The first of a two-part series on former NFL offensive linemen.
Curt Marsh wears his Super Bowl ring to an Everett restaurant. He carries mementos from life after football — his book, his scars, and a piece of paper with his surgical history, a full page, single-spaced.
The last entry, a right hip replacement in November, makes 30 surgeries, 22 since the former Washington Husky played his last NFL game in 1986. Doctors have amputated his right leg below the knee, replaced both hips, fixed three hernias, scoped both knees and worked on his back, neck, right arm, left hand, stomach and tonsils.
"It's like I'm the poster child for injured players," Marsh says.
HE'S NOT ALONE. Offensive linemen know the averages — careers lasting less than four years, almost all in anonymity, lives lucky to extend past 60, salaries among the lowest in professional sports.
The idea: Talk to 35 offensive linemen with local connections or national perspective. Then tell their stories, which are stitched by surgeries, connected by joint replacements and marred with pain experienced long after the pads are put away.
They agree on two themes, almost unanimously. That everybody who plays long enough exits pro football with some type of injury, separated only by severity. And that they would do it all again, even if they knew the consequences.
Norm Evans played tackle on the last undefeated team in the NFL, the 1972 Miami Dolphins, and later with the Seahawks. He slept in traction one season after colliding headfirst with a linebacker and lived with "never-ending" neck pain for 30 years until an operation in 2000.
He has an achy back and a sore Achilles tendon and mangled hands he used to throw in the air to avoid contact when his kids ran toward him. Sometimes he wonders: What am I going to be like in 10 years?
"I retired for health reasons," Evans, 64, says.
So it was an easy decision?
"Very easy," Evans quips. "I retired when I still had my health."
Reggie McKenzie played with the Buffalo Bills and the Seahawks, the team he later worked for. One hit splintered the bone off his left femur, and sometimes when he moves, he can feel where it settled in his leg. The knee is bone on bone.
"You don't play 13 years and not have pain," says McKenzie, 56. "I can tell you when it's going to rain before it rains. But that's show business."
Ed Cunningham, a Washington grad, a one-season Seahawk and now an ABC broadcaster, went to a doctor after his five-year career ended in 1996. After examining an X-ray of his neck, the doctor said Cunningham looked like a 55-year-old man who suffered whiplash 15 times. He's 37 and struggles turning his head to the right.
"You just don't know at 22 what you're doing to your body," Cunningham says. "You get so used to pain."
Bill Curry spent his whole life in football, playing and coaching and analyzing ever since. An All-Pro center, he splintered bones in his tibia, shredded ligaments and almost lost a leg. Since he retired from playing, both shoulders have been replaced with titanium and plastic. One has been replaced twice. And still, he would return tomorrow.
They all would.
"In a heartbeat," Curry says. "Which just proves that you got to be crazy in the first place."
Curt Marsh lugged familiar lower-back spasms into his last game in the NFL. His body sensed something he refused to admit out loud — the end was near.
Blisters the size of quarters ripped open on both feet. Each step felt like running on hot coals. Pain shot through his left knee and right ankle, the result of two 300-pound men that landed there.
A syringe drew bloody fluid from the ankle, then shot both his ankle and his back with shots to numb the pain. Tough skin covered the blisters. A tough man endured the rest.
Marsh heard his right ring finger snap in the fourth quarter, thought about coming out and started laughing, embarrassed. All the pain — back, knee, ankle, feet — and here he was, worried about a broken finger? He yanked the bone back into place, finished the game and never played again.
"That's just the way it was," Marsh says. "We all knew it. We all understood it. We all expected it."
WHEN BOB NEWTON played for the Chicago Bears, he smacked his head into a defender's thigh at full speed. The impact knocked him cold. When he wobbled back to the huddle, he thought he was playing in a high-school football game. With the help of smelling salts, reality crept back. This was Soldier Field.
Newton, a Seahawks lineman from 1976 to 1981, played hurt, same as all the linemen. Then he carried that into retirement, living hurt, buoyed by a high tolerance for pain. Now 47, his left foot needs an operation, forcing him to limp. He has arthritis in his hands.
Pain becomes a constant companion. Some even refer to pain as a friend, having put off surgery 10, 20, 30 years, either hoping for medical improvements or too stubborn to admit how much they hurt.
"You wear that as a badge of courage until you get to be in your 60s," says Curry, 64. "Then you wear it as a badge of dumb. I was able to destroy most all of my joints because of my tolerance for pain. I never even grimaced. I took the shots and kept playing."
They all did. Five retired offensive linemen admitted getting hooked on painkillers. Nearly all were injected with numbing shots. Marsh estimates he took more than 100 shots during his career, not counting dentist visits.
Marsh broke his hand one season playing for the Raiders and told the doctors not to tell the coaches. During one game against Atlanta, the shot wore off.
"And the doctor got a bunch of people around me, and reached into the pocket of his raincoat, and pulled out a syringe," Marsh says. "He had them, like six-shooters, in his pockets. The needle went all the way through my hand and squirted out the other side."
The levels of pain tolerance for retired NFL players "far exceed" the levels a normal man can live with, according to Kevin Guskiewicz, director of The Center for the Study of Retired Athletes at the University of North Carolina.
"Some of the guys, you look at their medical records and think they would come walking in with a cane," Guskiewicz says. "But they tolerate it."
That mindset carries over to physical therapy. At the clinic Brent George runs in Northgate, G2 Sports Therapy, former players don't always complete medical forms. They have aches they consider too normal to list.
"I'm like every other 45-year-old man, middle-aged and balding," says Bryan Millard, former Seahawks lineman. "I guess I just don't know the difference in how I should feel versus how I feel now. What's normal to me might be horrific to somebody else."
Normal: Kerry Jenkins, 33, once played for Tampa Bay with a fractured leg, and it takes him 30 minutes to roll out of bed in the morning.
Normal: Former Seahawk Art Kuehn, 53, lived with back pain for 20 years and still considers himself "lucky as hell" to have only had one surgery.
Normal: Grant Feasel, 46 and also a former Seahawk, tore the anterior cruciate ligament and the medial collateral ligament in his left knee and the calf muscle in the same leg. On the last day of training camp. During the last five minutes of practice. It required seven operations. He can ride the exercise bike but can't run.
"I never liked running anyway," Feasel says.
The way doctors fixed Marsh in the NFL reminded him of the way he fixed his old car in college. He started on the surface, hoping to find something minor, and only investigated further if temporary solutions didn't work. Even if major problems loomed, a working car went back out on the road.
Marsh went on to become world-champion disabled weightlifter, a published author, an accomplished speaker, owner of a vending-machine business and a supervisor of 100 or so employees in the Everett Parks Department.
But there remains one certainty with old cars: They break down. Marsh couldn't be the father or the husband or the employee that he wanted. He missed about one-third of his work days while with the city of Everett. He couldn't run with his children.
"Players are making a lot of money now, but money isn't everything," Marsh says. "You can have all the money in the world, but if you can't walk, if you have headaches the rest of your life, if you can't stand up because your back hurts, if you're in so much pain that you can't enjoy your children, the money is worthless."
INDESTRUCTIBLE AND immediate. That's how retired offensive linemen view life in the NFL. All thought they would beat the odds by concentrating on the next assignment, the next play, the next game. Only after they retire do consequences enter the equation.
That's where the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes comes in. Started in 2000, it is run by Guskiewicz, who once worked for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and connected to the NFL Players Association, which wanted independent data.
Of the 2,800 retired players the center collected data on, 86 percent agreed to come to North Carolina to be studied, interested in learning why the pain wouldn't go away. When compared to the general population in a screening test, they were considered normal on the mental component of the score and physically "significantly worse."
Guskiewicz says offensive linemen have higher incidences of osteoarthritis, depression, hypertension and diabetes than other football players — linked, in large part, to their playing weight. Compared to other positions, even their defensive counterparts, offensive linemen are the beefiest players on the field.
"I'm always careful about generalizing," he says, "but they tend to be the ones we have to worry the most about."
The Center found a high relationship between arthritis and the likelihood of developing depression. Same with concussions. It also found snowball effects — knees that didn't get repaired caused hip pain, which caused back pain, which led to depression.
Evans went to North Carolina for a back study. He met with a nutritionist, an orthopedic surgeon and the trainers. Three weeks later, his back already felt better.
"Many of these guys have aged well beyond what their age would say they should look and be like," Guskiewicz says. "They're struggling."
Struggling with weight, more than any other problem.
The inability to remain active kept Marsh's weight so high he practically gave up walking, even driving to his mailbox. Now 6 feet 5 and weighing 375 pounds, he hopes to lose 80 pounds with the new hip, the key for the health of all linemen in retirement.
The Raiders forced Marsh to lose weight early in his career, and he traces much of his injury problems to starving himself to 7 percent body fat. You won't hear that talk these days. Not with linemen less than 300 pounds considered undersized.
"The concern for me is these guys who are weighing 350 pounds," Evans says. "And it's obvious it ain't all muscle. And what it does for your heart to be carrying all that weight around is unbelievable. It's a death trap."
Former linemen worry about the current bunch. Evans runs "Pro Athletes Outreach," an organization that teaches athletes how to become role models, and he knows one player who considered himself fortunate because he didn't have surgery in the sixth offseason as he did in each of the first five.
Former Seahawks center Blair Bush notes the improvements in medical care since the 1980s, and others point to improved equipment and facilities. And yet, when George treats offensive linemen in his Northgate office, the more recent retirees are the most banged up.
Why? The size and speed of today's game.
"There's no question that the field, the turf, the shoe wear, bracing, are all improvements from past years," George says. "But the injuries are worse. And the injuries are becoming more complex. Many involve multiple joints."
Curt Marsh points to a picture of his ankles in the book he wrote, taken before the amputation. The right ankle triples the size of the left.
"Isn't it nasty?" he asks. "I look like the elephant man."
Marsh applied for total and permanent disability through the NFL. He had no hip, no leg and a back and neck held together by rods and plates. He could barely move his head.
The disability panel consists of six people (three owner reps and three player reps). Each time Marsh went to see a doctor, he heard, "You're the worst case I've ever seen." And each time the vote came back tied 3-3. Finally, the panel sent him to a binding arbitration doctor, and Marsh won, allowing him to concentrate on his family and public speaking.
Every six months, Marsh is required to see his doctor to prove he's disabled. Each time, they enjoy a laugh, joking about how his hips, legs, back and neck won't grow back anytime soon.
Marsh can sympathize with the late Hall of Fame center Mike Webster, whose estate won more than $1.5 million in disability benefits last week in what might be a landmark lawsuit against the NFL. At issue: whether Webster, who died of a heart attack four years ago when he was 50, was disabled when he retired or whether his condition was degenerative. The board voted unanimously for degenerative. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously disagreed.
Also at issue: how real post-football injuries are. Even Marsh encountered skepticism.
A few years back, the Players Association asked him to testify before the state senate in California, where politicians were attempting to pass a law to limit workman's compensation claims for professional athletes. The thinking being it's dangerous to begin with, and they make too much money already.
One politician cut Marsh off, said he was sick of whiny, professional athletes talking about injuries that don't exist or didn't come from football. Marsh lost it. He reached down, popped off his right leg and slammed it on the table.
"You tell me this injury doesn't freaking exist, buddy!" Marsh screamed. "This happened to me in football! These injuries are real!"
WILL GRANT, 52, played center for 10 seasons in the NFL, with the Seahawks and the Buffalo Bills, and he needs 10 seconds to count his surgeries. One ... two ... seven. He has arthritis in a knee that swings like a loose gate. He can't walk without limping.
Fred Hoaglin, 62, played center for three teams before he joined the original Seahawks in 1976. He had both knees replaced in 2002 and has undergone 10 total surgeries, including an angioplasty and a bypass surgery.
"We die," Hoaglin says. "We die off."
They know the averages, the short career lengths and reduced life spans. But they don't ask for sympathy, only understanding. Even after detailing 30 years of neck pain and other assorted aches, Evans makes it clear he has no issues. His advice to current players? Play until they tear your jersey off. Such is life for offensive linemen, both active and retired.
They played hurt. They live hurt. And they would do it all again.
"I tore my ACL, MCL and meniscus in one shot," former Seahawk John Yarno says. "Now I have two artificial knees. But I wanted to play. They didn't hold a gun to my head. I knew what the consequences would be."
People ask Curt Marsh all the time why he didn't sue his doctors or the Raiders. And there was a point when anger nearly overwhelmed him. Someone offered Marsh a Rolex for his Super Bowl ring. He almost traded it. And now, 30 surgeries later, he would do a few things differently, but he wouldn't trade anything at all.
"I didn't take care of myself or listen to my body," Marsh says. "I take responsibility."
So would he do it all over again?
They all would.
Greg Bishop: 206-464-3191 or firstname.lastname@example.org