by Max Brantley
A letter this morning reminded me that I'd failed a while back to pick up a New York Times sports feature about a sad subject -- former NFL players with debilitating health conditions. The centerpiece of the article was Brinkley native, former Hog star and former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Jerry Eckwood. He's now being helped by a program to reimburse medical expenses of former players with dementia.
A popular running back for the Buccaneers from 1979 to 1981, Eckwood is 55 but can no longer go grocery shopping, handle his checkbook or function on his own. He lives on monthly Social Security payments of $1,500, most of which pays for assisted-living aid his daughter arranged.
Lucid memories of his playing career — “I had to keep Too Tall Jones off of Doug Williams,” he recalled over a rack of ribs lunch — compete with others less grounded, like the way his college coach stole his winning Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes entry. His sentences range between coherence and polysyllabic fog.
Eckwood’s problems appear to have begun soon after he stopped playing, according to telephone interviews with relatives with whom he now has little contact. An older brother, Doug, said that Jerry showed no psychological issues before he retired from football due to back and neck injuries.
By then, however, Eckwood had begun acting so erratically that after arrests for writing bad checks and fighting with a police officer, he was committed to the Arkansas State Hospital for what Doug Eckwood recalled being five or six years. His mental state has slowly deteriorated since, and is remembered by former teammates as much for his joviality as a player as for the nonsensical voice-mail messages he occasionally leaves.