Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Ex-Bucs running back's mind strays wildly, a likely consequence of multiple concussions.
NASHVILLE - Jerry Eckwood was on the front porch, trying to remain patient, as a van pulled up to the modest house on a winding, ordinary street. He wore slacks, a dark-blue dress shirt and a tie, neatly knotted. He perked and rose to his feet. This was special. He had visitors. Thirty-one years ago, Eckwood joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a rookie running back from the University of Arkansas. He was an important player for the 1979 worst-to-first team, the first of three seasons he played with the Bucs before injuries ended his career. Only a shell of that swift, powerful athlete remains.Most of the people who visit Eckwood are doctors, caregivers and those who want to know more about the twists in life that made it impossible for him to live on his own. Yet to see him come off the porch, smiling and chatting pleasantly as he greeted his guests, it was hard to imagine what people said about him could be true. The more he talked, though, the more his mind drifted between light and shadow, between reality and some alternate world he alone occupied. That world is filled with pain, conspiracies and fogged, inaccurate recollections of a time when things were better. The delusions hold him prisoner. "You OK, buddy?" asked Mitchell Welch, who runs the Gay Culverhouse Players' Outreach Program that offers help to Eckwood and other retired players from the National Football League. "I'm good, I'm good," Eckwood said in a thick, forced voice. But he wasn't. During the next few hours, complaints randomly flew. People he couldn't name had it out for him in ways he couldn't explain. He talked of wanting to be general manager of an NFL team and then, almost in midsentence, told how people were backing out of Hollywood deals with him. Eckwood, 55, is headed down a dark road. Repeated collisions with defenders all those years ago were part of a drive to a championship for the Bucs but left Eckwood with body aches that never stop. The physical pain clouds a mind dulled from multiple concussions. How many? He can't remember, except that there were "a lot ... a lot." Culverhouse remembers seeing warning signs while Eckwood was with the Bucs. "When Jerry played with us, he would walk to the wrong huddle sometimes. Players would have to get him and steer him back to the Bucs," said Culverhouse, who held several front-office positions when her father, Hugh Culverhouse, owned the team. "Or sometimes he would walk to the opposing bench when it was time to come off the field. "And I remember there was one day when he was sitting in the locker room with his head in his hands, all by himself. A player goes, 'Hey Jerry, what are you doing here?' And he said, 'I don't know how to get home.'" He's still trying. Not long after receiving his visitors, Eckwood was told by the operator of the assisted-living facility he had two weeks to find a new place. "He had created some disturbances with the other housemates so he was being kicked out of that facility," Culverhouse said. A turn of events For the first time in years, though, Eckwood's life took a fortunate twist. Just as he was being told to move, the NFL approved annual benefits of $136,000 for life to Eckwood. Welch put Eckwood in a new facility where he can interact with others and get physical treatment and better meals. An adviser handles his money. More people have his back. "Some of the people there recognize him as a football player," Culverhouse said. "He enjoys that little bit of hero worship." While preparing to testify before Congress in October, Culverhouse thought of Eckwood as she researched the growing number of former players with health or behavioral issues. She asked Welch, a longtime friend, to help track down Eckwood. Eventually, he found a phone number. "Mitchell called him and goes, 'Hey buddy!' when Jerry answered the phone," Culverhouse said. "Jerry thought Mitchell was his agent. He goes, 'You've got me a team now, right?' Mitchell goes, 'Sure, I do, but I need to find you, so we can set this up.' That's how we found him." Hard knocks Eckwood was a third-round draft selection in 1979 and made a splashy debut, gaining 121 yards on 20 carries against Detroit in his first game with the Bucs. He recalled being knocked out on the field after hits from opponents Clay Matthews, Doug Plank and Gary Fencik. "Oh, wait ... Nolan Cromwell knocked me out, too," he said of the former Los Angeles Rams safety. He was gone from the league after the 1981 season, but soon experienced physical and behavioral problems. He had multiple run-ins with police in Arkansas starting in 1986. He battled headaches, neck and back pain, shoulder and knee problems. Some who played with him are not surprised Eckwood's life turned out this way. "He has had problems for a long time," former Bucs teammate Mark Cotney said. "Even when he first got out of football, there were things flying around about him. They kind of blamed it on the adjustment of not being an NFL player. It's like, 'Are you going to buy into that?' I'm not really going to buy into that." As his physical and mental capacities declined, his need for financial and medical assistance increased. He will require care for the rest of his life, though. He can't live on his own or drive a car. "It's not all bad," Eckwood said in a moment of clarity. "I have some independence now. Independence is good when you're a grown person. I just wish they'd drop the football part about me and see the human part." A minute or two later, though, he was gone again - spinning a macabre tale of how athletes, television executives, agents, coaches and mortgage companies had conspired against him. "It's ridiculous to be in the position I've been placed in," he said. Plan 88 assistance Eckwood recently qualified to receive treatment and assistance under Plan 88, an NFL program for players suffering cognitive impairment. Two doctors certified Eckwood meets the requirements, Culverhouse said, and the league approved. It takes more than forgetfulness, the trait most associated with dementia. The condition also can manifest in personality changes, paranoia, the inability to process new information, even hallucinations. He can be perfectly lucid, recalling small details of games played long ago, then launch into fantastic ramblings. He blamed a former college coach for stealing his winning ticket to the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes. He said former Bucs teammates stole his car, credit cards and other personal items. "He has his days," daughter Jerval Watson said. "He's doing a little better. With the shape he's in, you can't help but have a little sadness because that's not the way you want it to be at this stage of life. The situation of knowing that someone so close to you might not be able to remember you is very scary." It was time to leave. Eckwood moved laboriously up the steps to the porch as his guests loaded back into the van and drove off. There was silence inside the vehicle. "How long until he forgets we were even here?" someone asked Welch. "Not long."
Columnist Joe Henderson can be reached at (813) 259-7861.
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