Broken, beaten and scarred

BILL LANKHOF, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:37 AM ET

Pro sports can make you rich. They can make you famous. They will most certainly make you hurt and they might even make you dead.

The college recruiters, player agents and the public know all about the first but hardly anyone is eager to mention that last bit. Every professional team's season highlight video has pictures of happy, healthy athletes, dancing girls and touchdowns, goals and winner's circle celebrations.

Rarely is the public reminded of the cost -- one that can be counted in blood, broken bones and lost dreams. In fact, many of the players don't even understand the ravages that sport can inflict on their bodies. And, even if they do, it's not as if it would suddenly make anyone decide to give up being a quarterback or NASCAR driver to take up an exciting career in bookkeeping.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 300,000 sports-related concussions are suffered each year in the U.S. The average elite athlete will die by age 67, considerably lower than the 76-year life expectancy of the average American. According to the NFL Players' Association, the average life expectancy of an NFL player is 58 years.

"There's a dramatic difference from the rest of society," says Stu Laird, president of the Canadian Football League Players' Association. "There are some insurance carriers who won't insure them past 51. I've heard figures anywhere from 55 to 59 ... it's quite dramatic. I wouldn't imagine the CFL to be a lot different in that regard."

Soccer leagues in Europe are doing studies that show significant brain damage in players from mid-air collisions and from striking balls with their heads.

Hockey recently saw the death of Don Sanderson, a senior player with the Whitby Dunlops. That is an isolated incident. But serious injuries are not -- an NHL player will suffer on average three injuries a season. That can be anything from bruises and lost teeth to herniated discs and concussions.

Laird understands the dangers and the sacrifices athletes make physically, personally and emotionally. And with team salary caps of $4.2 million for a 40-man CFL roster, nobody is getting rich. The average NFL and CFL career is less than four seasons. But as a 13-year veteran who retired in 1996, Laird also understands why young athletes will challenge those odds.

"When you're 20, you feel bullet-proof. Retirement? Getting old? That's 30 years down the road ... you don't think that far ahead. I know I wouldn't have given it up for the world. We were having such a good time."

And, the good times do roll.

"It's glamorous. No doubt a unique lifestyle," says Toronto Maple Leafs player development coach Paul Dennis, of the pro lifestyle. "Guys go from making $65-a-week riding the buses from Regina to Seattle to earning hundreds of thousands of dollars."

But there is also the reality of Eric Lindros lying in a crumpled heap with the fairies dancing in his brain.

Some, such as race-car drivers Gilles Villeneuve, Greg Moore and Dale Earnhardt, pay the ultimate price in deadly crashes. Jockey Avelino Gomez's brilliant career ended with a deadly fall at the 1980 Canadian Oaks.

Then there are the after-shocks. There is the reality of former CFL lineman David Boone, found dead on the deck of his home of an apparent suicide.

Boone, who won five Grey Cup rings with Edmonton, suffered from chronic pain and depression believed to have been brought on by haunting football injuries. Teammate York Hentschel died of organ failure at age 52. Another teammate, Bill Stevenson, couldn't escape the bottle. Last year, B.C. Lions' Terry Bates broke two vertebrae in his neck and then discovered that the league allowed teams to release injured players and cut their benefits at $60,000 before the next season's training camp. The league's disability plan leaves a bit to be desired. The players hope to improve it in future negotiations with the owners but economics, as always, restricts what the league can do.

But money does not heal all wounds. In the NFL, a neuropathologist found that concussions Andre Waters sustained playing football led to his depression and suicide. Former Pittsburgh lineman Justin Strzelczyk was killed in a high-speed police chase. A post-mortem showed he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which causes depression and dementia and is usually found in people more than 80 years old. Strzelczyk was 36.

"The elite athlete grows up believing he is invincible," says sports agent BobLaMonte.

He is also an educator and on the board at New York University. "They've grown up being the strongest, the best. That invincibility doesn't allow them to see the forest for the trees. You're indestructible. Even if they're shown otherwise, they don't see it. It's the classic 'you're not talking about me' syndrome. It's you, and me, and Bob, we go into pro sport and we were great in junior high, great in high school, we were great in college and now we're in the pros and it's never going to end. We're the greatest that ever was."

The adulation, the money and the excitement of pro sports can be intoxicating.

Today, Glenn Healy is director of players affairs for the NHL Players' Association but there is a certain boyish charm to the excitement that comes into his voice when he recalls the 1994 playoffs.

"The challenge, that rush you feel when you're trying to win a championship; I still remember how we felt with the Rangers when we stepped on the ice with one game to win in Game 7. Where are you going to get that? You find me the office anywhere that can match the rush of that experience. You can't."

It is a high that cannot be diminished by psycho-babble or medical statistics.

"Even today, I still miss playing," says Laird, and he hasn't strapped on the pads in 13 autumns. "If you look at other sports, baseball, hockey, volleyball, basketball, you can still play the game at a recreational level for a long, long time. But when football is over, you're done. The game just leaves you. There are very few opportunities to stay involved."

So Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman hung on through 10 concussions before retiring. San Francisco quarterback Steve Young suffered four concussions in three years before he stepped down. In the NHL, Mike Richter retired only after doctors told him one more concussion might leave him with a lifetime of headaches.

"The game beats you up. You typically don't leave healthy, whether it's a knee, an ankle, a hip. We're like timebombs. We feel good at 35," Healy says, "but I'm starting to see guys now who have had hips replaced, knees replaced. You just abuse your body and play when you shouldn't.

"Look at Pat Quinn, Ken Dryden, Colin Campbell, Steve Yzerman -- all had post-career operations. A lot of guys get things done."

Boxing and soccer players are susceptible to many of the same types of injuries. Even women's hockey isn't immune. In a study of NCAA sports, women's hockey players were twice as likely to suffer a concussion than their male counterparts. It is the most dangerous female sport, on par with men's soccer.

But none compare with pro football.

"In many cases the players are their own worst enemies," Laird says, "in the sense that they want to play ... to help the team. You don't want to be the person to let down the team and you'll push yourself to extremes. It's such a macho sport ... we have to educate people that there could be long-term consequences."

The anecdotal evidence sometimes seems overwhelming, even when the science is sketchy.

The Hamilton Tiger-Cats lost two promising players. Defensive back Jamaica Jackson, 26, died of heart failure last April. Offensive lineman Travis Claridge, 27, died mysteriously in Las Vegas of "acute pneumonia, exacerbated by respiratory depression brought on by intoxication with the painkiller oxycodone," according to a CBC report.

A few years ago, a mental breakdown put Barret Robbins, the Oakland Raiders Pro Bowl centre, in hospital on Super Bowl Sunday. Former Blue Bomber Nick Benjamin died at 46 of kidney failure, his body so beaten up he had to crawl to the bathroom at night. "You have to be such an extremely fit individual to play at this level that it is hard to understand why these same guys are so susceptible later," Laird says. "How can that be the same person?"

Last summer, former Tiger-Cat receiver Leif Pettersen, 57, died of a heart attack. Former Alouettes star Tony Proudfoot has Lou Gehrig's disease.

Sometimes pain becomes familiar and unquestioned. Laird says that could explain what happened with his NFL counterpart Gene Upshaw, who was diagnosed with cancer on a Sunday and was dead within the week.

"You just get used to the pain," Laird says, "you look at someone like Gene ... he thought all that pain he felt was because he played 16 years. I'd seen Gene in March and noticed he lost weight but he looked great. Someone else would've felt that and gone to a doctor."

The stories tend to be less catastrophic in the NHL, but equally heart-breaking. Pat Lafontaine and Brett Lindros lost NHL careers prematurely due to concussions. Eric Lindros was also forced from the game after too many blows to the head.

He is not going gently into the dark. "You have big strong men, there's going to be high impact. Inevitably concussions will occur. That being said, the respect level of our game has diminished so much that it has never been this low," says Eric, who recently stepped down as an ombudsman with the players' association.

The average NHL career is over in less than five years. And, while not everyone leaves on a stretcher, it doesn't minimize the hurt. "I'd hate to see these goaltenders today who go down on every shot. I'd hate to think what their knees and hips are going to be like at 60," Healy says.

Still, leave it to a puck warrior to find some levity amidst the ruins. "You shake hands with Johnny Bower and you think: 'Are those feet or hands?' He's broken every finger. They are," says Healy, chuckling, "enormous: Like Oktoberfest sausages."

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THE DISABLED LIST

The following are examples of competitors who were severely injured while competing in their chosen sports.In some cases the injuries were career-ending or fatal.

Former Buffalo Sabres goaltender Clint Malarchuk bleeds profusely after his carotid artery was severed by the skate of St. Louis Blues' Steve Tuttle during a collision on March 22, 1989, in Buffalo. More than 300 stitches were required to close the wound.

Florida Panthers foward Richard Zednik, centre, is helped from the ice after his carotid artery was accidentally cut by the skate of teammate Olli Jokinen Feb. 10, 2008, coincidentallyin Buffalo.

Auto racing is inherently dangerous. Many drivers have suffered serious injury or died as a result of crashes over the years. But few as high profile as seven-time NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt Sr. Earnhardt was killed when he suffered a basilar skull fracture among other injuries in a last-lap crash during the 2001 Daytona 500. Earnhardt's death was the catalyst for various safety improvements in NASCAR.

Former Buffalo Bills tight end Kevin Everett is tended to by emergency personnel after sustaining a fracture and dislocation of his cervical spine during an NFL game in 2007. Everett was temporarily paralyzed, but fortunately regained the ability to walk. He never played another game in the NFL. Some other former NFL players to suffer serious neck injuries include Mike Utley (Detroit Lions, 1991), Dennis Byrd (New York Jets, 1992) and Mack Strong (Seattle Seahawks, 2005).

Former Boston Red Sox pitcherBryce Florie appears dazed and bloodied after being hit in the face by a line drive off the bat of New York Yankees' Ryan Thompson in September 2000. Florie suffered multiple broken bones and eye damage. He attempted a comeback the following year, but his career ended when he was released after appearing in only seven games in 2001.


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