Paying a price once the cheering stops

by | Jun 11, 2012 | Detroit Free Press, Sports | 0 comments

Rob Rubick used to play pro football. He took a lot of hits. He is 51 now, and says he has a hard time focusing. “If I head to the refrigerator and somebody stops me to talk for 10 seconds,” he says, “I end up sitting back on the couch. I forget what I was up for.”

Like a lot of former NFL players, Rubick wonders what the payback will be for years of head-jarring contact. He forgets phone numbers before he finishes dialing. At least twice a day he finds himself blanking out on what he was doing. He sees an elderly father who is starting to misremember things, “but he’s in his 80s. I’m too young for this.”

Last week, a lawsuit was filed consolidating scores of complaints from former players who claim the NFL didn’t warn them enough of the potential dangers of concussions.

Rubick, who says he was not part of the suit, understands their issues. He played tight end for seven seasons with the Lions, from 1982-88, and remembers at least six documented concussions he suffered in his career. Today, if a player has six concussions, he almost certainly is retired.

Rubick played on.

“It was always memory loss,” he says. “I would lose 36 hours of my life. I’d come off the field and see my parents, and I’d say, ‘Hey, when did you guys get here?’ And they’d say, ‘Rob, we’ve been staying at your apartment for the last day and a half.'”

We learn more about concussions

The brain is an amazing, awe-inspiring thing. It is also delicate. Slamming it into the turf – even protected by a helmet and a cranium – cannot be healthy.

But the damage caused is a matter of debate. We still are learning about how truly dangerous concussions are. Most new evidence suggests we never took them seriously enough. This is why you see tighter rules on helmet-to-helmet hits, and more caution before a player returns to action.

But that is now. What about back then? Does the league have a responsibility to former players who were pushed back out after the birdies stopped chirping?

The players’ lawsuit says, in part: “The NFL, like the sport of boxing, was aware of the health risks associated with repetitive blows producing sub-concussive and concussive results….

“Despite its knowledge … the NFL turned a blind eye to the risk.”

The league, of course, denies culpability and says it does all it can to keep the sport safe. But more and more players are discovering stumbles in their day-to-day life that may well be traced to the pounding they took. Headaches. Dementia.

“One preseason game, I was on punt coverage,” Rubick recalls, “and I take five steps and I don’t see this guy and he earholes me, side of my head. Just flattens me. I’m dizzy. I walk to the sidelines. And Darryl Rogers was the coach. He said, ‘Are you all right?’ I said, ‘I think so.’ And he said, ‘Well, get off the field; the game is starting.’ I had no idea where the time went. I was just standing out there in front of him, like a deer in the headlights.”

Health care costs for retired players

Rubick, who was born in Newberry and who attended Grand Valley State University, teaches at Lapeer West High School. He also does a little broadcasting for TV and radio. Lest anyone think playing in the NFL is some golden ticket, Rubick says his entire income for seven years in the league was $750,000.

He is not alone. Plenty of players from the ’80s, ’70s and earlier never made enough money to live off of once football was over. And many now cannot afford the medical coverage required for issues that are popping up.

Rubick and others feel the NFL should at least make concessions for the health care costs of retired players. The dispute is certain to land in the courts.

Meanwhile, when you talk to guys like Rubick, you hear fear. They wonder what lies ahead. “I try and joke with my kids about it, but they don’t think it’s funny,” Rubick says.

They are gladiators in their 20s, veterans in their 30s, retired in their 40s – and worried in their 50s.

I ask Rubick if he had it to do all over again, would he play in the NFL?

“Ask me in 20 years,” he says. “If I’m still here, I’d say yes. If not …”

You know what they call that?

The other side of glory.

Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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