McMahon hopes his dark reality keeps bringing NFL issues to light

Former NFL football quarterback Jim McMahon speaks during a news conference Tuesday, June 17, 2014 in Chicago. McMahon spoke of his ongoing battle with dementia that he believe is related to his years of hits he took while playing in the league. McMahon is part of a federal lawsuit filed in San Francisco accusing teams of illegally dispensing powerful narcotics and other drugs to keep players on the field without regard for their long-term health. He led the Chicago Bears to victory in the 1985 Super Bowl. (AP Photo/Stacy Thacker) (Stacy Thacker)

CHICAGO – Jim McMahon settled in behind a small bank of microphones inside a 37th floor apartment overlooking Lake Michigan, anxious to get the next 30 minutes behind him.

Even though a pair of black sunglasses hid his eyes, it was evident McMahon – wearing a blue Chicago Police T-shirt, baggy shorts and no shoes or socks – would rather still be in bed. He had already said as much, preferring the solace of a quiet, darkened room over the task of recounting the hell his life has been since he left the NFL.

At 54, the former Bears Super Bowl champion quarterback has his name affixed to two lawsuits – both against the NFL, both alleging that the league didn't do enough to alert players to the risks that stem from playing a violent game.

McMahon was named in a federal lawsuit filed last month in California that alleges that NFL teams provided players with powerful drugs that would keep them on the field even when they shouldn't have been there.

McMahon, who declined to comment Tuesday on the narcotics lawsuit, is also part of a class-action lawsuit that the NFL offered to settle by agreeing to pay former players $765 million without admitting that the league kept the risks of head trauma from players. That settlement has yet to be approved by a federal judge.

McMahon wages a daily battle against onset dementia and depression. Both, McMahon knows now, have direct ties to his NFL career. It's a career during which McMahon was diagnosed with between 3-5 concussions while potentially sustaining more and played at least once with a broken neck team physicians in Minnesota never told him he had suffered in a 1993 playoff game against the Giants.

The years since his playing career ended in 1996 – 10 years after he was slammed to the ground by Green Bay defensive tackle Charles Martin in what he believes was his first serious head trauma – have been far from easy.

Excruciating head pain led him to spend weeks and months at a time in bed in a dark room, the only environment where the constant pounding and throbbing would subside. McMahon easily became frustrated why a former pro quarterback who had always considered himself to be tough and a "pretty bright guy" couldn't remember the names of people he had known for years.

McMahon would go weeks without leaving the house and, when he did, would often be forced to call his girlfriend at home after forgetting how he got somewhere. Eventually, the pain became so extreme – much more so than the kidney injury and broken ribs he sustained during his career –  that McMahon considered killing himself like his former Bears teammate Dave Duerson did after dealing with brain disease.

If he were the type to keep guns in his home, McMahon acknowledges, he likely wouldn't be here today.

"I can see now how some of these guys have ended their lives – because of the pain," McMahon said Tuesday. "I was in that much pain myself..It got that bad."

McMahon travels to New York every three months to undergo treatments that keep spinal fluid from pooling up in the front of McMahon's brain as it had for years. Doctors re-align McMahon's neck every visit, keeping the pain from mounting the way it did long before McMahon realized there was something wrong.

The treatment, McMahon knows, isn't a permanent fix. But as long as he continues to get his neck re-adjusted, keeping the spinal fluid at bay, the pain stays away along with the mood swings and anger that McMahon's girlfriend, Laurie Navon, has been forced to withstand in the time she's been with McMahon.

At his worst, McMahon would lash out at everyone around him – from Navon and his children to the couple's dogs and everyone in between. Navon would tell McMahon how bad he was getting to deal with, only to have him deny it, causing even more frustration to mount.

Navon saw it all first-hand. Anger. Depression. McMahon being mad at himself. Mad at the world. Something, she knew, had to be wrong. What it is, she didn't know. Nor did McMahon. 

"(McMahon) has a heart of gold and he's kind, caring and compassionate," Navon said Tuesday. "But when he wakes up and he's not feeling good, it's a different person than the Jim that I know. He's not so soft and sweet. He's angry. He's angry at everybody. There's days that he's just not happy.

"The light that you saw (during his playing career) – that light has dimmed."

Watching that happen to McMahon – even from a distance – has been difficult for his former Bears teammates. Former free safety and defensive captain Gary Fencik applauds McMahon for coming forward with the struggles he has experienced. Even though Fencik hasn't dealt with some of the issues many former players do, he said it's hard to watch others suffer.

Fencik, who was diagnosed with only one concussion during his career after a collision with Houston's Earl Campbell, said the diaglogue has dramatically changed among former players, centering around head injuries rather than other maladies they may have dealt with.

"It certainly makes you reflect back on what you were willing to do in your 20s to continue to play a game that you love," Fencik told Chicago Football in a phone interview. "I don't want see any of my teammates have any problems – it's not just Jim McMahon with concussions. I have some former teammates who have some really serious health issues...It's tragic what I see."

Four years ago, Navon said all of the pieces of the puzzle came together when she and McMahon saw a TV special on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). Based on the symptoms she had seen McMahon go through, Navon knew what was causing all of his issues.

Still, the couple waited to go public with their story. As McMahon continued to battle severe mood swings and bouts with anger and other symptoms related to CTE or the dementia that he was later diagnosed with, public opinion swarmed. On a regular basis, Navon heard a wide array of comments. Was McMahon stupid? Was he drunk? Does he just not care?

"It was so not what was going on," Navon said. "But (eventually), it was time to go public. It was time to let the world know goes on behind our closed doors."

McMahon, who will be honored at an event sponsored by the Boston-based Sports Legacy Institute on Wednesday night in Chicago, insists the NFL must do more to take care of former players. Even though the concussion lawsuit settlement amount hasn't been finalized, McMahon said that the amount paid to former players should be in the billions and not the millions. A fund designed to take players for years to come, McMahon said, won't last more than a couple based on the way it is currently structured.

While he puts some of the responsibility on current players not to hide injuries – especially those involving the head – McMahon believes team doctors and trainers that give players the green light to go back into a game when they're injured will eventually be held accountable for their actions.

That, he says, didn't happen when he played because back then, it was simply the nature of the game. Now, it's McMahon – among others – that are trying to change football's culture.

McMahon's mission now centers around being an advocate for player care, but he knows that there are several former players – many of whom he played with like Duerson – who have fallen through the cracks while waiting for assistance McMahon isn't certain will ever arrive.

"The NFL continues to make billions and billions of dollars every year and some of these (former players) are homeless, they don't know who they are," McMahon said. "They were the ones who built this brand to where it's at.

"I went through two (player) strikes as a player thinking that (the NFL) would take care of us when we were done. But that's obviously not the case."

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