thought. “I’m not healthy, but I will be.”
Sims sat down with Schottenheimer and was serenaded for an hour about how highly Schottenheimer thought of him and how he wanted to draft him way back when. But after his ego was boosted, the conversation shifted.
“Well, Keith,” Schottenheimer said, “I’ve gotta cut you.”
Sims stood stunned on his crutches.
“Everybody in the whole building knew the sacrifice I was physically making to try and be there for the team,” he said of Schottenheimer’s decision. “And you’re not even gonna try to give me the opportunity to get healthy.”
Then Sims tore his Achilles the second time. And from there, his life fell apart.
He slept on a couch in his home theater for eight weeks. He couldn’t walk — or crawl — up the stairs of his home. And his marriage crumbled, eventually ending in divorce.
“Do you know how humbling it is to have your kids. ... get the wheelchair to wheel dad to the kitchen table?” he said.
“When you’re going through it, you don’t realize the level of depression you’re in. But I look back on it, and I’m like, ‘I spent two months in a dark room on a couch.’”
Seventeen years later, Sims, 50, still suffers. He’s in constant pain. And he’s not alone.
Take Higgs, Miami’s starting running back in the early 1990s, for example. Back then, he was known as a between-the-tackles bruiser despite his 5-foot-7 frame. Now, he wakes up sweating from football-fueled stress dreams 3-4 times a week and finds something new swollen every day. Sometimes it’s his big toe. Sometimes his hip. Ankle. Knee.
That physical strain was evident at the 2016 Atlantic Coast Conference football championship, which Higgs attended with Cross. At one point, Cross fell over and Higgs couldn’t help him up. Higgs wept.
“Not only that,” he pointed out. “I’m not as sharp with my memory anymore.”
Friends have told him he leaves out random words in sentences and forgets entire conversations.
He also reads stories about former Dolphins players such as Nick Buoniconti and Jim Kiick and is reminded of his playing days. Even back then, he got nervous when he witnessed serious injuries.
“It scared me so much,” he said. “Playing football is one thing — not walking is another.”
That thought made a recent trip to the mall with his 80-year-old mother excruciating. Higgs watched as she walked laps around the air-conditioned oasis while he sat in a chair. The former running back can’t run at all, and even walking with his mother is a struggle.
“My mother looks at me like, ‘Dang, I can’t believe it.’” he said.
Now, both he and Sims are anxious about the future. Higgs’ favorite catchphrase is, “I’m here for a good time. Not a long time,” and he tries to live it out every day before time runs out. Sims, meanwhile, bought an RV and tours the country with his five kids, ages 5 to 21.
“There’s so much in this country that I wanna see and do,” he said. “And heaven forbid the concussions or dementia or whatever is coming my way in the next five, 10, 20 years. I better get out and experience what I can.”
But if you ask Sims or Higgs if they would play football again, the answer is absolutely.
“We all know what we sign up for,” Higgs said. “We’re pretty much like gladiators.”
But why be gladiators when there are other options? When they knew the risks? When they knew football could harm them?
A whole new world
Imagine you’re Mark Higgs. Imagine you grew up in Owensboro, Kentucky. Your father was an electrician, and you were destined to be one, too. You’d already gone to school and trained for it. You just needed to take your certification exam.
Your brother, Kenny Higgs, was an NBA player who had escaped Owensboro and told you about the pleasures beyond Kentucky. But you were no basketball player. At 5-7? No way.
You had already started playing football at 8 and, hey, you were pretty good.
Then you attended the University of Kentucky, where you took road trips to other Southeastern Conference schools just to play a game. You got drafted into the NFL, where you crisscrossed the nation’s biggest cities and got paid more than you ever would have as an electrician. Much more.
Years later, you suffer from chronic pain and memory loss. Would you change anything?
“I still would do it again,” Higgs said. “Like I said, I’m here for a good time. Not a long time.
“Football helped me see things that I probably never would have gotten to see.”
Things like meeting Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and Tiger Woods, among others. Cross, who came from the even smaller town of Blythe, California, agreed. And Sims said the same thing, emphasizing not just the life experiences but also the lessons learned from football. Gadsden agreed as well.
“If I had to do it again,” he said, “I’d play the same way. Probably faster if I could.”
But what exactly did they sign up for?
Research from the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety suggests that despite some of the health problems associated with football, players live longer (77.5 years) than average American men (74.7). However, documents released by the NFL in 2014 suggest nearly a third of former players will develop cognitive diseases, and the symptoms will show up at “notably younger ages.”
“That’s the biggest fear,” Sims said. “Our minds starting to go.
“I can deal with the pain of struggling to walk or my back hurting. But can I still have my mind?”
Back in 1994, Sims was in Hawaii for union meetings, where he and several other players proposed something radical: lifetime health insurance for retired NFL players.
It was voted down.
When talking to retired players now, 23 years later, they have varying opinions on issues such as playing again, personal responsibility and the NFL’s obligation to them. But there’s one issue where Sims, Fiedler, Gadsden, Higgs and Cross agree: They want the NFL Player’s Association to attain lifetime health insurance for retired players.
“It’s just short-sightedness,” Sims recalls of the failed proposal.
“A lot of the union reps were younger. And you look at the age of the average player, and most of us, when we’re 21, 22, 25, you don’t think of your mortality. You don’t think of the cost of the future for healthcare.”
Currently, vested players are allowed to maintain health coverage five years after they retire. After that, they’re on their own.
The NFLPA has tried to improve its coverage lately, said Miki Yaras-Davis, senior director of the NFLPA benefits department. Starting with the 2011 collective bargaining agreement, players can opt into a cheaper healthcare plan after their five years of retirement healthcare runs out. That only applies to players who retire this year and later, however.
There’s also The Trust, a program launched by the NFLPA in 2013 to help former players with things they might need after retirement, from health to education. And then there are pension plans, annuity plans and 401(K) plans for players once they reach 65.
Nevertheless, former Dolphins players like Fiedler want something more comprehensive and concrete.
“I think there’s a certain level of obligation to take care of the players who have built the league up,” he said, “and that includes every player that’s played in the league.”
The problem, however, is cost.
“The price tag on that would be so expensive,” Yaras-Davis said, “there would be no salaries in the NFL that year.”
With about 15,000 retired NFL players around, University of Florida professor and healthcare researcher Paul Duncan agreed with Yaras-Davis: It’s complicated to know how much it would cost, and it could cost a lot.
Still, despite the hurdles, some players remain hopeful and steadfast in their views that lifetime healthcare for former players should happen as soon as possible.
“I think if they would just go and give everybody — all NFL players who retired — full-time health coverage,” Gadsden said, “I think that would solve a whole lot of gripes.”
Slowly but surely
For Cross, it all comes down to the ramming. The bone-crackling, helmet-crunching ramming reminiscent of clashing bighorn sheep.
The ramming was standard when he played at the University of Missouri in the mid-1980s. He knew it was coming when he heard the bottle of painkillers rattling in his coach’s pocket.
The coach lined up two defensive linemen of a similar size and demanded they hit each other. Helmet to helmet. Over and over. This was how every practice started, which explains the pills.
“Because until you got used to it,” Cross explained, “you had these massive headaches.”
Cross said once he reached the pros, practices weren’t as brutal. But Higgs said they were still far more savage than the practices of today.
“If you go watch them practice [now],” he said, “it’s like they’re playing patty-cake. When we practiced, we were hitting.”
Cross added he already sees signs of football’s potential aftereffects in other retired players. One is former Dolphins linebacker John Offerdahl, who told Cross he couldn’t remember his wife’s maiden name when checking in at the airport. And Cross’ girlfriend of seven years already sees signs of impairment starting to grip him as well.
“Because I’m a football player, she’s a little forgiving,” he said. “But in her mind, there’s no doubt that I’ve taken some knocks upside the head.”
Those “knocks upside the head” are brought up at least once a week with his former teammates. Because as far as Cross can remember, not a single person he played with — at any level — was ever diagnosed with a concussion.
Looking back, he and his teammates realize that’s impossible. That many brain injuries must have been overlooked. And that negligence has caused a combination of denial and concern.
Some, like Fiedler, try not to think about what might happen. Granted, as a quarterback, he took fewer hits. So his outlook is best described as hoping for the best.
“Is there some concern over what’s going on with people? Yeah. Of course,” he said. “But I wouldn’t say I’m looking at my future and saying I’m scared for myself.”
Higgs was blunt. He has accepted what’s coming, and he considers himself lucky. Other players, he explained, have families and young children. Higgs isn’t married and has a grown daughter, “so if I die, it’s no big thing because my daughter will be OK.”
“I already know,” he said of looming health challenges. “I’m here for good time. Not for a long time. When I signed up to play, I kind of figured that.”
And then there’s Cross, the former battering-ram who has to write down everything to avoid forgetting. Despite being in good shape — better than average men, he said — he just can’t ignore the warnings. The amnesia. The ominous hints at whatcould come.
“We’re certainly, slowly but surely, falling apart,” he said. “That’s for certain.”