By Rona Marech
October 14, 2006
HAGERSTOWN -- Inside the Hagerstown Rescue Mission, up the stairs, into
the dormitory, next to a bed with a thin tan coverlet, atop a dark
locker -- this is where Donnie Green keeps his memorabilia. He has
three tiny plastic helmets, one for each of the National Football
League teams he played on: the Buffalo Bills, the Philadelphia Eagles,
the Detroit Lions.
Behind those -- he has to groan and stretch to reach it -- is a blue,
loose-leaf binder filled with photographs and articles. He turns the
pages matter of factly, betraying little. Here he is in his No. 74
Bills jersey, staring out seriously, his fists clenched. Here he is
coolly sitting on the bench, helmet pushed back. Here he is at Purdue
University, a bright-eyed first-year student with a broad smile. He is
watching a game in a fedora, his hands lifted over his head,
He pulls out a fan letter. "It sure is a pleasure to write to one of
the greatest players who always gave 110 percent," it reads.
Green played for the NFL for seven years in the 1970s, most famously as
part of the Bills' formidable offensive line that helped O.J. Simpson
run a record-breaking 2,000 yards in a season. He and his fellow
linemen were dubbed the Electric Company because they "turned the Juice
But that was long ago, before Green's gait slowed and his brawn
softened. Before family troubles. Before drugs.
In 2003, financial and emotional woes sent Green from his home in
Annapolis to this Western Maryland shelter where men can find temporary
housing or join a longer-term, religion-based recovery program. He
arrived with little but some suitcases of old clothes. It didn't take
long for him to find God -- truly find him and not just in a
wishy-washy way, he says. Three years later, he's hopeful. He gets paid
to work as a night watchman at the Rescue Mission. He's more peaceful.
And yet he's still here, a lumbering, gentle presence carrying a Bible
and talking religion and trying, still, to figure out what to do next.
"I just take it from day to day," he said. "I'm really thankful God
gave me another chance."
Green's predicament, some former players bitterly complain, is all too
common. Men who played in the NFL prior to the 1980s were paid a
pittance compared with current players, and until 1993, they retired
without substantial pensions, health insurance or other now-standard
benefits. Many suffer from ailments stemming from old injuries and
years of play. And they're often too proud or embarrassed -- especially
after all the athletic success and reverential treatment -- to seek
help when their luck turns. Recent pension increases and changes in
care coverage for retired players are inadequate, many who were in the
They often know the saddest stories: Jackie Wallace, who played with
the Colts among other teams, was found living under a New Orleans
overpass; Mike Webster, once a Pittsburgh Steeler, was frequently
unemployed and homeless in the years before his death.
"It goes on and on. There are hundreds of players who are hurting,"
said Bruce Laird, another former Colt who recently founded The
Baltimore Football Club to assist ex-players. "We are working with the
union to try to make them understand that these are the players who
made the game, and they need help."
Joe DeLamielleure, a Hall of Famer who played right guard alongside
Green on the Bills, calls it a "disgrace." "Why does the most lucrative
business in the world have the worst pensions?" he said. "You know
where Donnie is living? ... And Donnie Green isn't a dumb man, not an
ignorant man. He's not a man who's lazy. He's a good man. For him to
have to do this is absurd in my book."
At his peak in the NFL, Green said he never made more than $65,000. At
58, his monthly pension payments are a little more than $400.
It was only seven years of pro football, to be sure, but that was what
Green had devoted his life to from the time he was a 219-pound
eighth-grader in southeastern Virginia. High school coaches were
already checking out the mountainous teenager, and he ended up playing
football and basketball at Crestwood High School in Chesapeake before
heading off to Purdue University on a football scholarship. He left
school when he was drafted by Buffalo in 1971
David E. Garnett
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