In their glory days, players in the National Football League were lauded for touchdowns, yardage, field goals and Super Bowl appearances. Today, retired players have to think about defending themselves in another game — their health.

At a time when most Americans are debating health care, retired NFL players are also feeling the pressure. After years playing a rough sport, many suffer from related ailments.

Until recently the health of retired players was largely unaddressed. Now a new initiative through Mercy Health Partners and the Shayne Graham Foundation is helping retired players and coaches get healthy.

“I’m living the life [former players] used to live,” Graham says. “I wouldn’t have my job without them. They made people want to watch the games on TV, to really get into the game.”

A Growing Need
Health benefits, pensions and pay ranges between current and former players are immense. This was apparent to administrators at Mercy Health Partners.

“Everyone thinks that they were all millionaires — they’re not,” says Greg Ossmann, regional director of business development and community relations at Mercy.

As of 2009, the lowest salary a rookie could be paid was $310,000 a year. The pay scale skyrockets to $28 million for Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

The numbers were significantly lower for former players, especially before their union — the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) — demanded higher salaries in the late 1980s. For retired players, this translates to a struggle in paying for care.

Jim Breech was a place-kicker for the Cincinnati Bengals from 1980 to 1992, during which time he became their all-time leading scorer. Now he’s an insurance broker for the Hauser Group in Blue Ash, and knows well the health concerns of retired players. Health insurance expired upon retirement for Breech and his contemporaries, whereas now, it lasts five years after retirement.

“Concussions, neck injuries, they take a toll.” Breech says. “Injuries don’t always creep up when you’re playing or right after, but maybe down the line.”

Pro Football Hall-of-Famer Anthony Muñoz was also worried about the health of retirees. Muñoz was an offensive lineman for the Bengals from 1980 to 1992, and is widely considered one of the best linemen in NFL history. He and Breech were lucky to have high pay rates and marketable job skills, whereas some other players did not.

“The fact that that they chose Mercy as a partner makes sense. We have locations throughout the region, we commit to serving the region, and a lot of these retired players are underserved,” says Mercy Fairfield President/CEO Tom Urban.

With their combined knowledge of health care, retirement and football, Mercy, Breech and Muñoz decided they must do something to help.

Blocks to the Plan
The idea for the program was fine-tuned — Mercy and HealthSpan, a regional provider-owned PPO network and wellness corporation, would provide health screenings to retired players, and options would be instated to help improve their overall health. They wanted the support of current players, but it was easier said than done.

“I knew we could make a difference in someone’s life, and maybe save their life. At the end of the day, that’s where the reward is,” Ossmann comments.

No current player had ever stepped up to aid the health of former players. Breech says of this disconnect, “You kind of live in a bubble when you play. You worry about your career, your team, your health.When I was playing, I was only kind of aware of retired players’ issues. Now that I live with them, I see things differently.”

Mercy hoped to find a current NFL player who could be an ally for the program. They asked the Bengals who might be a good partner for the initiative, and were told that, without question, the man for the job was Shayne Graham.

Kicking Off a New Program
Current Bengals place-kicker Shayne Graham, nicknamed “Golden Graham” for his accurate kicking, knows he wouldn’t be in the position he is today without the efforts of former players. The philanthropic leader jumped at the opportunity to help those who played before his time.

Graham decided that through his charitable organization, the Shayne Graham Foundation, he would fund healthcare screenings for every retired NFL player and coach in the Greater Cincinnati area, as well as their spouses. An estimated 175 retired players and coaches live in the area. In the screenings, blood samples are taken, and overall health is assessed. The results are then sent by mail.

The participants are even assigned HealthSpan personal nurse coaches, who communicate with them online. The nurses discuss individuals’ health issues, answer their questions, and give advice about following up with a doctor. Mercy also opened the doors of its HealthPlex Wellness & Fitness Center to the players.

“A lot of retired players are dealing with all these health problems they contracted during their careers, but their organization won’t support them,” Graham says.

He hopes this program will alleviate some of the problems, such as bad joints, obesity, head and neck injuries, heart issues and arthritis. He also wants the retirees to practice preventive medicine to find conditions like prostate cancer, diabetes and heart conditions early.

The fact that Graham, rather than the NFLPA, has stood up for retired players has not gone unnoticed. “When they see a guy who’s playing now being concerned about them, they’re very appreciative,” Graham says.

Former player Breech agrees, saying, “It was awesome. Shayne’s willingness to step up was just outstanding and has had a very positive reaction from retired players. They’re really interested in getting healthy. Now, everything is available to do that.”

Mercy’s Tom Urban and Greg Ossmann hope the program will be used as a template in other cities nationwide. While they feel it should not seem so exceptional, the harsh reality is that no other current player has stepped up to help improve retired players’ health.

“This is a way I can thank them,” Graham says. “They did so much for me, but I couldn’t begin to repay them.”