But things haven't always been that way. Long before medical innovations allowed arthroscopic surgery and MRIs, players from previous eras were essentially on their own when it came to medical coverage after the cheering stopped and their professional careers were over. On Tuesday, Matt Birk announced at a press conference that Dec. 21 would be "Gridiron Guardian Sunday" – a chance for current players to help those who paved the way for them by donating a portion of their paychecks from that weekend's games to assist former players.
The idea was the brainchild of former Rams, Saints and Chiefs offensive lineman Kyle Turley last year. Birk and coaching and tight end legend Mike Ditka were among those that stood up and were counted when it came to assisting former players – many of whom have suffered debilitating injuries from playing the game when concussions were common and untreated and injuries were termed as "just as bruise" and they were expected to continue playing.
At a press conference at Joe Senser's Bar and Grill in Bloomington Tuesday, it was announced that the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund had received a $1 million donation from the Laser Spine Institute. It is the largest contribution made in the two seasons of the Gridiron Guardian program and it is hoped that hundreds of thousands of dollars will be raised from current players this year.
Turley, who retired after last season, passed the baton to Birk to be the new face of the GGAF – a role he has accepted with pride. Birk said he will be donating $50,000 of his game check Dec. 21 against Atlanta to the cause and hopes that every NFL player will get involved to some degree. Birk said he sent a letter to every player, which they should receive by Thursday.
At the press conference, Birk said that he receives thanks from former players that he says aren't necessary. He says the current players have an obligation to make good on the lacking medical care available to former players and that he will remain an ardent advocate on their behalf.
"Today I am asking NFL players to stand with me and donate a portion of their Dec. 21 checks for retired players in need," Birk said. "Large or small does not matter – everything helps. We have benefitted from the sacrifices made by the players of yesterday. Sadly, the price paid by some of those who came before us has been costly. They live in excruciating physical pain and severe mental anguish as a direct result of their playing days."