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Former Tampa Bay Buc Dave Pear battles NFL for help

"Your body is the only thing you really own in your lifetime. You can go out and buy another car or another house. You can't get another body.''

Dave Pear, 1976

The pain will begin early, the way it always does.

It will awaken in his neck, a sharp, stabbing reminder of a fused spine. From there it will reach into his lower back, past the four artificial screws, and become a twisted, torturous ache. By the time it runs down his right side, past the hip that needs replacing, it will feel like a runaway stream of fire.

Dave Pear will pull himself out of his shallow sleep, the way he has done for countless mornings. He will hobble across his house with the shuffle of a gladiator who has outlived the cheers. He will drink his coffee, he will take his pills, and he will read his Bible.

Later, the man with the broken body will gather himself up once more and prepare to take on the might of the NFL. Again.

Perhaps, as you give a little thanks today, as you watch a little football, you could spare a thought for Pear and the others who believe the NFL has abandoned them.

Once, Pear was young and strong and relentless, and it seemed that nothing could hurt him very badly or for very long. He was the Bucs' first Pro Bowl player, its first team MVP, its first fan icon.

He was Dave "the Bear'' Pear, and even in the middle of an 0-26 start, he was something to cheer. He would sack a quarterback, and he would raise his arms in triumph, and it seemed as if he would be fast and fearless forever.

These days, Pear, 55, is another former player who has been scarred and discarded by the NFL. Since leaving the game, Pear has had eight surgeries, and he needs three more. He takes 15 pills a day, and he could take more if he could afford them. He suffers from short-term memory loss, and yes, he wonders if that will turn into a more serious neurological problem. He has spent more out-of-pocket money on medical bills than he made in his six seasons of playing.

But Pear doesn't want you to feel sorry for him. He loved to play football. Whatever damage his body has suffered, it was his choice.

"As young people, we make choices,'' Pear said from his home in suburban Seattle. "It doesn't matter that if we get older, we didn't make the right choices. There are consequences. I accept that I played football.''

What bothers Pear, what angers him and saddens him and drives him, is the constant denial of benefits to veteran players by the NFL Players Association.

"They prefer to give millions to lawyers instead of taking care of former players,'' Pear said. "It's a whitewash, and it's not even a good whitewash. It's a shameful appearance that they're trying to do something.

"I don't want any sympathy. I want the NFL to pay their bills. When you go out to dinner, you pay your bill. You don't hire lawyers and run out the back door. That's what the NFL has done, and it's shameful.''

Pear said he's learned to live with the constant pain. What bothers him more is the constant fight for benefits, and the sacrifices his wife and two children have had to make because of his medical bills. And that so many others are in worse shape than he.

"If I knew that I was going to be hurt this bad and be abandoned by my employers,'' Pear said, "then I wouldn't have played football.''

It isn't a new story anymore. You can read it about John Mackey and Wilber Marshall and Willie Wood and Richard Wood and dozens of others. For a league that makes so much money, it doesn't have enough interest in taking care of players who beat up their bodies while playing hurt.

Pear was like that. Bucs coach John McKay once suggested that Pear could lose a leg and he still would try to play.

"I would have,'' Pear said. "That's how much I loved the game.''

In those early, stumbling days of the Bucs, watching Pear was about as good as it got for fans. Harry Smith, the strength coach at the time, once suggested that Pear was so strong, he "could lift the mortgage right off of your house.''

Pear, too, remembers his Tampa days fondly. He remembers the fans and the grass and the heat. He still has Bucs T-shirts in his closet and his MVP trophy in his trophy case.

Ah, but Pear wanted a raise (he was making $95,000 a year, much of that deferred), and during the Hugh Culverhouse days, there was only one end to that story. Before the '79 season, Pear was traded to the Raiders, where he eventually was part of a Super Bowl champion.

Still, he said, the Raiders days were "the most difficult time of my life.''

Pear's problems began in his third game with the Raiders. He tackled Seattle running back Sherman Smith, and a spinal disc was knocked out of place. Pear has never been the same.

He has tried. He took pain killers, and at night his wife, Heidi, would inject a drug into his neck that was more commonly used to reduce tendon swelling in horses. (Pear insists he never took steroids.) He was "about 20 percent'' when he played in Super Bowl XV. His teammate in that game: late NFLPA president Gene Upshaw. According to Pear, Upshaw's legacy is "fraud.''

Once, Pear could bench press 500 pounds; now, doctors tell him not to lift anything more than 15. He worries about the damage that repeated concussions have caused.

"I'm doing okay,'' he said. "I'm optimistic.''

Even now, even with a cane, there is something fiercely proud about Pear. He says more veteran players haven't told their stories because some "have been made to look like they're crybabies.''

Pear says he doesn't want that. He wouldn't mind, however, if you went to his blog, DavePear.com/blog, and read more about the struggles of NFL vets. If nothing changes, he said, there will be more stories such as his.

"This isn't going to go away,'' he said. "It is only going to get darker.''

Former Tampa Bay Buc Dave Pear battles NFL for help 11/26/08 [Last modified: Saturday, November 29, 2008 11:57pm]
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