"Quite frankly, they're just waiting for us to die. They just want us to go away. The problem is we have nowhere to go." --Dave Pear
Dave Pear isn't the kind of guy you'd expect to see sacking a quarterback. He's quiet, meek. Every step he takes seems to hurt. When I saw Dave 10 years ago, he was already using a cane once in a while.
As I step into the Pears' home in Sammamish, Washington, a stone's throw east of Seattle, Dave hands me a stack of paperwork — 30-something years of football history: photographs, '70s football cards with his face on them and lots of medical records.
There was a time when he was counted among the NFL's 10 strongest men.
"I was a pretty committed football player," he says. "So, I was really big in getting physically fit to play. And then I’d work on my mental game by picturing myself playing football and doing well. So I expected to go into the NFL. So it really didn't come as a surprise."
All those diamonds on my Super Bowl ring, they just don’t glitter anymore.Dave Pear
Pear was drafted in 1975 by the Baltimore Colts and later played with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Oakland Raiders.
"I remember in Tampa Bay when I’d sack the quarterback," Pear says. "We could stand on ‘em. So I remember sacking the quarterback and standing on him and raising my hands up in the air. And 80,000 people screamed. The only thing that mattered at that time was the game. That was bigger than anything.
"It was really exciting. There were two things I wanted out of football: I wanted to play in the Pro Bowl, which I did with Tampa Bay, and the Super Bowl."
But before he made it to the Super Bowl, Dave's football career took a painful turn.
Playing Through The Pain
"Back in ‘79 here in Seattle, playing in the old King Dome, and I saw a player and I tackled him as hard as I could," Dave says. "I ran about 20 yards and tackled him. It was like lightning was going down my back. I laid on the ground for a while, and I got up. And every time I moved it was just — I knew I hurt myself. And I thought I could shake it off, and I thought it would go away.
"Back then when you were hurt they’d just shoot you up, give you pills and you played. When you got a concussion, you came off the field, the trainer would hold up two fingers and he said, 'How many do I got up?' You’d say, 'Three.' He says, 'Good enough. Go back in.'"
"I know he was in a lot of pain a lot of the time," says Dave's wife, Heidi. "I met Dave when I was in college. He worked hard. He didn’t party like all the football players. He kind of was more serious."
She says after his injury at the King Dome, he just wasn't the same.
"He was never able to return to football to the same recklessness, which was what made him really good," she says.
But Dave was still good enough to see his second football dream come true. In 1981, his Raiders faced the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XV.
After that game, Dave discovered that for two years — ever since that hard hit at the King Dome — he'd been playing with a broken neck. He'd need surgery to repair it.
"I've probably spent $600,000 of my own money on operations. I’ve had 13 surgeries. I’ve had a disc fused in my neck, three in my low back, two artificial hips. I just had my arm operated on six months ago. The NFL hasn’t paid for anything. $600,000 — that's, back then, that’s what an all-pro nose tackle could make in about a six-year span. So I spent all my money and more on my injuries."
Something Not Quite Right
Dave spent 25 years fighting the NFL over disability benefits. The league finally paid up. He was also the face of a 2008 class action lawsuit against the Players' Association. A jury ruled that players who retired before 1993 had not been fairly represented.
Those players, Dave says, still don't get medical benefits from the league. They don't even get a cost-of-living increase in their pension.
"If you’re pre-1993, you got virtually nothing," he says.
But then he pauses, confused.
"I lost track of where I was gonna go. I just — you know, I do that sometimes. I’m talking and then all of a sudden I just forget where I’m at, and then I gotta wait to kinda get back on track."
"I wish he hadn't played football," Heidi says. "As time’s gone on, he’s very forgetful. And it’s frustrating because he remembers something, and I’ll say, ‘Nope, that’s not the way it was.’ Or I’ll say something, he’ll say, ‘That never happened.’ I mean, it’s kind of tough. But we all know where it comes from. But it doesn’t make it any easier."
The "it" Heidi refers to started 15 years ago when Dave was in his 40s.
"I detected there was something wrong with Dave. I knew it wasn’t who he was. I knew there was something — there was something wrong. This just isn’t right. It took years for us to get to the bottom of it, and then when they started talking about the effects of head injuries and concussion syndrome and all that, then it all started making sense."
Eventually, Heidi says, Dave was diagnosed with dementia. But even with a mind that is slowly crumbling, Pear hopes he can pass on the lessons he's learned to the next generation.
"I mean, what I tell ‘em is, ‘Hey, look, save your money, because you’re gonna need every penny of it. And the NFL says they’re family? They’re not family. If you’re injured, then the game turns on ya, and you become a stepchild.' It’s a violent, aggressive, kill-or-be-killed game.
"You can have a little short-term notoriety, maybe, if you’re good enough. But it just wasn’t worth it to me. It just was not worth it. All those diamonds on my Super Bowl ring, they just don’t glitter anymore."
This segment aired on February 6, 2016.