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A Matter of Heart
Carolyne Zinko | Photo: Shaughn and John | November 29, 2018
Former San Francisco 49ers players share a compassionate side with teammates who've fallen on hard times.
No matter where football fans are watching a game on any given Sunday, their sights are trained on the teams battling on the field.
But a small group of former San Francisco 49ers are focusing on their retired teammates off the field—one-time greats who not only can no longer play, but are in dire straits in their post-NFL careers because of near-bankruptcy, depression or even homelessness.
The do-gooders—Super Bowl veterans Ronnie Lott, Ron Ferrari, Keena Turner, Brent Jones, Harris Barton and Roger Craig among them—came together a little over a year ago to create and participate in the Golden Heart Fund, a nonprofit that assists 49er alumni with emotional, financial and physical support. “But for the grace of God, they could be helping me—this whole thing could be flipped around in a second,” says Ferrari, 59, a linebacker who played for the 49ers from 1982-86 and is president of the board of the Golden Heart Fund.
The fund was kick-started with seven-figure donations by team CEO Jed York and former team owner Eddie DeBartolo, and gets its name from the compassionate atmosphere that DeBartolo cultivated during his tenure. The team’s players, notes Craig, a 49ers running back from 1983-90, were encouraged by their late coach, Bill Walsh, to think of themselves as extensions of one another on the field and to play with “one heartbeat,” something the team chanted as they ran through the tunnel and onto the field on game days. “One heartbeat means we’re all one group, one unit,” Craig recalls. “The timing has to be right—we can’t have skips in the heartbeat; we’ve got to be one heartbeat or we can’t win.” The metaphor resonates today, albeit with new meaning for the Golden Heart Fund.
It’s jarring, perhaps, to think of a pro athlete in need of assistance when sports headlines trumpet multimillion-dollar contracts and lucrative endorsement deals, and harder still to be sympathetic to those who’ve had trouble navigating difficult choices. The fund’s website notes the average NFL career lasts just three years and puts the average retirement age in the early 30s. A 2009 Sports Illustrated study quoted on the website states that “78 percent of NFL retirees have gone bankrupt or are under financial stress due to joblessness or divorce within two years of their career ending.” Ferrari, now a senior wealth adviser in San Diego, says that the vast majority of players do fine. “They reposition, relaunch their career, and get off and going,” he says. “Some are wildly successful; some are in service careers helping others. But there isn’t any family in America or an extended family that hasn’t had one or two of their family members struggling over something. And in our family, the NFL family, we have some family members that are struggling, and we come in and come alongside.” The nonprofit has paid for funerals, medical operations for life-threatening conditions and car repairs, and covered rent during hiccups in income flow. The average is about $4,000 per grant. Board members have also assisted with résumé-building and provided contacts for job interviews.
To understand how they came to need such help, consider that football players often take up the sport as children and play through high school and college. At the pro level, they earn large salaries and leave their finances to managers. Their lives have been set up for plan A, a long-running football career. Not all of them have a formal plan B for transitioning into what players call “civilian life.” Golden Heart’s website notes that many have made risky financial decisions based on input from friends, family, teammates and managers. Stepping into the next act in life, they’re late to the job market by the time others their age have well-established careers. The NFL has assistance programs for players in need, but they come with limits and complications. The Golden Heart Fund provides an extra avenue of support specifically for 49er alumni.
For that, Lynn Thomas is grateful. Thomas, now 59, went to the 49ers in the 1980 draft from the University of Pittsburgh and played for two seasons. In Super Bowl XVI at the Pontiac Silverdome, he played alongside Lott, cornerback Eric Wright and safety Carlton Williamson, and the 49ers defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 26 to 21. Thomas was young and, because of drug use, was released from the team, he recalls in a phone chat from his home in Mississippi. He then tried his hand in the U.S. Football League before going home to Mississippi. He continued to use and deal cocaine, and it caught up with him. He served 3 1⁄2 years of a 7-year sentence for drug charges, he says, and met his wife while engaged in a public speaking program that sent inmates to schools to discourage students from using drugs. To make a living, he turned to construction and also assisted with cleanup of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He believes the health problems he later developed, including a diagnosis of bacteria in his blood, caused severe vascular disease that led to the amputation of his left leg in March and his right leg a month later. In October, after a year of difficulty breathing, he had a defibrillator implanted in his heart. Thomas learned of the Golden Heart Fund through longtime friend Williamson and is receiving financial help with rent and utilities. Now in a wheelchair, Thomas hopes to be walking with prosthetics after his surgical wounds have healed. He has nothing but praise for DeBartolo, the Yorks and his former teammates, and urges others who need help to forget their pride and reach out. “If you fall down, you can always get up,” Thomas says. “You’re not going to be the first person who fell down in life, and you’re not going to be the last. Keep your faith.”
For another alumni assisted by the fund (who asked to remain anonymous), it was career-ending knee injury after eight seasons that caused a downward spiral. His marriage ended a year after he left the league and he waited by the phone for four years, hoping to be signed by another team. When he realized his career was over, it was like a part of him had died. “It’s a big blow to your identity,” he explains. “It was like, ‘Am I a failure now?’ I was only 28, 29. I had basically peaked in my life.” He turned to tech sales, public speaking and then broadcasting to make ends meet. But when his first paycheck was garnished by the IRS, he knew he was in trouble. He’d lapsed for more than a decade on his income taxes, details managed during his career by an accountant. With the nonprofit’s help, he secured a tax attorney, was advised to generate new income by renting part of his home through Airbnb and is now on sounder financial footing. “Where would I be without them? In hiding,” he says. “It’s like going to your big brother and saying, ‘Hey, bro, I’ve screwed up—can you give me some help?’ You feel more comfortable because you feel like you’re talking to family, to people you’ve played with through blood and sweat.”
Also benefiting is Dean Moore, 63, who was a 49ers linebacker for one season, in 1978, and later played in the USFL. He spent a decade as a bank loan officer before founding a janitorial maintenance company with 72 employees across Northern California. The company became too much to handle when he and his wife developed acute health problems, and, for a time, the couple and their two daughters lived out of the family car. His wife’s lupus required multiple joint replacement surgeries, while Moore was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and underwent a heart transplant in 2001. He’s been on disability ever since and requires dialysis for kidney damage, a side effect of his transplant anti-rejection drugs. He’s had a brain scan, he says, noting he’s become forgetful and is worried about dementia. “You go to the store to get something,” he says, “and you forget where the store is.” (The NFL agreed in 2017 to a $1 billion concussion settlement in a class action suit brought by players who accused the league of hiding what it knew about the risks of repeated concussions.) Friend and former 49er Bubba Paris alerted Moore to the Golden Heart Fund, which helped with deposit and first month’s rent on a home in Tracy. “It’s one of the hardest things for me to do, to ask them and have them know I’m struggling,” Moore said by phone. “The way we treat each other as a family, you pray that everyone is doing well.”
Obviously, some do make the real-world transition successfully, like Ferrari, and Craig, 59, who is vice president of business development at Palo Alto’s TIBCO software. Turner, now 60, spent his 11-year career at the 49ers as a linebacker and is vice president of football affairs for the team. Lott, a defensive back for the 49ers from 1981-90, co-founded an investment firm and owns two auto dealerships. But it’s with a sense of humility, not self-aggrandizement, that the four agreed to a photo shoot at Levi’s Stadium and repeatedly requested that the emphasis be on the nonprofit and not themselves. Craig, who organized a November fun run for the fund, hopes that other teams will follow the fund’s lead. Turner deflected a question about his personal efforts. “I don’t know if it’s important, what I’ve done individually,” he says when the picture-taking is over. “I’m extremely proud of all the folks involved. It’s nice to see teammates helping teammates.” Ditto for Lott. “There are moments in people’s lives when they’re trying to find direction, and people get lost—then what do you do?” he asks. “A lot of us in our lives decide not to do anything. We’ve chosen to be proactive, to be a group of people who felt it’s our duty, it’s our responsibility, to find a way to help our guys— the people we played with, people who have been associated with the 49ers, to make sure that we give them a hand up in life.”
Donors at any level, even the minimum $49, receive a heart pin as a symbol of their efforts. Ferrari notes the Golden Heart Fund was the favorite charity of late receiver Dwight Clark, who died in June after a battle with ALS. “If you enjoyed the era and found it inspiring, you have a chance to honor a few of these guys who have wind in their face right now,” Ferrari says. “You can do that by going to the goldenheartfund. org and being a part of the team.”