Gene Atkins: A discarded and disabled former football player forgotten in the NFL lockout
THURSDAY, 17 MARCH 2011 08:11
BY EVAN WEINER
THE BUSINESS AND POLITICS OF SPORTS
As the National Football League hired lawyers and attorneys from the decertified National Football League Players Association game-planned for an April court date in Minneapolis where they will argue over what went wrong in their collective bargaining talks and why there is no new Collective Bargaining Agreement in place, Gene Atkins will go about his daily struggle at his Texas home.
The 46-year-old Atkins has some better days than others but struggles with his concentration and focus and his constant headaches and pain. Doctors said he has permanent brain damage from playing football. Atkins was once of the most intimidating players on the New Orleans Saints, a safety who hit hard and wanted to put fear in offensive players.
But that was a long time ago. Atkins last played for the Miami Dolphins in 1996 and then retired. His life soon unraveled. There was a domestic dispute involving his wife, an arrest, business failures, depression, constant headaches and by 2000, the thoughts of suicide. Atkins’ post-career problems seem to follow a pattern, a rather disturbing set of circumstances that is not all that unusual among ex-NFL players. He is living off the United States safety net of Social Security and Medicare despite his young age like other former NFL players, a safety net that might cost taxpayers a billion dollars for discarded, disabled players.
Atkins was a contemporary of two other big hitters, Philadelphia's Andre Waters and Chicago's Dave Duerson. Waters committed suicide on Nov. 20, 2006. Duerson killed himself in February. The Duerson suicide hit Atkins hard. But Atkins admitted he could have beaten both of them to the gun if not for his children.
Gene Atkins’ friend and lawyer Jeffrey Dahl is trying to get Atkins some financial help in dealing with his day-to-day existence. By 2005, Atkins turned to the NFL for assistance and got the cold shoulder. In 2006, Atkins appealed and got some help but not much from the NFL. Just how did Gene Atkins go from one of the hardest hitting and smartest players on the field to where he is today? The answer might come from the 1993 New Orleans Saints media guide.
Atkins is described in the club produced book the following way -- possessing good speed, has gained a reputation for aggressiveness and the big hit -- Atkins was taught to be an intimidating force at his position and played that way.
"The NFL told me my biggest asset was my memory," Atkins said on Monday talking about his playing career, which lasted 10 years from 1987 to 1996 with New Orleans and Miami. "Dom Capers (the New Orleans defensive backfield coach) had a very complicated defense. It was like a chess game. I learned it in two years and mastered it in four years."
Atkins admitted that he didn't remember the question this reporter asked. He doesn’t have very much of a short-term memory. In 2008, a Seattle doctor confirmed what the layman would know after talking to Atkins. But Atkins does remember the football culture and how all he wanted to do was become a vested NFL veteran and get some post career benefits.
"I mastered that defense, grades of 90 percent to 80 percent in 100 to 80 plays and maybe one or two errors," he said.
But while Atkins was playing he used his head in tackling and that probably was his undoing but in football you play hurt and if you ever complain, your career is on the line. It is part of the football culture that starts on the Pop Warner level and carries through junior high, high school, college and the pros, whether it is the NFL, the Canadian Football League, the United Football League or indoor football.
"Man suck it up. If you can walk, you can play," said Atkins of the football mentality.
"Maybe over 20 concussions, sometimes I couldn't see and I would tell (Saints defensive back) Brett Maxie or (linebacker) Sam Mills cover until I get my vision back. The trainer would come out and never report a concussion.
"I had one listed concussion. You are just dizzy, can you see this? If you went to the sidelines you were a wimp. The peer pressure."
Atkins was in his own words "a gladiator."
Atkins wanted to be known as the roughest and toughest on the field.
"Everything was about intimidation," he said. "Put fear in the offensive guy. Tough, rough and rugged. There was no hitting with the shoulder. If I played today, like that guy in Pittsburgh (James Harrison), they’d probably fine me my whole paycheck."
Atkins was a seventh round draft choice, the last round of the grab bag, in 1987, and faced long odds making the club. He graduated from Florida A&M with a degree in physical education. Rookies not only have to play a position but have to be special teams’ players.
He had to prove he belonged.
Atkins' rookie season was also the last NFL strike season. All Gene Atkins wanted to do was make the team and the collective bargaining agreement -- something that might have helped him down the road -- was the last thing on his mind. He was part of the football culture and at Florida A&M, he was taught "that you kill a mosquito with an axe." In other words, you have to play hard and lay someone out which is a variation of Al Davis' quote that the "quarterback must go down and go down hard.”
In Atkins' world, there was no room for a soft player.
"They (coaches) are going to say they are going to cut you if you don't hit hard or … be physical," he said. "(Coaches) look in the training room. It is a sign of weakness being in the trainer's room. You are not putting on dresses. We are gladiators who go to fight. There is nothing soft. It is a contact sport."
But a contact sport can cause major damage to a human bodies colliding.
"You can take your car (after an accident) to a body shop and the guy says I can fix that," said Atkins. "But after five or six times, you can’t fix that. The same goes for your brain. You can’t change that."
Atkins left it all on the field for New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson and Miami Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga and ended up with brain damage. He has never heard from his former owners. Atkins and Benson are alike in one way; both are on the government dole. Atkins is getting social security disability benefits and Medicare.
Benson got about $185 million is cash payments to keep his football team in New Orleans from Governor Mike Foster and the Louisiana legislature between 2002 and 2010 as a thank you for not breaking his Superdome lease and leaving New Orleans.
Tom Benson is still doing the “Benson Boogie” while Gene Atkins tries to remember what day it is.
Benson has a new deal with Louisiana where he is getting less money but a renovated Superdome, and he purchased a building next to the stadium and is renting office space to the state. Atkins is hoping that the next collective bargaining agreement takes care of discarded and disabled players like him and provides money to treat the broken down hulks for care.
Atkins made a rather interesting observation on Monday. He thinks some of the off-field problems that a number of active players have had may indicate that something is going on with their brains. Atkins did name two players in particular who have gotten in trouble, one legal and one with his mouth and thinks a third, long time vet, will have some major physical issues once his playing days are over.
Back in 1987, Atkins went on strike but he didn't pay much attention to what Executive Director Gene Upshaw and the rest of the executive committee of the National Football League Players Association were saying.
"I had no idea what we were striking for," he said. "I just wanted to get vested. I think there were talking about Plan (he stumbles, and is prodded by this reporter), Plan B. Free agency. I was focusing on making the team."
Atkins was told the story about New York Giants nose tackle Jim Burt who waited in the Giants Stadium parking lot until the striking players decided to walk into the stadium for practice en masse in 1987 with the players association collapsing. Burt said "as football players we were used to getting hit over the head" and he was happy to be back even though the players gained nothing by going out. Atkins asked how long Burt was in the league at that point. It was seven years and Atkins said if a veteran didn’t know what was going on, how could a rookie?
Atkins was still around in 1993 when the players and owners reached a new collective bargaining agreement that included a better pension and some post-career health benefits for five years if a player became a four-year vested veteran.
The owners and players collective bargained working conditions but the players did a rotten job. They opted for money instead of long-time health benefits and players like Atkins were left with very little protection.
Five years isn't enough protection for players who absorbed a beating. But in the world of football, a football career is merely a stepping-stone and not a lifelong journey.
Atkins life unraveled after football. By 2005 he sought help and went to the NFL. He had no insurance, was unable to work and wanted disability income. In June of that year, the Bert Bell-Pete Rozelle Player Retirement Plan Board turned down his request. In February 2006, the board awarded Atkins "inactive total and permanent disability" benefits, which gave him $911.25 a month.
Atkins gets that and whatever the government gives him in SSI and Medicare benefits.
"In 2007 Gene was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome by Dr. Robert Cantu yet the NFL owners have fought hard to deny him," Dahl said.
In 2008, a Seattle neurologist wrote in his report, "I therefore consider Mr. Atkins to be totally disabled, at least as part of a consequence of professional football injuries.”
Atkins and Dahl are still pursuing NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to do something. Right now the owners and players are fighting over splitting as estimated nine billion dollars of annual revenue. The players still seem to be still "Money Now."
Atkins has two major interests in the looming courtroom, National Labor Relations Board battles. He wants the league to look after him and his son is a member of the Cincinnati Bengals. Gene Atkins hopes Geno Atkins never faces the same people he encounters on a daily basis.
The sports media is keeping score with fans as to who is to blame in the NFL lockout like fans matter in the dispute. There is a silliness surrounding the NFL Draft, which only exists because the NFL owners and NFLPA agreed to it as part of working conditions, and whether college players taken in the first round should be shown off on stage while there is a lockout. The disbanded players association wants to do something different to celebrate the draft.
Here is a free suggestion to the former NFLPA: Take care of all of your players, past and present and work out a deal with the owners to see that they get post-career care and stop the banal, inane and juvenile kabuki dance with players you don’t even have in your association — the college athletes.
Evan Weiner, the winner of the United States Sports Academy's 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award, is an author, radio-TV commentator and speaker on "The Politics of Sports Business." His book, "The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition is available at bickley.com, Barnes and Noble or amazonkindle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org