TAMPA — Gay Culverhouse stepped up to the microphone and looked into the eyes of the large men in her audience with sincerity and passion.
She told them they need not face their many obstacles alone. For this small group of retired and often forgotten NFL players, it was a message they needed to hear.
Culverhouse, the former Buccaneers team president and the daughter of the club's former owner, has taken her campaign to help former players to the streets.
She rounded up a local group of retirees in a hotel ballroom Monday night to tell them there is assistance available to help them in dealing with their replaced knees and foggy heads and aching backs — however difficult the NFL makes it to obtain.
"We do not want anything from you," Culverhouse told the men. "You have given the National Football League your lives. You have given (it) your bodies. Without you, there would be no NFL."
When Culverhouse heard the story of former Buc Tom McHale, she was prompted to act. McHale died in 2008 after overdosing on painkillers and cocaine. He was taking them, Culverhouse said, largely to deal with the physical and psychological tolls football took on him before his retirement in 1995.
"I decided right then I would not let that happen to another player," said Culverhouse, 63, who herself is fighting terminal cancer.
Monday's gathering was the first for the Gay Culverhouse Players Outreach Program, a not-for-profit organization she established — and is funding herself, along with donations — to help former players take advantage of their limited resources.
Among the benefits available from the league is the 88 Plan, which assists players in treating the aftereffects of the head injuries they suffered in an age when fewer precautions were taken and equipment was less sophisticated.
A questionnaire distributed to attendees asked, among other things, "Do you get dizzy and lose your balance?" and "Do you forget things (and) repeat yourself to others?"
For many players who lack the financial resources or medical coverage to address their problems, obtaining assistance from the 88 Plan can be difficult. It requires extensive medical exams to determine eligibility. Culverhouse noted that an MRI exam can cost upward of $12,000.
To alleviate the problem, the program is forging a relationship with the University of South Florida psychiatry program through which players can be examined for free. Culverhouse's program pays the costs.
Even after medical exams are done, however, gaining access to the coverage is hardly automatic. The NFL, Culverhouse said, acts in many cases like insurance adjusters and rejects the assistance claim. That's when Culverhouse sticks her legal team on the case.
"The NFL is sort of taunting," she said.
Other funds are available for general health care, unexpected crises and for overall financial need.
Among those attending were former Bucs running back Jimmie Giles and linebacker David Lewis. Giles pointed out that many players from his era (he entered the NFL in 1977) made substantially less money than today's millionaire superstars.
In fact, a six-figure salary was no certainty in the 1970s. Giles said he maxed out at $500,000 in 1989 but added, "I had to be a five-time Pro Bowler to make that."
Giles said because of his many injuries he is considered disabled according to Social Security standards.
For him and others, the information provided was empowering.
"One of the most important points is to let players know all is not lost," Giles said. "We have somebody fighting for us."
Around the league
BEARS: Senior director of pro personnel Bobby DePaul was fired after nine seasons.
PANTHERS: Running back DeAngelo Williams had surgery to alleviate the foot and ankle problems he had toward the end of the season, the Herald in Rock Hill, S.C., reported.
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at [email protected] Information from Times wires was used in this report.