Culverhouse has unfinished business
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TAMPA, Fla. -- Gay Culverhouse doesn't look sick as she walks briskly through the lobby of a hotel on the outskirts of Tampa. Bound for a meeting with retired NFL players, the only outward sign the 63-year-old-former Tampa Bay Buccaneers president might be out of sorts is the down vest she wears over her blouse. It's unseasonably cool outside on this February day in Tampa, but Culverhouse keeps the added layer of clothing on while she's inside, as well. If she gets too cold, she says, her red blood cells will die, starving her body of oxygen.
Culverhouse explains that she has myelofibrosis, a painful bone-marrow disorder that leaves her severely anemic. She takes a cocktail of drugs, including anabolic steroids, and weekly injections designed to trick her body into making blood. By her own admission, she's living "on borrowed time."
"I have outlived my life expectancy right now by two years," Culverhouse says when asked about her medical condition in a recent interview with ESPN. "The life expectancy is five years from day of diagnosis. I've made seven."
Culverhouse is greeted warmly as she steps inside the hotel conference room to meet about 50 retired NFL players. Former Bucs quarterback Doug Williams, tight end Jimmie Giles, linebacker David Lewis and defensive back Ricky Reynolds are among those in the crowd who have come to hear Culverhouse spell out details of her most recent cause: a players' outreach program, in her name, that will pay for medical care and legal assistance for retired players in need.
"Without you, there would be no National Football League as we know it today," Culverhouse says. "It's only fair that we find a way to give back to all the retired players who now have needs."
Through her nonprofit Gay Culverhouse Players' Outreach Program, which until now she's funded with hundreds of thousands of dollars of her own money, Culverhouse has paid for medical exams for more than two dozen retired players. Her staffers also have assisted retired players with paperwork in an effort to help them cut through the red tape they say they often encounter from the review board that makes decisions on benefits sponsored by the league and players' union.
The former players in attendance, many of whom haven't seen Culverhouse in years, are, in most cases, aware of her terminal illness.
"I think that's why it's even more remarkable," says Lewis. "But that's been Gay since I've known her in '77. She's always been that fireplug."
"It was actually exciting to see someone in management to step up for the players because you won't see that very often," says Reynolds, now the president of the Tampa chapter of retired NFL players.
Culverhouse didn't exactly fit the mold of the NFL front office when she became president of the Buccaneers in 1991.
"Dad said very clearly, 'I want someone from the family watching my money,'" Culverhouse says, reflecting on the decision by her father to name her team president.
She's well aware of the reputation of her infamously frugal father, Hugh Culverhouse, whose memory still elicits negative reactions from the men who played for the Buccaneers during his ownership of the team. Hugh died in August 1994, and the team was sold by his estate a year later to Malcolm Glazer for a then-record $192 million.
But the Culverhouse name still casts a long shadow over a franchise that struggled to reach the playoffs for years after its inception in 1976.
"Perception and image is everything," says James Harrell, a linebacker who played seven years for the Detroit Lions and Kansas City Chiefs before returning to his native Tampa to coach high school football.
"When Hugh Culverhouse owned the team, the perception wasn't good in the community," Harrell said. "I think the way he handled Doug Williams was the biggest eyesore in the community at that time."
Williams, now the Buccaneers' director of pro personnel, declined to comment to ESPN for this story. His contract dispute with Hugh Culverhouse after the 1982 season, perhaps more than any other incident, helped galvanize public opinion in the Tampa Bay area. At the time Williams was paid $120,000 a year, a salary that ranked him behind every other NFL starting quarterback and many of the backups. When Culverhouse refused to meet Williams' demand for $600,000 a season, Williams left for the USFL. The Buccaneers didn't make the playoffs for the next 13 years.
"It's a cutthroat business," Gay Culverhouse says, reflecting on her father's fierce attention to the bottom line.
"The players are, were and will remain disposable. The bottom line will always rule the owners' decisions," Culverhouse says, insisting the same attitude persists today in NFL front offices.
When asked if she is somehow paying for her father's unpopular decisions through the work of her recently created outreach program, Culverhouse, who earned her doctorate from Columbia in special education, points out that helping people has always been her chosen profession.
"My father has to answer on his own merit," Culverhouse says. "No one can make up for someone else's mistakes."
At the time of her father's death, Culverhouse remained one of the highest-profile business leaders in the Tampa Bay area. But she dropped out of the public eye for years after she learned in early 1995 that she and her daughter were the targets of a failed kidnapping plot. Culverhouse left Florida, and to this day remains intensely protective of her private life.
Culverhouse's decision to take up the cause of retired NFL players came after the May 2008 death of former Buccaneers lineman Tom McHale from an accidental drug overdose. McHale was just 45, but his brain, researchers later found, was marked by signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurological disease common in boxers, which frequently leads to the early onset of dementia.
"I became very concerned and started looking more thoroughly into concussions," Culverhouse says. "And I thought, 'I've got to do something. I can't let this fester.'"
With the help of longtime friend Mitchell Welch, who serves as her point man on player outreach, Culverhouse began identifying former players who'd slipped through the cracks of the NFL's disability system, telling them "the NFL is not calling to check on you, so we've taken it upon ourselves to fill in that gap."
Welch recently tracked down Jerry Eckwood at an assisted living facility outside Nashville, Tenn. A popular running back for the Buccaneers in the early '80s, Eckwood, 55, was receiving care for dementia and living on nearly $20,000 a year in Social Security benefits when Welch made him aware of the NFL's "88 Plan," which provides retired players, who suffer from dementia, up to $88,000 a year in benefits.
With Welch's help and Culverhouse's financial assistance, Eckwood took the required medical exam. His "88 Plan" application is now pending, according to an NFL spokesman.
"Part of our challenge has been locating the retired players who need help. Gay Culverhouse's effort to help them is admirable," the NFL said in a statement when asked about the efforts of Culverhouse's non-profit organization.
Culverhouse insists Eckwood's case is just the beginning, and she's mindful of the fact her own health is declining.
"They did [blood] transfusions for a while, but I reached the point where I can no longer take transfusions," Culverhouse says.
"So now they give me a drug which tricks my body into producing blood. The problem is, I used to need a shot every eight weeks, then it was every six weeks, then it was every four weeks, then it was every three weeks. Now, it's every two weeks. My body is responding less and less well."
Culverhouse, who says she's "burning through her children's inheritance at a rapid rate" to fund her outreach program, insists she'll secure sponsors to keep the organization going even after her death.
When asked why she chose to adopt the cause of retired NFL players, given her own health problems, Culverhouse responds with characteristic bluntness: "Because it needs to be done. If not me, then who?"
John Barr is a reporter for ESPN's Enterprise Unit. His e-mail is email@example.com. ESPN producer Rayna Banks contributed to this story.