When Jim Marshall started playing football for the Cleveland Browns in 1960, his annual salary was $15,000—a far cry from the multi-million dollar contracts some NFL stars sign today.
Marshall played for the Minnesota Vikings from 1961 until 1979, when he retired. In total, the Kentucky native logged two decades as a defensive end. Life in the NFL isn’t just about fame and glory, Marshall says.
“That was 20 seasons of professional football, and you can imagine how banged up your body gets,” he says.
Contrary to some popular conceptions, not all professional football players earn millions, and contracts from the earlier days don’t necessarily provide for health care after retirement. That can leave a lot of former heroes in need of expensive medical procedures without the resources to pay for them.
“The reality is there are guys playing today that make more money than our whole payroll,” Marshall says. “The $20 million contracts guys are getting today—that wasn’t the case back then.”
He says that in his era, many NFL players even had to take second and third jobs to supplement their incomes. Marshall worked as a car salesman and an insurance broker during off seasons.
Like many retired football players, Marshall, 72, suffered from chronic pain as a result of injuries sustained on the field. Marshall says he had back problems that impacted his ability to walk and live an active life. He sought medical help, but the procedures didn’t solve his problems and the medical bills added up.
Fortunately, Marshall found Gridiron Greats, a Northbrook nonprofit that provides assistance and financial aid to retired football players. The organization was founded in 2006 after former Green Bay Packers lineman Jerry Kramer auctioned a replica of his Super Bowl ring to raise money for other former players in need. Since then, Gridiron Greats has given more $1.5 million in grants and medical assistance to retired NFL players.
“We’re helping them because there is an inadequate disability program, a flawed medical system and pension program that is flawed as well,” Gridiron’s Executive Vice President Shannon Jordan says.
Gridiron currently operates four medical facilities in different cities that offer pro-bono medical care to retired NFL players. The volunteer doctors have done hip replacements, back and spine surgeries, and treatments to deal with the long-term effects of concussions.
“We try to help out as many guys as we can,” Jordan says. “Our goal is to have a pro-bono medical facility in every NFL city.”
Some famous beneficiaries of Gridiron’s assistance include Chicago’s own William “Fridge” Perry, who needed medical assistance for Guillain-Barr Syndrome, and Dwight Harrison, who played for four different teams over 11 years, and currently lives in a FEMA trailer without running water. Gridiron has provided Harrison funds for food and utilities.
For Marshall, Gridiron’s assistance has truly changed his life. Marshall underwent two surgeries at Gridiron facilities that finally solved his chronic back problems.
“I am able to stand up straight and walk again, and I’m in process of rehabbing myself and getting my muscles working again,” Marshall says. “It’s like a new lease on life.”