Pain and regret
KING COUNTY, Wash. – Dave Pear's speech is halting and he stumbles through his thoughts even though he has a spiral-bound binder of notes in his hands to prompt him. He repeats himself at times and gets frazzled with a brain that simply won't cooperate after too many concussions from his days on the football field.
But there is one thing that can't be stopped as the 54-year-old Pear grapples with a life stunted by a game that has crossed the thin line from love of his youth to loathe of his middle age.
The tears. As they stream from his face, Pear's wife Heidi gently touches his leg. She flashes a consoling smile, her expression barely hiding years of anguish from watching her college sweetheart deteriorate in ways she couldn't understand until recently.
"The NFL destroys families," Pear said. "I wish I had never played."
Those 10 words, combined with the fact Pear wouldn't let his now-adult son play football, speak volumes from a far-reaching two-hour interview at Pear's home. It's a pretty house in the foothills overlooking Lake Washington in the suburbs of Seattle, the kind of place where anyone would be happy to retire.
The Pears are selling, downsizing in hopes of dealing with mounting medical bills to treat Pear's back and neck problems. Next to the reclining chair Pear sits in during the interview, while struggling to look comfortable all the while, there's a baking dish full of different medications.
Provigil, Neurontin, Lamictel, Trileptal, Baclofen, Vicodin and Ibuprofen are part of an alphabet soup of medications no one would dare sample if they weren't required. Depending on the time of day, Pear takes one pill to keep focused, another to calm him down and a bunch of them to keep the pain at bay.
There's also a list with the meds, laying out a regimen Pear must follow eight times a day as he swallows 38 pills a day. Even with samples that his doctors give him to defray the costs, the bill for the medications comes to approximately $1,000 per month.
Moreover, one doctor told Pear that in order for him to get the first of two hip replacement surgeries he will need soon, he must quit taking the Vicodin, which happens to be the best pain reliever. Unfortunately, the Vicodin has a side effect of interfering with the healing after joint replacements, Pear said.
With more medical bills to come, downsizing commences even as Heidi works two jobs. She teaches aerobics part-time while also maintaining a sales job. The flexibility allows her to tend to her husband as much as possible as he goes from one doctor's appointment to another.
Pear's fate is like many others who chose to play football for a living. From Pear to Conrad Dobler to Mike Mosley to Brian DeMarco, there's a litany of men who believed themselves to be gladiators for the NFL but ended up being chewed up more like Christians facing the lions.
Pear has spent more than 20 years bouncing from doctor to doctor. After being denied disability under the standards laid out by the NFL, he took sales jobs. He also made panicked financial decisions.
"As I was getting worse, I was thinking to myself, 'How much longer am I going to be able to work? How much longer am I going to live? I have to take care of my family,' " Pear said.
In the late 1990s, he risked a large portion of his wife's inheritance on high-risk stocks that crashed. He also took his pension at 45 (the NFL Players Association no longer allows that) to defray costs.
The pension doesn't go very far.
"My pension is a car payment," said Pear, who receives $484 per month from his six-year NFL stint (1975-80) with the Baltimore Colts, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Oakland Raiders.
The problem is that under federal law, someone who takes pension early is no longer allowed to get disability. That decision has potentially cost Pear hundreds of thousands of dollars because the disability benefit is so much greater than his pension.
Pear said he was duped into taking his pension rather than continuing to wait for disability. The NFLPA flatly denies that, but Pear emotionally contends otherwise.
"They cheated me and my family out of more than $1 million in disability payments we should have received over the years," Pear said.
"The law makes it so that you can't double dip," said Miki Yaras-Davis, director of benefits for the NFL Players Association. "I got involved in this because I wanted to help people. That's what we're trying to do, but there's a limit to what the law will allow me to do based on the decisions that people make."
The other issue for players such as Pear is that until recently, when the NFL and the NFLPA agreed to use the Social Security standard for disability to determine who gets benefits, the standard seemed unduly high.
In 1995, for instance, Pear was examined by Dr. Hugh Unger. Unger's report stated that Pear was suffering from "severe cervical and lumbar symptoms." Later in the form, Unger responded to the question, "In your opinion, is the patient totally disabled to the extent that he is substantially unable to engage in any occupation for any remuneration or profit?"
Unger answered no but had a telling explanation.
"I would only permit this patient to perform sedentary work, with no bending, no lifting of greater than 15 (pounds) and with the capability of frequent rest periods," Unger wrote.
Unger also stated on the report that Pear's back was "80 percent or more" disabled.
"What kind of job am I going to get under those conditions that's going to let me feed my family?" Pear said rhetorically. The report by Unger is consistent with similar reports by other doctors in 1983 and in 2002. In 2004, psychologist Kathi Morton evaluated Pear and concluded that it was "highly inadvisable" that he continue to drive a car and that he was "clearly experiencing grave memory" and "unable to manage his own funds."
For years, Pear worked as a salesman. He hid his deficiencies by working outside the office and driving. Pear would often pull over to the side of the road to take naps, sometimes waking up in the dark. The driving also exacerbated his back problems, which has resulted in surgery as recently as July.
Finally, in 2004, Pear qualified for disability from the Social Security Administration. He receives approximately $2,000 a month, about $7,000 less than what he would have received from the NFL plan.
It's all part of a laundry list of frustrations for Pear. When he was cut by Oakland in 1980, the Raiders said he "had lost his desire to play." Pear was an undersized nose tackle who made a Pro Bowl and started on Oakland's Super Bowl XV championship team.
Furthermore, he was a teammate of current NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw. In 2003 and 2004, Pear and Upshaw traded emails over the issue. At one point, Pear offered to pay back all the pension money he had received so that he could receive disability. Pear also referred to Yaras-Davis as a "nightmare for me and my family" and that his "confidence in her is not there."
Yaras-Davis declined to respond to Pear's comments because she said she's not allowed to talk about players who receive benefits. In an email response to Pear, Upshaw said the union's hands were tied and supported Yaras-Davis.
"I know for a fact she is not in the business of giving wrong advice or advice that is not sensitive. She deals with problems like yours for thousands of players. Why would she treat you any different?" Upshaw wrote. "We are not in the business of telling players to take early retirement as you suggested to me. You decided to take early retirement at age 45. You made that decision, which only you can make.
"We feel so strongly about the early retirement benefit and the mistakes players make we removed that option in 1993. We can not undo the decision you made. And all Miki was trying to do is help. But I will suggest that your attitude toward my staff is not productive. We understand you have a disability."
Pear responded to that by saying, "If they're dealing with thousands of players like me … that's an epidemic."
The league and the union recently agreed to fund a $7 million joint replacement program. In the case of Pear, who has had surgery to both his upper and lower back, he will eventually need to have both hips replaced. One of the problems is that doctors have told him he has to quit one of his medications before they can operate.
"My body is a mess," said Pear, chuckling at the indignity.
Most days, he barely moves from the living room of his home. He finally quit driving about three years ago after he nearly killed two people on bicycles riding near his home.
"I fell asleep at the wheel and just barely snapped out of it in time," said Pear, who's still shaken by the memory. "I got out of the car and apologized to them. They asked me if I was all right, if I needed help getting home. With the way I talk, I think they thought I was drinking."
Pear shakes his head and his lower lip quivers. Three decades ago, he was a star defensive lineman at nearby University of Washington. Despite all his medical problems, he still looks relatively healthy, like a man who should be enjoying the beauty of the Northwest, perhaps walking by a lake or hiking a trail.
Instead, the only water he touches these days is the trail of tears he dabs off his face.