On the day of their greatest fame, before the moment of the greatest cheers, the two old lions talked quietly together.
There was much to discuss, it seemed. After all, they were linebackers. Time was, they saw some things, and they made some plays. They shared a profession, a position and a passion.
As Richard Wood sat a table with Reggie Williams on Saturday in South Bend, Ind., the two of them preparing to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, it would have been easy for an onlooker to wonder what stories they might be retelling. About opponents, perhaps? About playoffs? About Wood's nickname (Batman) or Williams' tattoo (Superman)?
Instead, they said the strangest things.
"OxyContin," said Williams, his crutches next to him.
"Vicodin," said Wood, his hand on his cane.
Such is the stuff of the modern-day football reunion, where the conversation has shifted from plays to prescriptions and from souvenirs to scars. It is a place of damaged gladiators comparing their wounds, a reminder of how completely football can break a man physically and financially.
"Constant pain," is the way Wood sums up his life. "That, and constant stress."
These should be golden days for Wood, a former Bucs linebacker. He had "20 to 30" of his former college teammates travel to South Bend to witness his induction Saturday. Joe Paterno went into the Hall with him. And Doug Flutie. And Ahmad Rashad and John Randle and Jeff Davis, another former Buccaneer.
These are difficult times, however. Wood is 55, but his body feels as if it is 20 years older. The pain is always there, starting with the damaged nerves in his lower back and shooting through his legs. If he stands too long, he has to sit, and if he sits too long, he has to lie down. He takes cortisone shots to relieve his pain. He needs shoulder surgery. His body, and his bank account, are in a downward spiral, and who knows where it will end?
He owes money. Wood doesn't like to talk about it, but yeah, he is in debt. For years, he has petitioned the NFL Players Association for help, but like a lot of players, he has found a disability benefit to be more elusive than Walter Payton. Oh, for eight months, from September to May, the NFLPA sent a little something — about $1,800 a month before taxes, he says — but that was that.
These days, he and his wife, Karen, live month to month, trying to figure out which bills are the most pressing, trying to juggle this payment and tap-dance around that one. Wood wants to wait until he is 65 to collect his retirement (which will be about $3,500 a month), but he is uncertain if he can hold off until then (although his payment will greatly reduce if he takes it now).
"If it wasn't for good-hearted people and my family, I wouldn't be alive today," Wood says quietly. "It's bad, man. I'm a guy who believes in paying off his debt. I don't want to owe anyone a dollar. But that's the way it is."
For the Woods, life became more difficult when Karen lost her job at Disney. Richard says he believes she was pushed out because of his insurance bills. As a result, Wood no longer has insurance to pay for the physical therapy he needs.
This is not the story of an athlete who lost his millions to drugs or to gambling or to following the bright lights. Those who know Wood best talk about him as an honorable man who simply couldn't keep up with his medical expenses.
"We aren't extravagant people," Karen said. "We live in a normal house. We drive normal cars. We don't wear designer clothes."
With his health getting worse, with his debt getting larger, how is Wood to stop the slide? There has been some talk of a fundraiser, but Wood is reluctant. "I don't want to beg, man," he said.
The real shame of Wood's story, of course, is that it is no longer rare. You can find a handful of similar situations among the retired players of every NFL team, players who have been discarded like old shoulder pads. Dave Pear. Mercury Morris. John Mackey. Wilber Marshall. Mike Webster. Willie Wood. And on and on. Yet, shamefully, the momentum to help such players seems to be slowing.
Wood will tell you he is blessed. Former Steeler Dwight White died a month ago from complications from the same spinal surgery Wood had last year.
"It's not just me," Wood said. "I'm suffering, but look at our country. Look at the economy. Look at these soldiers coming back from Iraq. I look at Reggie, who has a piece of concrete where his knee was, and his team is saying that they aren't sure playing football was the reason he got hurt. How many knee operations and hip replacements does it take to convince someone?
"Don't get me wrong. I loved playing. If I could go back, I would play again. But my wife and everyone else shouldn't have to go through this anguish."
Wood sighs heavily. A year ago, after spinal surgery, he seemed upbeat, hopeful that with so much money at hand, the NFL and NFLPA would find a way to help those who played before the money got big. (Wood's biggest contract was $120,000; his lifetime earnings were somewhere around $780,000.)
Some of that optimism seems to have eroded during the past year.
"I'm frustrated," Wood said. "These people (the NFLPA) have put me in a bad spot. They're sitting up there in the palace, and they don't care about me."
Some people do. Perhaps that was the best part of the Hall of Fame weekend. At one point, highlights were shown of Wood as linebacker at USC.
"Look, Big Pop, look," said Jaedon, Wood's 4-year-old grandson. "You're on the big screen."
Wood wouldn't turn around, however.
"I know how I used to be," he said, his voice cracking with emotion. "If I had looked, I just would have started to cry."