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New NFL goal: Longer lives for its players

Dan Raley | 5/14/2008, 9:40 a.m.

“I’d rather know than not know,” he said. “This isn’t football anymore. This is fourth-down-and-1 for real.”

(The Seattle Post-Intelligencer)

BELLEVUE, Wash. — Retired NFL players arrived in shifts last Thursday at Health Force Partners, participating in what might best be described as a medical minicamp, all hoping to make the cut.

While several of the guys greeted each other with wisecracks and back slaps, Alonzo Mitz quietly slipped into the private waiting room and sat down by himself. Mitz last pulled on a Seahawks uniform in 1993, as a speedy and indestructible defensive end. Turning 45 next month, he’s a middle-aged man experiencing battle scars and vulnerability.

“I’ve been having heart palpitations, and I just had some the other day,” he said. “I worry about that. That’s one of the reasons I’m here.”

Mitz was one of 35 former pro football players from the region coaxed to this Bellevue medical clinic for a series of heart screening tests conducted by Denver cardiologist Jeffrey Boone and funded by an alliance of NFL organizations — taking part in an innovative program considered overdue for a violent sport characterized by startling low life-expectancy rates, depending on playing position, of 53 to 59.

Moving from station to station, former Seahawks coach and NFL player Jack Patera, 77, was at the front desk answering questions from a member of Boone’s medical team, while former Broncos running back Floyd Little, 66, now a car dealer, was behind a curtain undergoing testing, and Gary Larsen, 68, a member of the Minnesota Vikings’ vaunted “Purple People Eaters” defensive front, was being examined behind another curtain.

“There’s stuff inside me I don’t know about,” said Terry Metcalf, 56, former St. Louis Cardinals running back and Seattle native. “I just want to be around awhile. I’m not ready to go yet.”

Much like the military, the NFL has long been criticized for turning a cold shoulder to the health concerns of its foot soldiers after battle, accused of casting ailing players aside once their usefulness was expended.

Boone, a Broncos consulting physician, started testing former Denver players for heart attack and stroke probability, examining 100 NFL alumni in four years. He drew plaudits for his precautionary measures, especially after three players last year unknowingly had numbers so far off the charts that they needed immediate hospitalization.

“Hopefully, we’ll screen 10,000 former players over the next few years,” said Boone, who understands the medical insurance opposition to his approach. “It’s kind of like preventing terrorism. It’s nothing exciting.”

A year ago, 10 former pros in Seattle agreed to a trial run by Boone, and three of them were discovered to have significant health risks, including Tom Turnure, 51, a former University of Washington and Detroit Lions center.

Testing found that the lineman had significant arterial plaque deposits in his neck, elevated heart calcium and blood plaque levels double the norm, putting him at great risk for heart attack or stroke. Medicine was prescribed that cut everything in half.

“It was unnerving,” Turnure said. “It changed everything I did this last year. When they tell you that you have the body of a 68-year-old man, it gets your attention.”