Game changer

Desperate to be heard, the retirees focused on a lawsuit that had been filed in Minnesota. Six former players, including former Rams defensive end Fred Dryer, Hall of Fame Oilers defensive end Elvin Bethea and Oilers quarterback Dan Pastorini, argued that the NFL had illegally appropriated their identities to promote the league through its lucrative production arm, NFL Films. The league "trades on the 'glory days' of the NFL as a marketing and advertising technique to enhance the NFL's brand awareness and increase its revenue," the suit alleged. "The retired players who created these glory days, however, have gone almost completely uncompensated for this use of their identities."

The lawsuit encapsulated all the bitterness that had built up among the retirees.

"We considered ourselves to be cattle back in the day," said Bethea, who made the Pro Bowl eight of his 16 seasons. "And when it's over, it's over." Upon his retirement, Bethea found he no longer had health insurance. Although his legacy lived on in numerous NFL films, he didn't see a dime. Bethea, who remained in Houston, picked up a decent paycheck, medical insurance and a pension working 27 years for Anheuser-Busch. The difference between how a beer company and the National Football League treated him always struck him as "LAUGHABLE, in capital letters," he says.

Bethea had a friend, singer Betty Wright, who told him about the "mailbox money" she occasionally received, song royalties for which "you sit there and wait for the money to come your way."

"I guess the mailman forgot me," Bethea said.

One day he was coaching Pee Wee football when a player told him, "Hey, Coach Bethea, I saw you on TV!" That's when he decided to take action. "I just thought this was not the American way," Bethea said. "If you do something, you ought to get paid. I felt like I was an entertainer, like a songwriter or a singer or a movie actor -- anyone who has performed in front of other people. That's why I got involved."

Hausfeld wasn't originally involved in the suit. He was brought in by another lawyer, Bob Stein, a former NFL linebacker who later ran the Minnesota Timberwolves, in part because Hausfeld was representing O'Bannon over the same issues. Hausfeld positioned himself to the retirees as their champion. To win their support, he courted DeLamielleure, the popular former Bills guard who had been fighting the NFL over medical benefits and pensions for years. Joe D, as he's known, is mostly deaf in his left ear -- from being head-slapped for 13 seasons, he believes. He helps raise money for an orphanage in Mexico. DeLamielleure was impressed by Hausfeld's soft-spokenness and stated dedication to their cause. At one of the first meetings with the players, "He brought his grandson," he recalls. "I was impressed. I'm a real family guy, and that's how he won me over."

But, almost immediately, Hausfeld, over the objections of the original plaintiffs, worked to cut a deal with the NFL. The $50 million settlement called for no direct payment to the thousands of retired NFL players who would be affected. Nor did it provide insurance, which, according to DeLamielleure, was "the only thing we really wanted." Most of the money went to a "Common Good Fund," which Hausfeld says could ultimately be used to provide health benefits to some players. The deal also created a licensing agency that Hausfeld set up with IMG, the marketing giant, to cut deals on behalf of NFL retirees.

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