Heavy Toll

He's going the wrong way. Polk Street in downtown Houston was empty when he made the turn, but when the streetlight ahead turns green, his Dodge truck will be head-on with three lanes of traffic. The drivers are honking, but he doesn't care. His pain drowns out the noise. He's on the phone with his doctor and is desperate for an appointment. His knees ache. His eyes are glassy, his lower lip pregnant with Berry Blend Skoal. One hand is on the wheel, the other searching for a 750-milligram Vicodin tablet--enough medicine to numb a horse. It's between the seats under his passport, which he carries because he lost his driver's license. In the truck bed, an empty vodka bottle from the other night rattles from side to side.

He swerves left onto Louisiana Street, toward his doctor's office, just as the light changes. He throws a Sprite bottle filled with tobacco spit out the window and hangs up his cell. Yes, the doctor can work on him today. Thank God. He took a few steps this morning and could practically hear his knees grinding, bone on bone. The extra weight he carries--he fluctuates between 300 and 330 pounds, 50 to 80 more than during his playing days--makes the pain worse. His face and jaw, once cut, are now mushy. His stomach, once flat and solid, has bloomed into a belt-covering lump. For three straight days, he's worn the same clothes: an orange T-shirt that hangs to the kneecaps of his 6'4'' frame, blue shorts and white sneakers.

Between 1989 and 1998, he wrecked his body for 144 straight games--the first nine seasons of 10 playing pro ball as a pass-rusher for the Bucs, Lions, Vikings and Cowboys. His life after the NFL was supposed to be comfortable, regenerative even. Broderick Thomas didn't expect that, at age 38, he'd suffer from arthritis in his neck, knees, hip, ankle and fingers. He didn't know that, while he was living up to football's clichés--playing through the pain, taking his anger out on the--he was suppressing symptoms of clinical depression, an affliction for which he swallows six antidepressants a day to keep him floating above his suicidal thoughts.

Nobody told him his mind would suddenly snap, like it did last March, while he was limping through a Kroger store near his suburban Houston home. Those who suffer from panic attacks are never sure how or when one will be unleashed. For Thomas, it could have been any of the symptoms that trip him up these days: aching knees, weariness from another bad night's sleep, anxiety about Aggie and Longhorn alums who hate him for choosing Nebraska or, most of all, fear of terrorists. Whatever the cause, the attack squeezed him like a fist. His breath quickened, his chest swelled, his eyes widened. He shook. Heat rose through him. He dropped to the floor, praying nobody would come close, because if cornered, he'd start swinging. He called his sister-in-law, who arrived 30 minutes later and drove him to Memorial Hospital. His blood pressure measured 160/120. Stroke level.

SHE FELT COMFORTABLE around him. He was tender and soft. Not at all what she expected. They met at a club in downtown Houston one July night in 1988. She was 28, an administrative assistant for a meat company. He was 21, an All-America linebacker at Nebraska, nine months away from being the sixth overall pick in the draft. A mutual friend introduced them and they talked all night, all about her. When the club closed, he walked her to her car and she gave him her number. The next day they had lunch. By February 1989, Yvonne Mallett and Broderick Thomas were engaged. Four months later, she was pregnant with little Broderick.

Her life in the NFL was different. She hadn't trained for it, dreamed of it, the way he had, but there she was, going to pregame parties with the other wives and girlfriends, viewing games from the best seats, spending big on their new home, vacationing in Aruba. She'd hang out with Prince one night, Hank Williams Jr. the next. Yvonne always took pride in being self-sufficient, but this was a lifestyle she could get used to. She had no idea she would be the primary witness to her husband's decline, that he would test her will in unimaginable ways. Back then, Thomas was "The Sandman," one of the NFL's premier pass-rushers, a second-team All-Pro by his third season. He was indomitable.

Before he'd leave for practice, she'd yell, "You ready to go hunt?"

"Yeah! I'm hunting today!"

He was providing for his family, his whole family. After signing a five-year, $4.25 million contract with the Bucs as a rookie, Thomas bought his parents, Linda and William, a house, and gave William money to start a welding business. He put away savings for his younger siblings, Lecrecia and William Jr., to attend college. His parents got new cars. Helping his family made him happy, but Yvonne noticed it wore on him, too. He seemed uncomfortable with the role, or uncomfortable with something. She tried to get him to talk. But anyone as competitive as Broderick doesn't reveal anything that might be a weakness. And he damn sure wasn't weak.

Linda had told Yvonne stories about how angry Broderick had been as a kid. It was how he survived the deadly south Houston neighborhood he grew up in, and the violence he met at home. William used to disappear for days at a time, returning drunk or high or both. He'd find Broderick, push the boy onto the front lawn and square him with another kid plucked from the neighborhood. Then he'd look his oldest son in the eyes and say: "If he whoops your ass, I'm gonna whoop yours." Yes, Broderick was scared. No, he never lost.

HE LOOKS BEATEN NOW, lying facedown on a table in Derrill James' Houston office, his left knee hooked up to an electric shock machine. James, a chiropractor, hits a few buttons, and the numbers on a digital screen rise from 35, to 40, to 45, signaling that 400 kilohertz are being pumped into Broderick's knee. The surrounding skin jiggles. After 20 minutes, James takes Broderick's left leg--weaker and considerably skinnier than the right--and massages it. James' fingers dig deep into the knee, causing such intense pain that Broderick's breathing is stinted and his body begins to twitch. He looks at a person in the room taking notes.

"Are you a terrorist?"

No. Why?

"Because you're so quiet."

You expect him to laugh. But his crow's feet fill with tears.

I HAVE TO GET OUT. That's what she told him. Five years had passed since he'd proposed, and they still hadn't walked down the aisle. She'd had a child with him, lived with him, but he'd become a mystery. The glamour of NFL life had worn off, replaced by the strain of losses on the field and raising a son together. The angry boy Linda had told her about came out more often. In 1994, after Broderick signed with Detroit, Yvonne and little Broderick would visit during the season. There would be days when she wouldn't even see him.

Why was he out all night? Whom was he with? Why didn't he ever call? Why did he always reek of vodka? She'd ask, and they'd fight. His body was hurting him worse than ever. Early that season, in a game against the Bears, a collision had compressed his C3 and C4 vertebrae. Team doctors told him to sit. He ignored them. Slowly, the disks in his back were degenerating, the surrounding nerves fraying. Meanwhile, the fingers on his right hand, mangled by offensive linemen over the years, were already arthritic. His right knee had no cartilage left. When he ran, bone ground on bone. He was 27.

It all became too much for Yvonne. But when Broderick came home that January, he promised he'd quit partying. She took him back. Then his problems became public. He signed with the Vikings for three years and $5.8 million early in 1995, but going through airport security in Houston on his way to training camp, he was arrested for carrying an unloaded .40-caliber pistol. She never should have followed him to Minnesota. But she couldn't abandon him. Not the way he was limping around on the field. Instead of running away to make her life easier, she stayed close to make his life better. But he'd rarely be there. He was drinking again. She scheduled an appointment with a therapist. If I'm really important to him, she told herself, he'll go. He blew it off. She left again.

APRIL 18, 2005. Yvonne and Broderick's fourth wedding anniversary. Yvonne's eyes are baggy. After spending eight hours at work, she is boiling crab for dinner. Little Broderick is watching television, and Elijah, their 3-year-old, is running around the kitchen. Broderick just spent an hour in his second-floor trophy room, a place he rarely visits. He navigates stairs gingerly, as if his feet were laced with shrapnel. His right leg always leads. He grasps the rails so tightly that the wood creaks, and then he drags his left leg along, as though it were dead. Once, a few years ago, he reached for the rail, missed and tumbled down the stairs, breaking his right wrist and chipping his left front tooth.

The young man in the dusty frames lining the room no longer exists. There he is, sacking UCLA's Troy Aikman, catching Oklahoma State's Thurman Thomas from behind, dragging down Brett Favre. His portrait is painted alongside his two best friends from the draft, Deion Sanders and Derrick Thomas. His Tampa No. 51 and Nebraska No. 89 jerseys are framed. The man in those pictures is now wheezing from climbing the stairs, taking off his orange shirt to cool down, revealing a soft and sloppy chest. He sits surrounded by the game that made him into a man-before it stripped him of his manhood.

Dinner is ready. They pray before eating, the four of them. Broderick's knees are burning. He is surly and irritable. Elijah coughs near the food without covering his mouth, and Broderick warns, "You don't want me to get that stick out, do you?" When Elijah coughs again, Broderick's left hand meets the back of the boy's head; not hard, but swift enough to send Elijah scurrying in tears to his mother. Yvonne gives Broderick a look. He is oblivious to it. Patience requires energy. He has none. Later that night, when Thomas threatens to "get that stick out" again, Elijah runs where his dad can't get him: up the stairs.

SHE WASN'T READY to give up, though. Not yet. Not even when he was arrested again, after that 1995 season in Minnesota, this time for DUI and carrying a gun, prompting the Vikings to release him. Not even when he accepted an offer from the Cowboys, while she begged him to sign with the Ravens. The Cowboys scared her; they had a reputation as hard partyers.

But he listened to Deion. He'd be a pass-rush specialist on the defending Super Bowl champs. He'd live close to Houston and play with Prime Time. Now 29, Broderick wasn't a star anymore, not even a starter. He'd managed eight sacks in two seasons with Dallas, alternating between defensive end and linebacker. But he felt settled. He appreciated being on a winner. And it showed at home. He spent more time with little Broderick, was more attentive toward Yvonne.

And then it started again. Broderick was on the phone, calling from Cowboys training camp in July 1998. During practice, Nate Newton had bumped into Broderick while his left leg was planted. His ACL had ripped in half.

When Yvonne went to him in the hospital, he said he didn't want her to see him like this. But she stayed anyway. He returned home a few days later, but couldn't shower or dress or go to the bathroom alone. She'd try to help him, and he'd shoo her away. He tried rehabbing his knee, but it never regained its strength. He was still on the Cowboys roster, but his career was over. He was idle, never getting out of bed, never opening the blinds, moaning in pain. Sometimes the only words he'd say were "Thank you," after she brought him food.

But she was patient with him, and after a year or so, he seemed to come around. In early 2000, he began hounding her to get married, promising he would be a good husband. She held off for a while, making him prove it to her. He and little Broderick hung out more. He no longer stayed out all night. Finally, she felt comfortable with him again. In April 2001, they married.

He seemed to be recharged. He talked about playing ball again, getting paid again, reminding his son how great he could be. He was training, fighting through his knee pain. But one day while working out, his left leg started shaking. He tried to ignore it, but even when he was standing, he couldn't keep it still. Dr. James told him his knee hadn't healed property and that he should never run again. Broderick cried right there in the exam room. He started sleeping all day again, not talking, brooding, easy one moment, raging the next. He was just angry-at his father, who had lost all the money he'd given him, at the outrageous insurance premiums he was charged, at his body for failing.

Then, in spring 2003, his anger seemed to take his body over. The slightest little problem would set Broderick off. He was outside on a hot day doing yardwork when suddenly he started trembling and breathing heavily and feeling like he was going to die. He had no idea what was wrong. He and Yvonne went to a doctor. It was a panic attack, they were told. Broderick was clinically depressed.

You read about players like Broderick Thomas all the time. Guys whose relationships with their fathers are damaged or nonexistent. Guys whose self-esteem is tied to being the family caretaker. Guys whose names appear on the injury report—Broderick Thomas (neck, knees), probable—and are applauded when they shake it off. These guys hold onto their anger until kickoff. Sundays become a cure-all. That's why sports psychologists say former NFL players are predisposed to depression. Beyond having to reestablish their identities once their careers are over—a common problem for any retiree—football players are programmed not to acknowledge pain or suffering. That doesn't end when the games stop.

"It's difficult for so many of these players to open up and trust someone," says Hall of Famer Mike Singletary. "Emotionally, they don't grow."

Singletary cares deeply about helping former players because he understands how devastating life after the NFL can be. He has a nephew who played in the league, one who grew up in a poor household and used football as a way out. Singletary saw the symptoms of depression creep in, but during the rare times they spoke, he wasn't brave enough to ask his nephew about his problems. Singletary still feels guilty about it. His nephew's name is Broderick Thomas.

THE WINTER NIGHT he decided to die, he called his sister Lecrecia. He was crying. He sounded dangerous. He sounded drunk. "I'm sorry I got hurt," he told her. "I can't provide for you guys anymore. I've let everyone down. I'm sorry. Death is easier than dealing with this pain." The line went quiet.

To this day, Broderick doesn't remember why he didn't kill himself. But he still spends a lot of time thinking about death. He tries to fall asleep each night watching Trinity Broadcasting, the Christian network. He reasons that if the Lord takes him that night, He'll know that Broderick's last moments on earth were pious ones. But he can rarely focus for too long. If he lies flat for more than 20 minutes, the back of his head goes numb, a lingering effect of his neck injuries. The only comfortable position he can find is on his knees, beside his bed, his torso lying on the mattress, his arms extended over his head, looking as if he's passed out praying.

God gave me this husband and this life, and He wouldn't have if I couldn't handle it. That's what Yvonne tells herself over and over. She said it when Broderick suffered a panic attack after the NFL had decided not to increase his monthly pension of $2,043, saying he'd missed the deadline to appeal. She says it when little Broderick, now 15, tells her he wishes he could have more of his father's attention. Or when Elijah runs in circles to catch his daddy's eye as he unblinkingly stares at the TV. Or when Broderick ignores or comes late to the therapy appointments she schedules for him.

Yvonne doesn't know what Broderick will do for the rest of his life, or if he'll ever earn a wage again. Most of the $11.5 million he made during his career is gone. They're living on Broderick's pension and Yvonne's salary as an administrative assistant for a bankruptcy lawyer. Singletary has offered to bring him to San Francisco, where he's the Niners' assistant head coach. He wants to counsel him, get him a coaching position. But Broderick fears the long hours and stress of coaching would be too much.

He says he's no longer suicidal. But if he doesn't take his six antidepressants a day, if he's crying in pain from his knees, if he's drowsy from week after week of sleeplessness, if he's panicking in a grocery store aisle, there's the chance that this time, he won't be able to handle it. So Yvonne makes sure he never misses a dosage.

God gave me this husband and this life, and He wouldn't have if I couldn't handle it. She repeats it when the two of them are alone, and suddenly Broderick is on the verge of letting out something big, and tears are in his eyes. She touches him and says, "You can tell me." More often than not, though, he chokes up and turns away. And still she tries to comfort him.

I'm going to be right here, she tells him. I'm not going anywhere.