THE BUSINESS AND POLITICS OF SPORTS
As the National Football League hired lawyers and attorneys from the decertified National Football League Players Association game-planned for an April court date in Minneapolis where they will argue over what went wrong in their collective bargaining talks and why there is no new Collective Bargaining Agreement in place, Gene Atkins will go about his daily struggle at his Texas home.
The 46-year-old Atkins has some better days than others but struggles with his concentration and focus and his constant headaches and pain. Doctors said he has permanent brain damage from playing football. Atkins was once of the most intimidating players on the New Orleans Saints, a safety who hit hard and wanted to put fear in offensive players.
But that was a long time ago. Atkins last played for the Miami Dolphins in 1996 and then retired. His life soon unraveled. There was a domestic dispute involving his wife, an arrest, business failures, depression, constant headaches and by 2000, the thoughts of suicide. Atkins’ post-career problems seem to follow a pattern, a rather disturbing set of circumstances that is not all that unusual among ex-NFL players. He is living off the United States safety net of Social Security and Medicare despite his young age like other former NFL players, a safety net that might cost taxpayers a billion dollars for discarded, disabled players.
Atkins was a contemporary of two other big hitters, Philadelphia's Andre Waters and Chicago's Dave Duerson. Waters committed suicide on Nov. 20, 2006. Duerson killed himself in February. The Duerson suicide hit Atkins hard. But Atkins admitted he could have beaten both of them to the gun if not for his children.
Gene Atkins’ friend and lawyer Jeffrey Dahl is trying to get Atkins some financial help in dealing with his day-to-day existence. By 2005, Atkins turned to the NFL for assistance and got the cold shoulder. In 2006, Atkins appealed and got some help but not much from the NFL. Just how did Gene Atkins go from one of the hardest hitting and smartest players on the field to where he is today? The answer might come from the 1993 New Orleans Saints media guide.
Atkins is described in the club produced book the following way -- possessing good speed, has gained a reputation for aggressiveness and the big hit -- Atkins was taught to be an intimidating force at his position and played that way.
"The NFL told me my biggest asset was my memory," Atkins said on Monday talking about his playing career, which lasted 10 years from 1987 to 1996 with New Orleans and Miami. "Dom Capers (the New Orleans defensive backfield coach) had a very complicated defense. It was like a chess game. I learned it in two years and mastered it in four years."
Atkins admitted that he didn't remember the question this reporter asked. He doesn’t have very much of a short-term memory. In 2008, a Seattle doctor confirmed what the layman would know after talking to Atkins. But Atkins does remember the football culture and how all he wanted to do was become a vested NFL veteran and get some post career benefits.
"I mastered that defense, grades of 90 percent to 80 percent in 100 to 80 plays and maybe one or two errors," he said.
But while Atkins was playing he used his head in tackling and that probably was his undoing but in football you play hurt and if you ever complain, your career is on the line. It is part of the football culture that starts on the Pop Warner level and carries through junior high, high school, college and the pros, whether it is the NFL, the Canadian Football League, the United Football League or indoor football.
"Man suck it up. If you can walk, you can play," said Atkins of the football mentality.
"Maybe over 20 concussions, sometimes I couldn't see and I would tell (Saints defensive back) Brett Maxie or (linebacker) Sam Mills cover until I get my vision back. The trainer would come out and never report a concussion.
"I had one listed concussion. You are just dizzy, can you see this? If you went to the sidelines you were a wimp. The peer pressure."
Atkins was in his own words "a gladiator."
Atkins wanted to be known as the roughest and toughest on the field.
"Everything was about intimidation," he said. "Put fear in the offensive guy. Tough, rough and rugged. There was no hitting with the shoulder. If I played today, like that guy in Pittsburgh (James Harrison), they’d probably fine me my whole paycheck."
Atkins was a seventh round draft choice, the last round of the grab bag, in 1987, and faced long odds making the club. He graduated from Florida A&M with a degree in physical education. Rookies not only have to play a position but have to be special teams’ players.
He had to prove he belonged.
Atkins' rookie season was also the last NFL strike season. All Gene Atkins wanted to do was make the team and the collective bargaining agreement -- something that might have helped him down the road -- was the last thing on his mind. He was part of the football culture and at Florida A&M, he was taught "that you kill a mosquito with an axe." In other words, you have to play hard and lay someone out which is a variation of Al Davis' quote that the "quarterback must go down and go down hard.”
In Atkins' world, there was no room for a soft player.