An ill-fated tackle on Sunday plunged Kevin Everett into a hellish week of loss. Instead of commanding his finely chiseled body, he could do nothing with it — until he finally moved his arms and legs late Tuesday afternoon. Instead of exhorting his Buffalo Bills teammates in the late stages of their game against the Denver Broncos, he struggled to breathe on a Ventilator. Instead of shooting for a breakthrough third year in the NFL, his football career almost surely ended.
Yet amid all that loss, Everett gained one thing, even if only he knows and appreciates it later: He joined a small fraternity of NFL players who have also suffered severe spinal-cord injuries and now embrace him as a brother.
Dennis Byrd, the former New York Jets lineman who was temporarily paralyzed in 1992, reached out to Everett’s family as soon as he could. The message he delivered, he told ESPN.com on Wednesday, is this: “If there’s anything I can do in terms of encouragement, I’d be honored and thrilled to help him in any way I can.”
Mike Utley, who has made recovery from spinal-cord injuries his life’s work since becoming paralyzed as a Detroit Lion in 1991, stands ready to give Everett a chalk talk on the X’s and O’s of his new physical needs: how to rebuild atrophied muscles, how to watch out for blood clots, and more.
“Anything he wants, I’ll jump,” says Utley, who, though a Paraplegic, means it — literally. Among Utley’s many vigorous activities these days is skydiving.
Everett’s future is more hopeful, and his benefits as a catastrophically injured player are more substantial, than Byrd and Utley experienced after their injuries. If he remains totally and permanently incapacitated from this injury, Everett stands to collect $224,000 per year, for life, in Disability benefits from the NFL.
Everett is due other near-term payments, too. He will be paid his 2007 salary of $385,000. He will receive a $230,000 “injury protection” payment in 2008. (Under the NFL’s labor contract, a player who retires due to injury gets an extra year’s pay, based on a percentage of his contract.) Everett will also get a $37,500 severance payment, spread over three years.
And he also almost surely qualifies for workers’ compensation insurance benefits, which is even more important. NFL players’ health insurance extends for only five years after their retirement. In the state of New York, workers’ comp means lifetime medical coverage, according to Bert Villarini, the attorney who represents the NFL Players Association on such matters in Buffalo.
“This is an open-and-shut case — injury in the scope of employment,” he says.
Everett, of course, is unfortunate to have been severely injured, but fortunate that it happened while he played for a New York-based team. These insurance programs are set up state by state, and in a number of them — including Florida, Texas and Ohio — NFL players sometimes have had problems collecting workers’ comp benefits, according to the NFLPA. Teams looking to reign in insurance premiums often lobby state legislatures to limit players’ eligibility.
It seems Everett will be well taken care of financially, as well as medically. That’s good news not only for him, but also for the league and the NFLPA, whose disability benefits have received harsh criticism by retired players in recent months.
But Everett’s path to recovery will involve much more than being able to pay the bills. It will be a physical and mental grind that makes summer two-a-days look like child’s play. That’s why the NFLers who’ve already traveled that path can be potentially valuable resources. And while they aren’t swarming him now, they’ve been there; they know better, and they want to be there for him.
Utley, for example, says he will urge Everett to transfer to a spinal rehab center because they have specialized expertise and so much experience in these cases. That’s what the ex-Lion did, at Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colo.
Utley says he will also stress the importance of staying positive. That’s been his hallmark ever since he gave the thumbs-up sign to a silent Silverdome crowd as he was carried off the field in November 1991. “Thumbs Up” became the motto of his Mike Utley Foundation, founded in January 1992 and devoted to supporting spinal cord research and rehab advancements.
Utley says Everett has every reason to be positive. Whether it’s stem-cell research providing new hope for spinal Regeneration, or early-response techniques, such as the ice-cold saline solution that was pumped through Everett’s system to reduced spinal-cord damage, Utley says, “The treatment is so much more advanced than when we were first going through it.”
Staying positive is also vital to handling the psychological trauma that accompanies the physical trauma. Derrick Burroughs, whose spinal-cord injury ended his career as a Buffalo Bills defensive back in 1989, doesn’t even recall the bodily pain, even though he was paralyzed for 24 hours. But he’ll never forget the emotional pain of watching his old team play in four straight Super Bowls without him.
“What was tougher for me than anything physical was dying at home, watching those games,” says Burroughs, who soon felt abandoned and forgotten by the Bills.
Though he had major back surgery to fuse his third and fourth Vertebrae, Burroughs couldn’t resign himself to retiring. He flew around the country, trying to find a spinal specialist who’d say he was OK and could play. Many nights, he awoke from vivid dreams about playing.
Burroughs finally gave up the ghost and went into coaching. Today, he’s the defensive backs coach at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Hopefully, Everett won’t have the same experience Burroughs says he did. But Byrd says it’s very easy for a catastrophically injured player to feel isolated.
“It took me years to realize that just because I had the injuries didn’t mean I couldn’t keep up the affiliations [with Jets teammates],” says Byrd, who now coaches high school football in Tulsa, Okla. He has the use of his arms and legs but has disabilities associated with all of them.
Injured football players might be particularly Prone to withdrawal, Byrd believes, because they’ve drawn so much of their esteem from their physical skills. When those are gone, he asks, who are they?
“I learned people love you for who you are, and that was very pleasing for me to learn,” Byrd says. “I would love for Kevin to know he’ll always be a Bill.”
Utley would love to see Everett enter his annual Dam2Dam Thumbs Up! Bike Tour, a fundraiser for the Mike Utley Foundation in which riders with various degrees of paralysis hit the road for 25- to 100-mile treks, on Sept. 29.
Burroughs says he doesn’t have immediate plans to contact Everett, but he does believe in the power of the spinal-cord fraternity. He became close with Chucky Mullins, the Ole Miss defensive back who was paralyzed in a game in 1989 and died in 1991.
And Burroughs has already tried to aid Everett in another way. He led his Stillman College team in a prayer for him.
John Helyar is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He previously covered the business of sports for The Wall Street Journal and Fortune magazine, and is the author of “Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball.”
In a Sept. 13 story on ESPN.com Mike Utley was incorrectly termed a quadraplegic in a story. Utley is a paraplegic.