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Birk joins effort for former players

Vikings center lending time, money to assistance fund

By Kevin Seifert

McClatchy News Services

One man can crusade, but two can launch a movement. So went the thinking behind Matt Birk’s decision to jump into one of the most controversial issues facing the NFL.

The Vikings’ center officially joined forces Tuesday with Kansas City offensive lineman Kyle Turley to help retired players who are disabled by football-related injuries. Like Turley, Birk has donated $25,000 to the non-profit Gridiron Greats assistance fund and has begun a public campaign in hopes of overhauling the NFL Players Association’s much-maligned disability and pension program.

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"As players today we definitely stand on the shoulders of those who come before us," Birk said. "We’re reaping a lot of the benefits of the prices that they paid. We can not forget that."

The issue has exploded recently as former players have spoken out about difficulties in qualifying for disability payments under the Players Association’s plan. Tuesday, Birk joined Turley, former NFL coach Mike Ditka and a dozen former and current Vikings players at a news conference designed to add new but familiar voices to the debate.

Turley and Birk plan to personally contact each active NFL player during the next week, hoping to encourage them to support a Dec. 23 fundraiser that has already collected $150,000. According to Jennifer Smith, a Gridiron Greats spokeswoman, the money will be funneled directly to retired players in need.

Birk’s involvement places him in familiar territory: opposing a union he once worked closely with. In the past, Birk has criticized the Players Association repeatedly and executive director Gene Upshaw in particular.

But Tuesday, Birk said: "I think it’s time we stop that rhetoric and that game and realize what’s important here."

Upshaw has resisted requests from retired players to expand the disability program, saying the union’s primary constituents are active players. Turley, however, said: "Every player in the league is at risk of becoming a retired player every day that you’re on the practice field. I don’t see how you can call yourself the head of the union if you’re allowing these things to occur."

Carl Francis, a Players Association spokesman, declined comment Tuesday.

Former Vikings defensive end Jim Marshall said he encountered difficulty getting coverage for knee and back surgeries he had during the 1980s.

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"To seek help and be denied is something that tears you down as a human being," he said.

It is a "moral obligation," Birk said, to help players such as Marshall, who played a role in building the NFL into a billion-dollar enterprise.

"People have a hard time comprehending that it is a problem," he said. "But then you start reading stories of people just a couple years older than me with young kids like mine. It’s one thing if your career ends because of an injury. But when it practically ruins your life and the life of your wife and kids, that’s when you want to do something about it."

Birk brought five active Vikings players with him to Tuesday’s event, some of whom also are making donations: offensive lineman Steve Hutchinson, Anthony Herrera, Marcus Johnson and Ryan Cook, along with linebacker Ben Leber.

Other players who joined the movement Tuesday were Kansas City’s Tony Gonzalez, Larry Johnson and John Welbourn, Houston’s Ephraim Salaam and the New York Giants’ Kawika Mitchell.

"My issue is with the physical disability," Hutchinson said. "I think if you’re physically disabled, you should be bumped up (in payments). That should be No. 1. If you played in the NFL, you deserve to get help. I don’t care who initiates what. Whether it comes from us for now to start it, or if it comes from whoever, so be it. I just think we need to get it started and get help to people that need it."

Birk and Turley referred to the Dec. 23 fundraiser as a "band-aid" until more substantive changes can occur.

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