KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Art Still and his wife, Liz, are sitting at a table near a window, not long after finishing their chicken soup and coffee, when a 2-year-old girl toddles by. It’s Thursday afternoon at an organic food market north of the river.
The Chiefs’ former four-time Pro Bowl defensive end has a magnetic personality, and children — he has 11 of his own and 10 grandchildren — gravitate toward him the same as most everyone else. Still, 56, smiles at the girl.
“What’s your name?” he says.
“Noel,” she replies as her mother fiddles with a grocery cart.
Still begins to tell the girl his name, but then he pauses and turns to his wife. Can he not remember?
“What’s my name, Liz?” he asks, and a moment later they laugh. It’s a joke, and Liz rolls her eyes. That’s Art, the man she married 29 years ago. Life with him is sometimes an adventure. But occasionally there’s truth beneath the humor.
During the last eight months, more than 2,000 former NFL players have sued the league, alleging that it withheld information that could’ve signaled to players that lingering mental debilitation would be a consequence of the game’s constant pounding to the head.
The available documentation of the 76 lawsuits, compiled on the website NFLConcussionLitigation.com, shows that at least 115 former Chiefs players, including three members of the team’s Hall of Honor — Still, former offensive lineman Ed Budde and former defensive lineman Curley Culp — are among those suing the league that once employed them. Many of the suits seek damages of more than $5 million and allege that each plaintiff suffered repeated head trauma during his career.
Details of several suits were unavailable, and in a few cases, the documents did not positively identify former players with common names. The suits, which remain in the early stages, represent the largest collective uprising by former players on what has become a sensitive and well-known issue. The NFL began a campaign in 2010 to educate players on preventing head injuries and to force teams to be more careful with players showing concussion symptoms.
In an emailed statement , Greg Aiello, the NFL’s senior vice president of communications, said the league denies wrongdoing in regard to the suits.
“The NFL has long made player safety a priority and continues to do so,” the statement said. “Any allegation that the NFL intentionally sought to mislead players has no merit. It stands in contrast to the league’s actions to better protect players and advance the science and medical understanding of the management and treatment of concussions.”
In the collective-bargaining agreement between the league and its players association finalized last July, $620 million was added to pensions, and $1 billion was set aside to improve benefits to retired players. Many, though, have said the upgrades don’t adequately address the head injuries.
Still, who was the No. 2 overall draft pick in 1978, estimates that he suffered more than 20 concussions throughout his football career, but really, he has no idea. And despite the jokes, the lasting aftereffects are real. Memory loss, mood swings and occasional poor balance are among them. Liz says depression is, too. It’s unnatural for him to complain, so instead he laughs about it, blaming all those concussions for things like misplacing his wallet when it’s time to pay the check or warning that he might be late for or no-show a meeting.
“That’s my therapy,” he says.
Liz calls her husband’s response a “defensive mechanism” — a relic from his days as a modern-day gladiator.
Former Chiefs and New York Giants defensive back Mark Collins says that, along with the lawsuits, several recent deaths should shine light on the kinds of injuries many players, past and present, have been trained to ignore. Collins says this month’s suicide of former San Diego Chargers All-Pro Junior Seau proves that changes — in policy and attitude — are necessary, although it has not been proved that Seau’s death was related to head trauma. Retired players Ray Easterling and Dave Duerson also committed suicide in the last 15 months.
“I’m sick and tired of some of my fellow people I played ball with and against, killing themselves,” says Collins, one of 50 plaintiffs in a suit filed this past February in Pennsylvania’s eastern district. “… Something has got to be done. You’ve got to be aware, made aware of what’s going on. Maybe or two or three more deaths will get their attention. I really don’t know.”
Rich Baldinger, a former Chiefs offensive lineman, says he thinks the league and the NFL Players Association should cover retired players’ medical care, along with providing analysis and treatment of potential brain injuries. Still says he just wants the league to improve awareness, so that young players know what they’re getting into when their careers begin.
“Put everything out on the table,” he says. “Not just for the young ones but for their parents and all, to be aware: These are things that could happen.”
Still played in 136 games over a dozen NFL seasons, and his wife points to football as the turning point for her husband’s forgetfulness and signs of depression. She says her husband is in denial, and she believes that’s common among the athletes she knows.
“He won’t admit it,” Liz says. “He won’t admit anything.”
Still is a plaintiff in a suit filed in January; the complaint states that Still has experienced several effects of brain injuries, “including, but not limited to headaches, dizziness, loss of memory, impulse control problems, depression, suicidal thoughts, fatigue, sleep problems, irritability, and neck and cervical spine arthritis.”
Liz Still says she notices her husband’s frequent mood swings, and when she says his moods change without any apparent reason, he makes another joke.
“No apparent reason,” he repeats in his deadpan way. “Been married about 29 years.”
His wife chuckles, and then she continues.
“I can see when it’s coming and when he starts getting depressed or stressed or whatever,” she says, then turns to her husband. “Then you find a reason. It’s not like a reason is there.”