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Does NFL abandon its injured?

Hal Garner was a fierce competitor when he played for the Buffalo Bills, but he was forced to retire early due to debilitating injuries.
Hal Garner was a fierce competitor when he played for the Buffalo Bills, but he was forced to retire early due to debilitating injuries.
Delmar Morris

Mike Hamby remembers his college and professional football teammate Hal Garner running down the field on kickoffs at full speed and bashing into blockers and ball carriers.

The collisions, described by some as the equivalent of running 20 mph into a brick wall, sometimes left him dazed.

"He couldn't even find his way back to the bench," Hamby said.

The six years Garner spent with the Buffalo Bills took a terrible toll on his back, knees and shoulders. Most of his game action came on kickoffs and punts, where the most violent hits occur because players throw their bodies into each other with a full head of steam.

It's a position that fringe players often occupy, those who don't play first string. Garner, a reserve linebacker, excelled at it.

"Hal was probably the best special teams player in Buffalo history, him and Steve Tasker," said Hamby, a defensive tackle whose four-year pro career ended with a hip injury. Tasker recently had his name added to the Buffalo Bills Wall of Fame.

There has been no such recognition for Garner, one of thousands of former NFL players whom Hamby believes the league has turned its back on. "He got busted up, and nobody helps after it's over," he said.

Hamby says the league fails to care for ex-players with debilitating injuries, himself included.

"You're like a racehorse. Once you're done, they don't want you around. They don't want to hear about your injuries. They just want a new horse in the barn," he said.

A Lehi native who played with Garner at Utah State University and Buffalo, Hamby now works as a sculptor whose bronze work is on display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame as well as places like Cabela's. He has a degenerative disk disease that prevents him from taking some sculpting jobs.

A chorus of retired players led by Hall of Fame member Mike Ditka have recently criticized the NFL for what they see as inadequate care for their disabled peers. Football players, he said, need more help than that provided other workers.

"Football is an exception," Ditka told a congressional panel in September. "It's not a contact sport, it's a collision sport."

Hamby said players know the consequences going in, but that doesn't excuse the NFL from neglecting those like Garner who gave their bodies to the league. Garner injured his back, knees, shoulder and thumb, leading to multiple surgeries during and after his career. A pump implanted in his abdomen dispenses pain medication to his back 24 hours a day.

"He's a perfect example. He shouldn't have to live like that. He shouldn't. ... They have the money," he said.

The NFL takes in an estimated $7 billion annually. Former players like Ditka are arguing with league officials about how much revenue should be set aside for disability coverage. An estimated fewer than 3 percent of former players succeed in getting disability benefits.

Garner isn't among them. He receives a few hundred dollars a month from Workers Compensation Fund in New York.

"A guy shouldn't have to fight for it so bad," Hamby said.

Garner took a 25 percent early payment benefit through the NFL players association when he retired. He will be eligible for the full remainder, about $1,100 a month, at age 55, or about half that if he opts for early retirement now at 45.

Hamby, who resides in Buffalo, said he has contact with lawyers who can help Garner apply for NFL disability pay.

"You can't leave buddies lying in a ditch. You can't," Hamby said. "He deserves it. He needs it."


E-mail: romboy@desnews.com