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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/11/2008 (3892 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
In lighter moments around the family dinner table, they would mimic how the big man's two ring fingers would be sticking straight out. You see, Benjamin couldn't bend those fingers anymore, the collateral damage of nine seasons playing a game so punishing that the former Winnipeg Blue Bombers offensive lineman had a ridge of hardened tissue form at the back of his neck from the thousands of jarring helmet-to-helmet collisions.
Turns out, those knobby digits were the least of Benjamin's problems. He was suffering from diabetes discovered during a Bombers training camp in the early '90s — where Benjamin lost 50 pounds in 10 days. Without, it should be ominously noted, missing one of the gruelling two-a-day practices.
That was a year after Benjamin — before diagnosis and low on sugar during one game — accidentally walked into the wrong huddle during a game. Recalled his widow, Debbie: "He didn't even know where he was."
But it was the final year of his life that was the hardest. Benjamin was in kidney failure, taking dialysis treatments four times a week. The soft-spoken giant who played with the Bombers and Ottawa Rough Riders from 1985 to 1993 was deteriorating in front of his family's eyes.
And only his family's eyes. After all, the fans don't see what happens after the final whistle blows and they turn off the lights. Too often, it's not very pretty.
"They don't know," Debbie Benjamin said, of the anonymity of pain and struggle. "They just watch the game. But when you live with somebody, you see it. Because I saw how long it took him (Nick) to get out of bed in the morning. Even after he stopped playing. It was ridiculous how many times we replaced the banister on the stairway because without that banister he hardly could get up and down the stairs. The aches and pains he had were ridiculous."
That's the thing about professional football. They can put cameras in helmets, inside the locker room, on cable lines over the field. They put cameras in blimps, for heaven's sake.
But how often do you see a camera around after the cheering stops, and the only action is a grown, broken-down man crawling to the bathroom in the dark of the night?
Debbie met Nick Benjamin at a nightspot called Strawberries almost 20 years ago. She was smitten by the quiet, brawny football player. She had no idea how, so few years later, Benjamin's body would betray him.
"Near the end, it killed me," Debbie Benjamin said, "He was absolutely depressed. To see somebody that was a big, burly football player crawling on his hands and knees up the stairs, or getting up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night and falling down and crawling to the toilet, it was heart-wrenching. It was very sad to watch."
Last August, at age 46, Nick Benjamin died of kidney failure. But Debbie ruefully believes it was an occupational homicide, and points her finger directly at football.
"I think that Nick deteriorated as quickly as he did because his body was already beaten up," she insisted. "I do believe (football) added to it. I think he felt he was cheated out of his life long before it was his time."
For Debbie, her husband's demise isn't all that complicated. She asks, "What's the first thing the doctor tells you? Don't be stressed. Well, he (Nick) went out there every week and stressed the shit out of his body.
"I think that beating your body up the way you do contributes to it for sure," she added. "No matter what you catch later on, your body is so beat up and stressed..."
How stressed was Benjamin's war-torn body? It was so misaligned, so in disrepair, that one of his buttocks was higher than the other.
"He walked with a limp," Debbie said. "His hips were crooked. His whole body was out of alignment. He had a 12-inch scar all the way down his spine where he had surgery."
That's what Debbie Benjamin saw. It's what must have also moved playwright and humourist Merle Kessler to acidly observe: "Football players, like prostitutes, are in the business of ruining their bodies for the pleasure of strangers."
Nick Benjamin died too young. And his wife swears football pulled the trigger, dropped the gun and ran.
* * * * *
Nick Benjamin isn't the only former Bomber to die young recently. Cancer took the colourful and bombastic linebacker Tyrone Jones, a linchpin of the Bombers glory years of the 1980s, last June at age 46. Just four months later, Steve Rodehutskors, an offensive lineman who also played in the 1980s, died of cancer at age 43. Offensive lineman Bobby Thompson, whose Bombers career lasted from 1979 to 1983, died of a massive heart attack at age 46 in the spring of 2006. Then came word that offensive lineman Orlando Bobo, who suited up for Winnipeg in 2004, died on May 14, 2007 of heart failure. He was just 33.
That's five deaths in just two years with an average age of 42 years and 10 months.
Bombers president and CEO Lyle Bauer, who was diagnosed and treated for throat cancer in 2004-05, isn't unaware of the funereal tolls. Far from it. Over the course of Bauer's decade-long career — glittered with Grey Cup victories in 1984, 1988 and 1990 — he was teammates with Jones, Rodehutskors, Benjamin and Thompson. Bobo was recruited under Bauer's watch and lined up at the CEO's old position at centre.
"It seems like we're losing more guys from the '80s forward now than we're losing from the days before that," said Bauer, who in 1998 was inducted into the Bombers Hall of Fame. "For every one that hits their 60s and 70s, you seem to lose one in their 40s. And I don't know what that's all about. You expect guys in their 70s, 80s and 90s, that's going to be a normal occurrence. But when it happens to guys in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, that's a little abnormal."
"And who knows how many others there are that we aren't aware of," added Bauer's former teammate, Hall of Fame receiver Joe Poplawski. "Sure, it's frightful."
And it isn't just the Bombers. The Hamilton Tiger-Cats had lost two promising young players; defensive back Jamacia Jackson, 26, died suddenly of heart failure last April, on the heels of the death of offensive lineman Travis Claridge, who at 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. This past summer, former Tiger-Cat receiver Leif Pettersen died of a heart attack. He was 57.
Average age of the Ti-Cat trio: 36 years, seven months.
The Edmonton Eskimos haven't been immune from grief, either. Former offensive lineman Bill Stevenson, a seven-time Grey Cup winner, died at age 55 last year, ravaged by chronic alcohol abuse. Former defensive lineman David Boone was found dead on the deck of his home in Washington state of an apparent suicide in March 2005. Boone, who won five Grey Cup rings, had reportedly suffered from chronic pain and depression from haunting football injuries. York Hentschel, who along with Boone formed a defensive front dubbed "Alberta Crude" in the mid-to-late 1970s, died of organ failure at age 52. Hentschel finished his illustrious career, which included three Grey Cups, with the Bombers in 1981.
A third member of that formidable "Alberta Crude" line, Ron Estay, was diagnosed with cancer last summer. Estay, 59, an assistant coach with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, is battling non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
Of course, this is not a phenomenon isolated to professional football north of the border. National Football League players are also going to their graves at alarming rates.
According to a 2006 survey by the Scripps-Howard news agency of 3,850 professional football players born in the last century:
But when it comes to the grim reaper, nothing compares to the dire plight of the Pittsburgh Steelers, a venerable organization whose zenith was reached during four consecutive Super Bowl victories in the mid-to-late 1970s (much like the Eskimos of the CFL).
Consider this fact: The Steelers have lost 18 former players, age 35 to 58, since 2000.
Seven died of heart failure, most of them offensive or defensive linemen. But the range of causes of death are as wide as they are disturbing.
Offensive lineman Terry Long, 45, committed suicide by drinking antifreeze. Centre Justin Strezelcyk was just 36 years old when he perished during a high-speed chase with police that ended with a fiery crash into a tanker-trailer. Quarterback Joe Gilliam, who suffered from drug abuse much of his post-playing career and was periodically homeless, died at age 49.
But the most tragic case involved former centre Mike Webster, long considered a cornerstone of the Steelers' dynasty years. Webster's trademark was short sleeves, regardless of the weather. He was considered fearless. Indestructible. They called him "Iron Mike."
Well, not long after retiring, Iron Mike was living in a car, suffering from dementia, which doctors believe was caused by the trauma to the frontal lobe of Webster's brain, the equivalent of "25,000 automobile crashes" over 50 years. Webster also suffered from post-career depression and was once living out of his pick-up truck. When he was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1997, Webster's speech was often incoherent. He died of a heart attack in September 2002.
In fact, all three of the regular Steelers centres from their Super Bowl days of the 1970s are dead: Webster; Jim Clack, who died of heart failure at age 58 in 2006 after a four-year battle with cancer; and Ray Mansfield, who died of a heart attack at age 55 in 1996.
When asked once about the disturbing number of deaths, longtime Steelers executive Joe Gordon replied: "Maybe it was something in the water."
Oh, really? Or maybe it was something in the steroids. Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Steve Courson, the first NFL player to openly admit using steroids, died at age 50 after being crushed by a fallen tree. Webster was long suspected of steroid use, as was defensive lineman Steve Furness, who died of a heart attack in 2000 at age 49.
Regardless, the cause of deaths among the Steelers — along with admittedly anecdotal cases in the CFL — run the gamut from accidental to deliberate to simple destruction both during and after football: Cancer, liver disease, suicide, heart failure, dementia.
What's more curious, if you ask a lot of former and current CFL players what they think is the life expectancy for a member of their occupation, many don't hesitate to answer.
In fact, this project began not long after the death of Jones to cancer in June. Three days later, a former Buffalo Bills backup offensive lineman named Mitch Frerotte died of a heart attack. He was just 43.
I phoned Bauer and simply asked, "Can you explain all this death to me?"
"Well," the former all-star replied, "I've always known that the lifespan of a professional football player is around 55. You know that going in."
"That can't be right," I protested.
"Sure it is," Bauer replied.
Bauer wasn't alone. A quick e-mail to Bombers' current defensive MVP Doug Brown came back, "I think it's 56."
Bombers centre Matt Sheridan, who missed much of the 2008 season due to injury, came up with the 55 figure immediately.
So did Hall of Fame receiver Joe Poplawski, a staple with the Bombers from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, who nonetheless doesn't believe the life expectancy figure is universally known.
"The number of people knowing the average age is 55, if you polled people, I think it would be a great surprise," offered Poplawski, 51. "It is a surprise that maybe it hasn't been written about in greater detail."
But maybe it's not more well known because it simply isn't true, that football players don't have a life expectancy some 20 years below the average for a North American male.
"This is not publicized anywhere," offered former CFLPA president Stu Laird, 48, a former defensive lineman with the Calgary Stampeders. "It's one of those urban legends that may or may not be true. Most players have heard about it, but they don't know if it's true or not."
Without question, the data are too slim and sketchy to determine a firm number for life expectancy, according to most experts and players contacted by the Free Press. That, in itself, is rather unsettling.
After all, professional football is the perfect storm of occupational hazards. Think about it: What other occupation involves prolonged and repeated head trauma; the need to carry up to 150 extra pounds for several years; coping with a post-career in the civilized world and aging with the battle wounds that turn joints into sworn enemies and body organs into weakened hosts of disease? Oh, and it's a profession that in one study ranked in stress only behind surgeon, astronaut, Indianapolis race car driver, firefighter and president of the United States.
Throw in artificial turf and possible steroid use and you've got yourself a cocktail for an early grave.
Statistics are woefully sparse, but anecdotal evidence abounds in deaths mainly in four categories. One, from carrying too much weight that taxes the heart, such as perennial Pro Bowler Reggie White, dead at 43. Two, from crushing blows to the head leading to depression or dementia, such as Pittsburgh's Long. Three, the inability to cope with the loss of celebrity and familiarity in retirement, such as Edmonton's Stevenson. And, four, the general abuse and stress on the body that could impair its ability to fight off disease, which could have been the case with former Steelers receiver Theo Bell, who died at age 52 from scleroderma, a disorder that causes hardening of the skin and damage to internal organs and blood vessels.
The direct relationship to football is impossible to prove, largely because not much systematic information has been collected. But at the very least, the deaths cry out for more study.
Still, while football players toss around the 55-year life expectancy as casually as a pigskin during warmup, other experts are skeptical.
"I don't know the factual basis," said Dr. Arthur "Archie" Roberts, a heart-surgeon who now oversees the Living Heart Foundation, based in Little Silver, N.J. "I would not hold that out as an objective and true statement. Unless you're very careful and have a scientific approach and access to good data, it's hard to be accurate in these predictions."
At least, that's what Roberts, a former NFL quarterback who played with the Cleveland Browns and expansion Miami Dolphins said initially. Because lack of empirical data doesn't make a theory wrong, either.
And it didn't stop several retired NFL players from cashing their pensions out at 45, rather than wait until the dreaded 55th birthday. "You know that tennis shoe commercial?" said one player, responding to a questionnaire in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "The one about, 'Life is short, play hard'? Well, with the way we're [dying], our motto should be: 'Play hard, die young.'"
It's a credo particularly understood in the trenches. As former Los Angeles Rams offensive lineman Bill Bain once observed: "The actuarial tables show that linemen in this game die at the age of 53. I start collecting my pension at 55. Nice."
Actually, there don't appear to be any such tables. A physician who works for several life insurance companies told the Free Press that premiums are based on industry standards such as height, weight and family history, Occupation is not a factor, he said.
Old football players don't need an actuary number for life expectancy. Or an actual number, for that matter. They just have to keep going to the funerals for fallen comrades like Jones, Rodehustkors, Stevenson, Boone, Thompson...
"It can be quite thought-provoking," offered former Bomber and Winnipeg product Leo Ezerins, now a businessman in B.C. "It really does hit home, and I start thinking about it a little bit more. There's not dwelling on it, but it's just thinking how quickly the time can come."
When they played, the fate of football players lived and died by a clock that is forever counting down to zero. You can send in the plays faster. You can do a two-minute drill. Or perhaps the best strategy is to simply run the clock out. Take the snap and kneel.
But in this case, the speed of the clock has already been set in motion. The risks manifest themselves.
"I don't know that the numbers say, 'Here's what football players are dying of' that's so specific that you can relate it back," Laird said. "But something is going on in the lives of football players that makes it (life expectancy) so dramatically different than the rest of the population."
Five, four, three, two, one....
* * * * *
Let's begin with the meat of the issue. Or rather the fat.
Hector Pothier won six Grey Cups during a sterling 12-year career on the Edmonton Eskimos offensive line. These days, however, Pothier is all about losing.
Now 54, Pothier has lost about 130 pounds from his playing weight of between 275 and 300 pounds, which ballooned to 375 after retirement in 1989.
"I'm going for the whole kebang," Pothier vowed. "I'm going to lose it all and fight like hell to keep it. I figure this is my last kick at the cat. If I can't do it, I can't do it and I'll have to live with being an overweight guy.
"That'll give me a better shot at being 80 or 90, which is where I want to be."
Bombers offensive lineman Matt Sheridan arrived at training camp for the 2008 season after shedding some 60 pounds.
Prior to this season, cut short by injury, Sheridan was a poster boy for excess weight. The stress on his body and heart was beginning to take an ominous turn.
Sheridan promised himself to get rid of the excess baggage.
"One of the realities is there's life after football and it's inevitably going to come sooner than expected," the 31-year-old said. "You have to think about those things. No matter how much our coaches strive to live in the moment and you have to keep your focus on, 'How am I going to best do the job I'm being paid to do on the football field?' I also have to do it being conscious of my health long-term, as well."
This would be chamber music to the ears of the aforementioned Dr. Roberts, who grew up in rural Massachusetts dreaming of being a professional athlete and a heart surgeon. He became both.
As a football player, Roberts was once recruited to play for the Montreal Alouettes, who coaxed him to also attend medical school at McGill University. Instead, Roberts wound up backing up Hall of Fame quarterback Bob Griese in Miami before ending his two-year NFL career to pursue medicine.
At the turn of the century, Roberts founded the Living Heart Foundation, which has since tested the beating hearts of more than 1,400 former and current NFL players — and 38 Toronto Argonauts last summer.
Roberts said the data on the risk of professional football to athletes' hearts are only now beginning to be studied seriously. "We don't really have an answer," Roberts said. "We can have our opinions. But for doctors to really determine if the cardiovascular risk has really increased, or the risk and the consequence of concussion... you'd have to study the data. And those types of studies weren't available and generally aren't available now. So we're left with anecdotal stories."
Still, Roberts is quick to acknowledge the obvious: linemen on both sides of the border are getting increasingly more massive, and it's an accepted fact that excessive weight leads to greater risk to the cardiovascular system.
"That's true," he allowed. "Now that players are much bigger. What is to come in the future we don't know, but we'd be concerned about it."
Players need to be evaluated tested and followed "so we can learn if players are at high risk, who is at high risk, and if we can develop strategies so these guys live healthy. That's the bottom line. That would be a good thing to do in the CFL, as well."
Hence the tests, which Roberts hopes to also continuing to conduct in the CFL, which recruited the heart surgeon to Toronto last June.
But the question could be asked: Why hasn't a program like Roberts' been developed sooner league-wide? Wouldn't the death of Reggie White, who died in his sleep of cardiac arrhythmia at age 43 in 2004 set off some alarm bells?
Of course it did: But only specifically for overweight players with cardiovascular risks.
That seems to be the multi-headed monster facing any investigation into health risks from exposure to professional football. Really, where to you begin? Especially in the CFL, a more transient league made up mostly of Americans who return home after their playing days are over. How can you have accurate data on their lives after football? The long-term ramifications of head trauma are only now being taken seriously. What about all those players from the 1970s with their stories about playing through excruciating pain and concussions?
And how do you determine the impact of steroids when it's impossible to determine who took what and when?
"That's something everybody would be concerned about, but the evidence is lacking," said Dr. Neil Craton, a Bombers physician. "Nobody says, 'Listen, I've been using growth hormone for the past 10 years and my buddy hasn't been using it. Which one of us has more health problems? It's all done under the cloak of darkness and secrecy. Nobody knows."
Craton does know this much, however: "In terms of big athletes... folks that carry around excessive body weight — whether it's muscle or fat — their life expectancy is notoriously short."
So what's up, doc? If a patient is 100 pounds overweight, you'd tell them to lose it because statistics show it will reduce life expectancy. Is your patient smoking cigarettes? You tell him he has to quit, right?
Then why not tell a 300-pound man with two knee surgeries, who uses his head for a jackhammer, to quit? Isn't he reducing his life expectancy and risking his health, too?
"It's a fabulous question that cuts right to the heart of the sports-medicine world," Craton conceded, with surprising candor. "It's one that's not asked enough and even as you ask it I'm on the other end of the phone here blushing. Because there's a bit of a nudge and a wink when it comes to recommending health behaviours.
"These folks know the risks," Craton added. "You won't find a kid who comes to football who thinks it's going to make him live longer. Most folks know intuitively that smoking and being overweight is bad for their health, yet they still engage in those health behaviours.
"It's a very, very important question. It definitely is a weak spot — and I'll point at myself — in my own professional ethic. Because I don't routinely have that conversation with offensive lineman. I know Matt Sheridan. I'd call him a friend. But I don't sit down and say, 'Matt, you have to stop playing football. It's a risk to your health.'
"It's like saying, 'I'd have a better influence from the inside out than the outside in. If I was to say, 'You know what, I'll decry professional football and say this is hazardous to your health and we should shut the whole thing down. You might not be called a lunatic. But this is a potent community thing and in the United States it's a potent business thing. Everybody is chasing that brass ring."
Craton was being brutally honest about the role of medicine in general, and team doctors in particular, in professional football. Football is here to stay. In fact, just like the participants themselves, the game is getting bigger, especially in the United States. It's not going anywhere and neither are the dreams instilled in so many young men of someday playing professionally.
Besides, telling a 25-year-old athlete who's finally achieved his life-long goal to walk away from the game because it's not healthy? What are you, an idiot?
"I think if you spoke to 99 per cent of them (young players), I think they'd say they're having the time of their lives," Poplawski said. "If a 20-year veteran would have come and spoken to me when I was in the midst of my career, I probably would have said, 'You know, at this certain time I'm good and I'm having too much fun to leave the game.'"
That's the response, to a man.
"Absolutely," Laird agreed. "You don't think that far ahead when you're in your early 20s. We were having such a good time, I wouldn't give it up for the world."
Former Bombers defensive lineman Glen Scrivener would walk around the stadium in Winnipeg as a boy with his father, the late Harvey Scrivener, a long-time Bombers executive. Scrivener was in awe of both, and as a child would envision playing someday in the CFL.
Scrivener would grow — and grow, and grow — to eventually play 12 seasons in the league, including three with the Bombers (1997-99).
"That's all I ever wanted to do," Scrivener recalled, in a recent interview. "It was my refuge. It made me feel good about myself."
Quit? Sorry, wrong animal.
You see, how can you tell a professional football player he should quit because of long-term impact on his health when he's already staring the immediate impacts — broken bones, torn ligaments, concussions — straight in the face every single week?
"You have to understand the beast you're dealing with," Bauer concluded. "These are people who, one, don't want to show fear and, two, don't want to show injury when they play. It's ingrained in them, the culture of it. And you feel you're invincible. You're playing games when you shouldn't be playing. You're doing things to your body you shouldn't be doing. We've all played games when we can barely walk, do you know what I mean?"
Did Bauer feel invincible when he played? "Definitely," he said.
Does he feel invincible now?
"Hell, no," came the reply of a 50-year-old man.
* * * * *
Glen Scrivener sells propane and propane-related products for a living now.
So how often does Scrivener hear King of the Hill jokes?
"All the time," the big man deadpans. He's not laughing.
Scrivener is 41 years old now and in the midst of starting over. Most of his contemporaries are in middle management, driving company cars and pulling out corporate credit cards at power lunches.
Scrivener, meanwhile, is hauling himself all over the province by car, getting his start in the spectacularly unglamorous world of propane distribution. On the day we caught up with him, he had started first thing in the morning. If he was lucky, he would get home to his young kids by 8 p.m.
No supper at the family table. Just grab a drive-thru burger and go to the next job.
Ah, livin' the life.
Yet it wasn't so long ago that Scrivener, who always brandished his trademark Maple Leaf bandana, was larger than life and on television once a week. Over 12 seasons, Scrivener carved out a solid CFL career.
The rest of the time, doctors carved Scrivener.
Funny, these days Scrivener will be talking to some peer, perhaps a young executive at a party, who will express envy at being denied the life of a professional athlete.
Scrivener will reply, sardonically: "I've had 18 orthopedic surgeries. How many have you had?"
And to those who press him to be a ringer in their flag football games: "What do you want me to do? Come out and throw up on everybody? Give me a break. Chase a 20-year-old kid around who has good knees. I'm not doing that."
This is Scrivener's life now; an honest, Joe the Propane Salesmen existence where — after more than a decade of grappling with equally large mammals in an attempt to identify and tackle the one carrying the inflated skin of a dead pig — now everything is about making some modest money for the wife and kids. Scrivener entered the "real world" just after the turn of the century and like so many football players, it was a world with which he was not familiar.
For starters, he said, "Truth be told, unless your parents have a business, you're starting out at the bottom of the totem pole."
And, furthermore, all those hours in the weight room preparing that fleshy armour for battle become afterthoughts. "In the real world, nobody cares about that," the old lineman conceded. "You don't need to bench 400 pounds and you don't need to be 285 (pounds). You just pay more for your food."
You don't have to remind Scrivener of the physical toll of his football career, either.
"There are mornings when I get out of bed (and feel pain) and I'll say, 'Yeah, I remember that. That was B.C. Place. I remember getting hit by (former Lions offensive lineman) Jamie Taras when he shortened my neck," Scrivener recalled. "Or you've got turf toe on one foot so you can only wear certain types of shoes now. No more cowboy boots.
"There's constant reminders of when you used to play," he added. "Some of them are really positive, when people come up and say, 'Hey, I used to be a season-ticket holder and sat behind the bench. I thought I recognized you'. That's a good thing.
"But I can't remember the last time I ran because I wanted to. Having eight knee operations and a couple shin surgeries and the turf toe and two ankle operations... running is something that's not on my radar. So I've got to find something else to keep active."
When football players are younger, when they don't even know how to spell orthopedic, their bodies are often compared to finely tuned automobiles or race cars. But there's also an axiom that every human body is good for only so many miles. Eventually, the warranty expires on all of them.
"You put more miles on your body and sometimes way more," Scrivener said, with a rueful chuckle. "I feel like a high-mileage demonstrator quite often."
Hence yet another potential risk for old football players, especially those who carried all that excess baggage over the years. Scrivener now weighs about 290 pounds, would like to shed about 25, but both his past and future occupations are conspiring against him. "I'm working so much and I've got one son and another one due (in September) and I'm doing my damndest to provide for my family," he said. "There's not enough of me to go around. That's my excuse."
It's not uncommon for a professional lineman to retire, and within a few years shrink back to his natural weight. These are the lucky ones. They are probably the healthy ones, too. Others are far more susceptible to be prisoners of the ailments they developed on the field.
"Many of these guys develop significant lower extremity problems. Hip injuries. Knee arthritis. Foot and ankle arthritis," Craton noted. "And they can't exercise much going into their late adult years. So they lose the protective effect of aerobic exercise."
Scrivener, for one, is well aware of his own circumstances.
"I knew that our life expectancy would be shorter than that of the average Joe," he acknowledged. "There are several contributing factors to that. The constant pounding, especially as an interior lineman. The standard joke is, 'I used to be 6-foot-5. Now I'm only 6-foot-4.'
"I would agree that your life expectancy would be shorter. But I would also say that it doesn't have to be, if the individual would use the same amount of vigour that they used to get ready for a season, to use that same type of drive to get back to a normal weight and a healthy lifestyle."
But like his old Eskimos foe, Hec Pothier, Scrivener can't run anymore. Not unless he's being chased.
Unfortunately, many football players who step away from the game must face more than attempting to enter the mainstream about 10 to 15 years behind the curve. They must do so cold turkey — and almost to a man against their strong will.
"In the 13 years I played," Laird recounted. "I can probably count on one hand how many players that left because, 'You know what? I don't want to play the game anymore. I'm done.' It just doesn't happen that way. The game leaves you before you leave the game."
Poplawski was one of the few to walk away young, retiring from the Bombers before his 30th birthday, largely due to chronic back pain. The increased use of muscle relaxers "convinced me I wasn't going in the right direction," he said. Today, Poplawski is a successful player in the Winnipeg insurance industry.
Yet the irony is that many of the players are addicted to the game, the moments, more than to any man-made chemical.
"A lot of people use the term — I probably shouldn't say this — but when they first use drugs there's such a high and after that you're always chasing the dragon trying to reach that high again," Scrivener said. "I think there's something similar with our guys who stop playing football.
"I made the mistake one day telling my new boss that nothing in the field I am now will ever give me the same high as having 65,000 fans in Edmonton telling you that you suck, then you sack the quarterback and turn around and say, 'How do you like me now?' No matter how many propane tanks I sell, it's never going to be like that.
"So part of problem with guys is depression," Scrivener continued. "After they play, they don't get the same high, that same recognition. If we're all being truthful, a lot of guys aren't prepared for life after sports. Because you've played your whole life giving up things and reprioritizing things to make yourself the best you can be to get on the field and perform. When that's over, a lot of guys don't have any other skills.
"And I've talked to friends of mine that are hockey players and in other sports and they all agree with me on that. And it's not like you can make the average person understand. There will always be a void for us. If we're being truthful with you, there's nothing like walking out of that tunnel... and the place is rocking and the hair on the back of your neck stands up. And they say your name, there's nothing that will ever replace that."
Not alcohol. Not drugs. Not painkillers.
Overnight, the person-as-an-athlete dies. So what's left for so many who are woefully unprepared for such a monumental life transition?
"These guys, it's like a bomb goes off in their heads," one financial planner, who has worked with professional athletes, told the Free Press, requesting anonymity. "These guys can't adapt. Financial is only one part of it. It's emotional, too. You look at all the divorces that go on in sports. When the guy is a hero, the girls are down in the lounges waiting. But when he becomes a washed-out hockey player or football player, the wife's thinking, 'This isn't who I married'."
A life once so suddenly cemented in celebrity, discipline and supervised routine becomes unglued.
Remember that Scripps-Howard study of football deaths? How the second-leading cause of death, behind heart disease (22 per cent), was homicides and suicides?
After the deaths of Stevenson, Hentschel and Boone, the Edmonton Eskimos have become the first CFL team to begin an alumni program to deal specifically with players who are having difficulty making the transition from the locker room to the workplace. Pothier hopes it will prove a model for other CFL alumni.
In fact, at this weekend's Grey Cup in Montreal, the first annual meeting of the Canadian Football League Alumni Association will officially be held to address coping and health issues, along with establishing a player support/dire straits fund. It would be a first for the CFL, with Pothier as the inaugural president.
"The reality is we're new," noted Ezerins, a member of the CFLAA executive. "What we'd like to do and what we can do (at the start) are two different things."
A few issues atop the agenda: medical screening tests for former players, such as Roberts offers to NFL alumni.
"That's something we'd want to look into, absolutely," Ezerins said. "Also all sort of neck and head injuries as well."
And given many of the tragic deaths that have befallen their numbers, perhaps such an organization is long overdue.
Said Bauer: "Maybe some of the old dogs are starting to stand up."
If only because they're not young pups anymore.
* * * * *
One final point: Does it really matter if there is — one that could be mathematically and medically proven — an average age for a professional football player to die?
After all, the majority of current and former players thought it was 55, give or take, but did it stop one of them? Hardly.
If anything, professional football is as close to armed combat as non-military personnel can get. Go figure their analogies are littered with references to soldiers on the front lines, who cannot afford the luxury of focusing, even for a fleeting moment, on the risks involved in the enterprise.
Charge. Entrench. Retreat. Resist. And if a comrade fells, call the medic and push forward.
"In football you do that," Ezerins said. "Until the last play, you gotta move on. So you have that mindset just playing the game. If you keep dwelling on what has happened, then you can't be successful moving forward. You analyze the film and see what you did wrong and what you did right and, boom, you move forward."
On the field. Even at the cemetery.
More than a dozen former teammates attended Rodehutskors' funeral, for example. "We talked about some of those things, about some of the other young players who've passed away," Laird recalled. "You start to think about it more as you get to that point (late 40s, mid-50s) when some of the guys who knew or played with or against, when some of start passing away it becomes part of the reality. When you're 22 or 24... you don't really think about that. You don't know those players."
But the denial is strong in these ones. Just as when Lyle Bauer ignored the danger warnings in his youth. "You know it, you hear it. Do you believe it? Not a chance. It's not going to happen to me." The old lineman has no time for second-guessing now.
"It is what it is," he said. "You move forward. It's inevitable for anyone, no matter what. It's just a matter of time frame."
As for the analogy of comrades falling, Bauer added, introspectively, "Lately, it's kind of like that. You have to move on. But that doesn't mean you don't appreciate, respect or celebrate the lives of the people who created so many memories with you. It goes with the territory. It's unfortunate... but it does. The things that we've heard when we were younger and probably didn't believe are coming true."
Hector Pothier has a response to the inevitable toll that, once dismissed as the future of others, eventually comes to drop off the bill: Suck it up, boys. You knew the drill. You knew the potential consequences. Yet you held on tight as long as you possible could.
These are big boys in more ways than one.
"I mean, we know we're pushing our bodies above and beyond what they were created for," Pothier said. "It's part of what we do and what we like to do. It comes down to people's choice, right? No one's choosing to die. We've got lots of old football players here in their 70s who come to every game. So it's not everybody."
Pothier then points to his wife's home in St. Catharines, Ont., where almost every man on her street toiled for years at the local paper mill. "I swear to God, three-quarters of the men on that street died of cancer from working at that company. So why do we let people work at those factories? There's all sorts of professions and occupations that are higher risk, and it's not like anybody doesn't know. The bottom line is you make a choice about what you want to do for a living and you accept or don't accept.
"It's not like most of us didn't know those numbers when we started playing football. We knew those numbers and we didn't like them. But it's like anything else; it's 30 years away and you're 20. Let's face it, when you're in your 20s you're invincible. It's when you get into your 30s that you go, 'Hmmm. Maybe we aren't so infallible.'"
Added Trevor Kennerd, a long-serving placekicker with the Bombers in the 1980s: "That does give you pause. It's normal to think, is there a connection with the occupation they were involved with? Likely not. But what you're telling me makes me think potentially professional football players should be given more information for sure about these risks. This will be groundbreaking in Canada. I have never read anything like what you've been talking about."
Indeed, there's no end of anecdotal evidence that professional football could be linked as a cause to no end of health risks, some fatal. Former Montreal Alouettes defensive back Tony Proudfoot, suffering from ALS, believes strongly that his disease — which also took the life of his former teammate Larry Utech — is partially the result of repeated head trauma.
A handful of football players, from high school to college to the pros, die of heat stroke almost every year. So precautions are made to increase water intact and practices during searing heat are limited.
But no one stops playing football. That's just not an option.
Meanwhile, there doesn't seem to be any movement to look at the risks incorporated into football's DNA in order to get a grasp on the impact of the dangers as a whole. Studies related to head trauma are ongoing, as are efforts to increase cardiovascular screenings. Organizations such as the newly minted CFLAA, hopefully, will be better able to tend to the needs of ailing, elder veterans in the near future.
Still, just looking at the fate of the Pittsburgh Steelers of the last half-century, one wonders why the phenomenon of football players dying young isn't put further under the microscope, regardless of the potential findings.
Remember the skeptic, Roberts, who balked at a life expectancy for football players to be 55 years old? When asked to consider the issue from a far more wide-ranging viewpoints — the steroids, the cement-hard turf, the stress, the potential for abuse, the skull-pounding drudgery — the doctor wasn't so skeptical anymore.
"That's a good point," the old quarterback eventually acknowledged. "There's a lot of components to the life of a professional athlete, NFL players included. (They) are unique, stressful and can put you at risk for ill health as you age.
"Our study is chiefly cardiovascular. But the body is a whole system. And the concussion problems, the emotional aspects, the stress and strain, the lifestyle — all of these things are reflected in your outcomes over years following the active-player period. So it's hard to say it's just cardiovascular that influences your life after football. In fact, that would be false.
"As you pointed out, you have emotional problems and the dementias and the head-trauma relationships. When you throw all of those in the mix, one wonders what the long-term outcomes are."
At least, Roberts cites, those larger, irregular hearts are being found quicker. Concussion symptoms are being diagnosed sooner. Steroids have been banned. That's progress, undoubtedly to benefit the next generation of professional football players.
"Finally, we're getting to the point where we're making the players aware of the problems and we're hedging our bets in terms of treating the players when we find the abnormalities in cardiovascular," he concluded. "I'm sure they're doing the same thing now with head trauma. They're receiving treatments.
"So the right process is being followed for these players. But we don't have all the answers. And, certainly, early death is alarming. When we see athletes that are in good health and the epitome of fitness dying at young ages, it's a tragedy."
Of course, you don't have to tell that to Debbie Benjamin.
* * * * *
It took a while for Nick Benjamin to die. The diabetes had ravaged his body, and last August his brain started to bleed.
Still, there was time to look back.
"It's when you're lying in the hospital four days a week on dialysis," Debbie recalled, "that you lay there and think about things that you've done in your life that you should have maybe done differently. I know that happened with Nick. He had way to much time to sit and think."
Nick's eyes were failing, too. But looking back didn't require vision, in the worldly sense.
Only one regret.
"If you asked Nick would he change anything, he'd say not at all," she noted. "He loved football. But he never thought he'd die at 46, either."
They buried Nick Benjamin at Glen Eden Cemetery. On the day he died, Debbie said, he hadn't had anything to eat or drink for 10 days.
"He looked," she said, "like he was 20 years old again."
But to be 20 again, without all the accumulated scars, broken fingers and battered knees. That's how almost all young football players enter the professional domain of their sport.
Today, on a football field in Montreal, the 2008 Grey Cup will be played between the Montreal Alouettes and the Calgary Stampeders before a crowd of more than 60,000 roaring spectators, and millions more watching on television. Youth at its most virile will be on full display. Even aging veterans are only in their mid-30s.
The players will be at their peak, in terms of their athletic career. Not unlike Benjamin himself, who was a member of the 1990 Bombers who captured the Grey Cup in Vancouver by destroying the Edmonton Eskimos 50-11.
On that day, 18 years ago, Benjamin was a champion.
And today another group of young champions will be crowned, and they'll hold the Grey Cup towards the confetti-filled skies. But what will be the future for many of them? What price are they paying to hold that trophy?
Glen Scrivener has a saying about the physical and emotional toll of chasing that invisible dragon: Is the juice worth the squeeze?
Ultimately, that's for every player in pads to decide, even though he won't know the true answer for years. Indeed, maybe the player wouldn't want to know at all.
"Having said everything I've said," Debbie said, "I know Nick wouldn't have wanted to live his life any other way. He'd just would have preferred not to die as young as he did. I mean, he didn't get to see any of the children marry (Nick's and Debbie's marriage was the second for both of them. They each brought three children to the marriage and they added one more). No grandchildren. None of that stuff that you're supposed to enjoy later on in life. That was taken away too soon.
"He had a good life, though. He did what he wanted to do."
Then Debbie Benjamin sighed a heavy sigh. Sometimes, there's only so much juice.
"He left us a lot of memories and there's memorabilia around the house to prove it," she said.
"We just don't have him."
Debbie Benjamin believes football killed her husband, and others.
The suspect is still at large.
Randy Turner spent much of his journalistic career on the road. A lot of roads. Dirt roads, snow-packed roads, U.S. interstates and foreign highways. In other words, he got a lot of kilometres on the odometer, if you know what we mean.