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Sports Glory Carries an Enormous Risk: The Suffering of Aging Athletes

Dana Larsen
By Dana LarsenDecember 29, 2015

Aging is hard on the body. While many of us look at our arthritic joints and everyday pains as signs of time well spent in life’s journey, many athletes are forced to endure more pain than they should in the normal aging process.

Discover how one pro football player has paid a big price, and why senior care communities are catering specifically to retired NFL players.

The Suffering of Aging Athletes

Many seniors can feel it in their bones when it’s about to rain. Bodies ache and injuries take time to heal, if they ever do. As you age, you cannot be complacent and wait for things to heal themselves; you have to be proactive to age well in America. But athletes may suffer from a whole slew of different aging problems.

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One such example is 77-year-old Jim Otto, a former professional football center for the Oakland Raiders. This Pro Football Hall of Famer punished his body greatly during his 15-year NFL career, resulting in nearly 74 surgeries, including multiple joint operations and 28 knee operations; nine of them during his playing career alone. His joints are riddled with arthritis, and he has debilitating back and neck problems. In his book, “The Pain of Glory,” Otto describes near-death experiences from medical procedures, including fighting off three life-threatening bouts of infections due to complications with his artificial joints. Some of his friends call him the “bionic man” as so much of his body is metal from surgeries.

Today, Otto wears a prosthesis as a right leg, which can be extremely uncomfortable and exhausting. He recollects playing football in his day — the sport that led to all his injuries:

“It was a battle out there, it was a war. Football was different back then. The rules and regulations have changed today. Back then, hitting harder than anyone else was very important to us. We were taught to lead with our head and shoulders. I’ve had 20 concussions and I don’t like to think about what those have done to my brain. I have problems with dizziness, words and memory in addition to my physical problems. I think that everything that has caused my body to have a problem has been from football. I went to war and I came out of the battle with what I got.”

Otto’s wife, Sally, has been his main caretaker. “Sally didn’t deserve this,” Otto comments. While their inspiring love story has been one of devotion, strength and unconditional love, Otto brings up a good point. What about the athletes who don’t have in-home caregivers or whose illnesses and injuries are worse than his?

While Otto is in pain and has some bouts with cognition problems, many athletes have Alzheimer’sdementia and other sports-related issues that require 24-hour care. This is where expert memory care comes in.

Where Aging Athletes and NFL Stars Spend Their Autumn Years

Validus Senior Living, a senior lifestyle company, offers a complete continuum of leading-edge senior living communities, including state-of-the-art assisted living and memory care. Over the next five years, Validus Senior Living will construct 33 new assisted living and memory care communities in major cities with high concentrations of retired NFL players to help players like Jim Otto, who require expert care for the injuries they sustained during their football years. The strategic alliance between the NFL Alumni Association and select “Inspired Living” communities focuses on providing a better lifestyle for retired NFL players and local seniors who need assisted living and memory care services relating to Alzheimer’s, dementia, ALS or Parkinson’s disease.  

With the growing need for memory care and senior living services across the United States, this new affiliation will serve a direct need for the aging population of NFL alumni, their families and their local communities. The first community, “Inspired Living at Windermere,” will be located outside of Orlando, Florida and is scheduled to open in the fall of 2016; Atlanta, GeorgiaHouston, Texas, Jacksonville, Florida and New Orleans, Louisiana communities are planned to arrive in 2017. Between 12-15% of this community’s residents are expected to be retired NFL players. Rebecca Lingold, Vice President of Operations, comments:

“We are excited about this relationship and having Hall of Famer John Mackey’s widow, Sylvia Mackey, leading our Validus Senior Living advisory board as we begin to serve retired players.  It’s an exciting time to be caring for moms and dads and the NFLAA family.”

Validus’ Inspired Living communities offer personalized services focused on residents’ individual needs and preferences. With memory care residents, caregivers take a positive approach care, focusing on what abilities remain, not on what has been lost.

A Promising Future for Aging Athletes with Sports Injuries

Otto notes that the NFL has taken measures to improve the care of retired players who have Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease, ALS, or dementia.  The league, through its alumni association, also established the “88 Plan,” which pays for a variety of medical and custodial services related to an eligible player’s dementia.

When asked how to lead a lifestyle to help prevent dementia, geriatrician Dr. Cheryl Woodson jokingly comments, “Don’t let your kids play football.” It’s no secret that football is a contact sport that is life-changing not only for the viewers, but most definitely for the players who sacrifice their bodies. It’s important that these players are taken care of as they age.

Despite his maladies, Otto says wouldn’t change a thing even if given the opportunity to do it over again. He has had quite the adventure and experiences. He discusses his sports injuries as well as the concussion issue in a Frontline interview for “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis.

What do you think of the programs offered to retired NFL players and other professional athletes? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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