November 25, 2019
Once the cheering finally stops and it’s time for them to get on with the rest of their lives, what’s in store for former professional athletes?
What kind of toll do they pay for the years of abuse they’ve put their bodies through? Not only the surgeries that often enable them to get back onto the playing field faster than the everyday man and woman, but the nagging aches and pains that build up over a couple of decades, going back to when they first started to playing to when they finally hang ‘em up?
Prior to the recent Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony, former Eagle Jon Runyan knew he’d be paying the price the following day.
“After tonight I won’t be able to walk because I’ve been on my feet too much,” said the 45-year-old Runyan, who was there to help honor inductees and former teammates Donovan McNabb and Troy Vincent. “It’ll feel like Monday morning all over again, just from standing.”
Yet you’ll hear no regrets from him or the others. They knew all along what they might face down the line.
“I wake up every day with certain aches,” said new Hall inductee, Rasheed Wallace, the 45-year-old Simon Gratz High grad and 16-year NBA veteran with six teams. "If it’s too cold or it’s rainy, then that arthritis acts up. With my knees, ankles and elbows I definitely still feel a lot of my injuries. But I knew it was gonna happen. Once you make that sacrifice early, you tell yourself ‘I’m okay with this journey I’m about to start because I’m sacrificing my body for the betterment of my family.’
"There’s no one I know before me, during my time or probably after my time in the NBA who played a substantial amount of years who can get away clean. You’re gonna have something aching. You’re gonna mess something up. A hip. A back. A knee. A toe.
“You’re not gonna come away Scot free from this game. But to me it’s definitely worth it. “
That’s not to imply they're not concerned about the risks.
Former Flyer Mark Howe, who still works out five times a week and says his aching back hurts less since he’s gotten down closer to his playing weight, worries about the effect of all those concussions he’s piled up during his 22-year Hall of Fame career.
“I think I had at least 7-8 concussions, so yeah it is a concern,” confessed the late Gordie Howe’s 64-year-old son. “I lost both my parents to memory loss problems.
“When my Dad got in his 80s he was having a hard time after my Mom died. My younger brother, Murray, got him on a cardio rehab program walking 3-5 miles a day. He was starting to have problems with dementia, but it cleared up his mind quite a bit. For five years it had a real positive impact.
“But what am I gonna do? I loved playing the game and it was part of the game. It still is. It (dementia) may be coming my way, but I’m trying to be proactive and do what I can to hold it at bay as best I can.
“I’m glad they’re trying to protect the players now, though.”
So is Vincent, the former five-time Pro Bowl cornerback from Trenton, who now serves as NFL Executive Vice-President of Football Operations.
“It’s not hard to get out of bed, because I’m intentional about my health,” said the 49-year-old Vincent, who still gets asked on a regular basis if he could play today. “Intentional about taking care of myself. But I feel the normal wear and tear of 15 years on the gridiron. For the most part guys are doing what they can. They are definitely taking care of themselves. They’re dropping weight. They’re on nutritional plans. They exercise.”
But when you bang helmets for a living aren’t all those horror stories about the effect of head injuries a bit terrifying?
“It doesn’t scare me but we’re more informed today,” replied Vincent. “It never scared me. But you read different medical reports and have information available to me now as a former player. And I think we’re making adjustments today from a playing style.
“We’re better able to inform players today.”
Yet there will always be risks which are inherent when the rewards — both financial and intrinsic – are so great.
“Some guys are still battling shoulder injuries, bad backs, headaches,” said McNabb, who’s hopeful the next Hall he’s inducted to is the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “It’s just something we signed up for. We pay the price a little bit.”
For most of them, though, the price — at least so far — seems to be right.