Fighting for benefits

RENO, Nev. -- Brent Boyd grimaces as he folds his 6-foot-3 frame onto his living room couch, the scar on his recently replaced right knee the only outward sign of a body that has broken down. He reaches for the TV remote control, his favorite blanket and prepares to spend the next several hours in his modest home in the same familiar pose.

This is how Boyd spends most of his days, too exhausted to even get up off his couch.

It's hardly the life Boyd envisioned for himself when he graduated with honors from UCLA in 1980. He was selected by Minnesota in the third round of the NFL draft and immediately impressed Vikings head coach Bud Grant and the rest of the coaching staff with his ability to master every position on the offensive line. Press clippings from Boyd's rookie year contain quotes from Vikings coaches who raved about his intellect.

Today Boyd has been diagnosed as being clinically depressed. He is also withdrawn and so ashamed of what his life has become that he's cut himself off from friends and former teammates.

"I care about these people but I'm just embarrassed about my condition and I just kind of hang out here," Boyd says, his voice cracking.

To find out how Boyd sank this low you have to go back to his rookie year in 1980, to a preseason game in the Orange Bowl that would dramatically change his career and his life.

"The hit itself I don't remember," Boyd says of a blow to the head that left him momentarily unconscious. "I remember when I came to, I couldn't see out of my right eye and I kind of panicked."

After taking some plays off -- Boyd can't remember precisely how many -- he was told by Vikings coaches and the team's medical staff to get back in the game.

"This was 1980 and I don't even know if they used the word concussion," Boyd says.
"You were just trained to stay in the game. … You want this job? They better carry you off in a coffin."

Boyd remains convinced he suffered many more concussions over the course of his seven-year NFL career, although that one game in Miami is the only time he lost consciousness.

In the weeks and months after the preseason game against the Dolphins, Boyd experienced physical and mental changes that would take him years to fully understand. He says headaches, dizziness and memory loss became a part of his daily life. Boyd eventually had difficulty remembering teammates' names. The player who, as a rookie, mastered every offensive line position says he could barely remember how to play left guard by his second year.

After a series of injuries, including a broken leg, Boyd was eventually released from the Vikings in October 1986.

"You know, I had such big plans and had graduated with honors from UCLA and at that time I think everybody who knew me thought this guy is going to go on to big things after football, besides football. I just couldn't," Boyd says, reflecting on the physical toll of his years in the NFL's trenches.

Boyd's friends at the time watched his marriage crumble, his drinking increase.

Barry Axelrod, who works primarily as a sports agent representing MLB players, got to know Boyd through a network of UCLA alumni. He recalls how he and others in the social circle of former Bruins judged Boyd in the years that followed his NFL career.

"[At first] we just thought, 'Well, god the guy got done playing football and now he's just … won't work hard and won't hold a job down and he's lazy,'" says Axelrod, Boyd's longtime friend.

"Now I feel badly about that because I didn't realize, in fact he didn't realize, that there was something physical going on that was causing this," Axelrod says.

Boyd says he suffered from persistent flu-like systems, that he had many days that felt like a bad hangover that wouldn't go away.

"I couldn't maintain the concentration that I had … I didn't have the drive that I had. The main thing is I was tired, I was dizzy," Boyd says.

"Here he was someone with all the potential to accomplish anything in the world and he couldn't manage a sales job because he would have to pull to side of the road and fall asleep," says Terry Lowey, a marriage and family therapist who has been treating Boyd since September for depression and anxiety.

It wasn't until 1999, after years of being misdiagnosed, that Boyd's depression and other lingering health problems were finally linked by doctors to the concussions he suffered as a player.

By that point, Boyd's inability to hold down a steady job had pushed his financial situation to the brink.

"They were losing their home, their car," Axelrod says. "They were on the verge of being homeless and, in fact, there were times when Brent was living out of his car."

Axelrod reached out to his clients and his network of UCLA alumni to start a fund for Boyd and his son Anders, whom he'd been supporting as a single parent since 1992.

Major leaguers Mark Grace, Rick Sutcliffe, Jeff Bagwell and former Bruins quarterback and actor Mark Harmon, among others, all agreed to provide financial assistance.

"The NFL wouldn't do a damn thing for me," Boyd says. "The major league baseball guys were making sure I was surviving and I hope that embarrasses the hell out of the NFL."

The NFL did provide a one-time payment available to players in dire need of financial assistance. Also with Axelrod's help, Boyd also reached out to the NFL Players Association for monthly disability benefits.

Retired NFL players are eligible for partial disability -- a minimum of $1,500 per month -- if they can simply demonstrate that their disability prevents them from working. But those same retirees can get full disability payments -- a minimum of $4,000 per month -- if they can prove their disability stems from a football-related injury.

ESPN has reviewed many of Boyd's medical files and confirmed his disability through documents and interviews with several of his current and former treating physicians.

But for Boyd, securing full disability benefits from the NFL Players Association would mean months of battling a retirement board comprised of league and union representatives.

In May of 2000, Boyd was sent by that board to see Dr. J. Sterling Ford, a San Diego neurologist. Dr. Ford wrote in his report that Boyd "had a least one significant closed head injury in the course of his playing career and, in all likelihood, had many other ill-defined ones."

When asked on the retirement board's standardized form if Boyd had "an illness or injury resulting from a football-related activity," Dr. Ford checked the box marked "yes."

Axelrod recalls how pleased he and Boyd were by Dr. Ford's findings.

"When a report comes in from an NFL-chosen doctor, so totally in favor of Brent Boyd, you know, it's over, it's done," Axelrod says. "What more can you possibly need?"

But four months later the retirement board sent Boyd to a psychiatrist in Long Beach, Calif., for a second opinion. Dr. Branko Radisavljevic found Boyd was "totally disabled" and, when asked on the retirement board's form if Boyd had "an illness or injury resulting from a football-related activity," Dr. Radisavljevic also checked "yes."

Case closed? Not exactly.

"I was automatic," Boyd says. "They had treating physicians. They had their own physicians. How could they not approve that?"

Despite having a second opinion that confirmed what Boyd's own doctors had been telling him for years, the retirement board demanded Boyd see yet another neurologist for further examination.

"My experience with the board was they find every possible way to delay making a decision, at least a decision favorable to the player," Axelrod says.

Frustrated, and increasingly suspicious of the retirement board's reluctance to approve his disability claim, Boyd traveled cross-country in March of 2001 to see Dr. Barry Gordon, a behavioral neurologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, for two days of neuropsychological testing.

Dr. Gordon, who has not responded to repeated requests from ESPN for an interview, wrote in his report: "the records available to me are incomplete in ways that may be relevant for my impressions."

But he still found Boyd's physical and mental health problems "could not be an organic consequence of the head injury."

"I was furious and very depressed," Boyd says, recalling his reaction to Dr. Gordon's findings. "Luckily, I don't own guns or else I may have used on one myself."

Boyd remains convinced the retirement board "doctor shopped" until it finally found a contrary medical opinion. He says much of Dr. Gordon's exam at Johns Hopkins was actually conducted by an ill-prepared graduate student.

Still, based largely on the findings of Dr. Gordon, the retirement board rejected Boyd's claim for full disability benefits in April of 2001.

"I felt I'm done because no matter what evidence I give them they're never going to approve this claim," Boyd says. "They [the retirement board] said, 'You're welcome to get another doctor's opinion.' I couldn't afford that."

"I think he got very depressed and at times felt like there was no hope and that's scary when you see a friend go through that," Axelrod says of Boyd's frustrations with the disability process.

Boyd eventually challenged the retirement board's ruling in federal court.

Despite the medical evidence from his own treating physicians and despite medical evidence from physicians approved by the retirement board itself, the court rejected Boyd's appeal, ruling that the board "did not abuse its discretion" in its handling of Boyd's disability claim.

"The man loves football, to this day, with all of his heart so this organization that he absolutely loves betrayed him," says Lowey, who has since tried to help Boyd move past the anger and bitterness he feels toward the NFLPA.

While nobody from the NFLPA would speak with ESPN about Boyd's case, NFLPA Executive Director Gene Upshaw did address Boyd's allegations at a recent news conference.

"To say that the NFLPA is 'doctor shopping,' we don't have anything to do with it, with the process," Upshaw said.

The facts say otherwise. The retirement board, the ultimate authority on disability cases, is made up of three league and three union representatives. To say the union has nothing to do with the process is simply untrue.

Upshaw went on to say, "If a doctor determines that a player is entitled to a disability and he meets the standards he gets it."

But in Boyd's case, two doctors, chosen by the retirement board, determined his disability was football-related and his claim was still rejected.

Today, Boyd spends hours going from one doctor's appointment to another, including physical therapy for the right knee he had replaced last May.

He recently remarried and gets by on his wife Gina's salary from the post office, social security and a near-minimum $1550 per month in disability payments from the NFL -- a fraction of the $8,200 per month Boyd was seeking in disability payments.

Gina Boyd sees daily the toll it takes on her husband that he can't contribute more.

"I just let him know every day that I love him … I don't want him to feel that he's any less of a man," she says.

Boyd recognizes he is not exactly a household name, that stories of other high-profile retired players suffering from post-concussion syndrome may make for more colorful headlines.

"I'm glad the stories are getting out there," Boyd says. "I didn't know Mike Webster had a problem until he was dead," he adds, referring to the former Steelers center. Webster died in 2002 after years of suffering from ailments linked to concussion-related brain damage.

"I'm just a guy nobody's heard of," Boyd says. "But most of the guys who played in the NFL are like me, guys you've never heard of, and we're hurting bad. We need help."

John Barr is a reporter and Arty Berko is a producer for ESPN's Outside the Lines.