How Jim Kiick Fell Through the Cracks

4:55 | NFL
A legend, searching for answers
Tuesday May 9th, 2017

By S.L. Price

This is the second of two stories on former members of the ’70s Dolphins Super Bowl teams who are confronting the cognitive and physical effects of a life in football. Read Scott Price’s story on Nick Buoniconti here.

If this were the typical comeback tale, Allie Kiick’s plague years would be all behind her. She’s been hitting tennis balls for a month now, and this spring she’s scheduled to play her first pro tournament since 2015. Given a few wins, a few painless months, the 21-year old South Florida native could then speak of her career-devastating ailments in the past tense, and the usual narrative would take hold. As in, she “overcame” mononucleosis and two surgeries on each knee, and “beat” stage I melanoma. As in, that chapter is done.

Allie, Jim and Austin Kiick.
Courtesy of Allie Kiick

But it’s not. Because Kiick, who reached a career-high WTA ranking of 136 in 2014, hasn’t spent the ensuing years contending solely with her own medical issues. She has also had to withstand the mental demise of her father, former Miami Dolphins halfback Jim Kiick, 70, who after years of erratic behavior and squalid living was placed in a South Florida assisted living facility in July 2016. And that experience hardly lends itself to tidy closure.

“It’s been devastating,” Allie says. “When I do something great—which, back in the day, he’d be just so proud about—I don’t even bother calling after. And when I do call to check up on him, he calls me—I kid you not—probably 30, 40 times after if I don’t pick up the phone. He just keeps calling and calling and calling, to the point where, at night, I actually have to block him from my phone because he’ll call at 3 in the morning. He just doesn’t know any better.

“When people ask how is he doing—because of the NFL [concussion] lawsuit—I just say, ‘He’s fine.’ But I tell my close friends, ‘I lost my dad at 21 years old.’ I love him to death, and I’m so proud of him and everything he’s accomplished—and I just wanted him to be really proud of me, too. But he just won’t ever understand, I guess.”

* * *

Both Austin Kiick, Jim’s son and the point man for his father’s care, and Jim Kiick himself confirm that Jim has registered for a payout from the NFL’s $1 billion concussion settlement. Following its formula, Austin says, his father’s diagnosis of dementia/early-onset Alzheimer’s disease could result in a payout as high as $620,000. But the Kiick family’s eight-year journey to a resolution has been confusing, costly and representative of the many retired players who are traversing the league’s still-evolving landscape of football and traumatic brain injury.

“It’s been a very disappointing process to go through—to even get some kind of information,” says Austin Kiick, 28, of his dealings with the NFL. “You get bounced around to different people, and nobody knows what’s going on or who you can contact, and they say they’ll get back to you and never do. I didn’t expect how harsh it would be. I figured I’d be dealing with a huge organization—$14 billion a year and they were non-profit, mind you—basically fighting city hall. But I didn’t think it would be as difficult as it has been.”

Kiick scored the only rushing touchdown for Miami in Super Bowl VII, the victory that capped the Dolphins’ perfect season.
Kidwiler Collection/Diamond Images/Getty Images

Unlike Nick Buoniconti, his teammate on the 1972 Dolphins’ Perfect Team and who now is showing signs of cognitive impairment, Kiick never generated the kind of wealth necessary for in-home assistance, a personal driver, experimental tests or instantaneous access to top-line medical care. As a rookie, Jim made $17,600. His richest payday, in the mid-’70s with the World Football League, guaranteed $700,000 over three years. Divorced from Allie and Austin’s mother, Mary, since 2000, Jim lived alone in Davie, Fla.—i.e., with no on-site partner to gauge his symptoms, track medical appointments or monitor his use of pain-killers and prescription medications. And solitude was never his strong suit.

Indeed, in a game built upon the exploits of individual stars, Kiick is one of the few famous names in NFL history forever joined with another. For his first four years with the Dolphins, he and fullback Larry Csonka proved so inseparable—jovially sharing hotel rooms, drinks, wins and even contract holdouts—that dubbing the duo with the prototypical buddy-movie nickname, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” seemed only right. Then, during Miami’s undefeated run in ’72, Kiick was forced to share playing time—and his place in history—with the speedier Mercury Morris. When, in 1974, Kiick, Csonka and Dolphins receiver Paul Warfield shocked the NFL by together announcing that they were defecting to the startup WFL, that, too, felt apt. Kiick’s whole career was a package deal.

“People don’t know what we’re going through,” says Allie. “For the past four or five years, I really haven’t had a father.”

Of course, the punishment he took in football was his alone. The son of Pittsburgh Steelers fullback and World War II Silver Star honoree George Kiick, Jim missed just one game in his nine-year pro career. Wielding a Swiss Army skill set that was easy to praise but harder to value, he combined for 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in each of his first four seasons, and played one Sunday despite a hip pointer, a pulled ankle tendon, a punctured elbow, a crushed big toe and a broken finger. Kiick was so tough and skilled a blocker, in fact, that Dolphins coach Don Shula reversed backfield logic and often sent the 5'11" Kiick to clear a path—like a Jeep before a Sherman tank—for the burlier, 6’4” Csonka.

Dolphins stars Warfield, Kiick and Csonka shocked the NFL in 1974 by signing with the upstart World Football League.
Erin Combs/Toronto Star via Getty Images

“I had many, many discussions with Coach Shula, arguing, ‘I don’t understand why a guy at 215 is blocking for a guy at 240,’ ” says Jim Kiick, whose long-term memory remains fairly sound. “He gave me a dirty look and said, ‘Just get back in there.’

“I got dizzy, got dinged a few times. You’d come to the sidelines and they’d ask, ‘How many fingers have I got up?’ And you’d say four or three or whatever, and they’d say, ‘Close enough.’ We were playing because we enjoyed the game. We were too naïve to realize that, in the future years, this could affect us, our life, the brains. We just went back in and got dinged again.”

* * *

Kiick’s what-the-hell attitude—capped, back in the day, by tumbleweed hair and a cowpoke mustache—is one reason he remains beloved in South Florida. Another is that, after being supplanted by Morris, he still provided the winning margins that sealed the Perfect Season in ’72, scoring Miami’s sole rushing touchdowns in the two playoff games and Super Bowl VII. After that, anticlimax: The WFL quickly folded, a two-year NFL comeback dribbled away, his first marriage crumbled.

After returning to Fort Lauderdale, Kiick drifted through promotional work, tried representing players, ran through much of his football earnings, got married again—to Mary, 17 years his junior, in 1986—and had Austin. In 1989, Jim finally settled into his second act, as an investigator for the Broward County public defender’s office. After he and Mary split, she got remarried, to physician Curtis Johnson, who raised Austin and Allie as his own, bankrolling Allie’s burgeoning tennis career.

Allie Kiick has been trying to restart her tennis career after a string of physical setbacks.
EPA/Miguel Sierra/Landov

Jim stayed on the edges, unschooled in tennis’s quieter mores, nervous and loud. He groaned audibly when Allie played, yelled instructions or worse. (“I can’t believe I’m paying for tennis lessons,” Allie once heard him say as she was double-faulting away a match, “when she can’t even make a serve!”) By the time she won the Orange Bowl 16-and-under title in 2010, Allie had all but banished her dad from the stands.

“Oh, God,” she says. “We argued all the time in tennis. He would say something and it would make me mad so I’d say something back, which would made him mad; it was just a vicious cycle the entire match. He had that football mentality, and I’m this 13-, 14-year-old who’s losing, and I’ve got his temper, unfortunately. I’m just like him in every way.”

She also picked up on the tennis scuttlebutt: People figured that having a pro football star for a dad meant plenty of funds, an enviable support system. They didn’t know the reality. “People have no idea what we’re going through with my dad,” she says. “For the past four or five years, I really haven’t had a father.”

That’s a big reason why, when American pro Nicole Gibbs tweeted out last September, “cannot stand watching these guys bash their brains on the field. Love football but at what point is the cost not worth it,” Allie decided to go public with her father’s travails.

“Coming from a daughter of a former football player who suffers from dementia and is deteriorating,” Allie tweeted, “It’s not worth it.”

Austin first noticed a change eight years ago. A 2007 graduate of St. Thomas Aquinas High in Fort Lauderdale, where he played defensive back, he had been living off and on with Jim—then 62, and all his life a neat-freak—in Davie. The cramped apartment grew shabbier. Appointments went unkept; Jim’s personal hygiene dissolved. Austin drove him to doctor’s appointments, set up his daily pills for irregular heartbeat, blood thinners, but soon noticed that the meds were disappearing too fast.

Then there was the time Jim left his 16-year-old daughter in a Barnes & Noble and never came back. By the time he called Mary to ask “Do you know where Allie is?” Jim had forgotten altogether that she was staying with him. Though divorced, Jim and Mary, a former top-line softball player and retired pharmaceutical representative, had remained on decent terms, and she and her second husband began keeping closer tabs on her first. Johnson recommended a neurologist; in 2011, after a battery of MRIs and CT scans revealed brain lesions, Kiick was diagnosed with dementia/early-onset Alzheimer’s and suspected chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE, for now, can only be diagnosed with certainty posthumously; it has been found in numerous deceased NFL players).

Austin’s drop-bys kept expanding; by 22 he had stopped working, dropped out of college, to become his dad’s caretaker. He suffered anxiety attacks and depression. “I kept trying to hide it from the world,” Austin says. “He was my hero, my idol. I played football because of him.”

Money issues didn’t help. Together Kiick’s monthly pension from the NFL ($1,800) and the State of Florida added up to $3,150, and after age 65 he received Medicare. But rent was $1,250, and Austin and Mary say a girlfriend of Jim’s drained some $12,000 out of his savings. Kiick’s Perfect Season ring went missing. Mail from collection agencies kept mounting; Austin tapped his grandmother and other relatives for funds. Jim’s ankles ballooned from congestive heart failure, and he was eating Advil like jelly beans because he kept forgetting that he’d just taken them. Austin would throw out the bottle, and the next day there’d be another in its place, two-thirds full.

Kiick carrying the ball in a celebrity game at the final event in the Orange Bowl, 2008.
Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images

The NFL and the Players Association do have numerous outreach programs for former players. A foundation called NFL Player Care was set up in 2007 to provide financial assistance and health care; according to Belinda Lerner, NFL Player Care foundation executive director, it has funneled more than $12 million to 980 former players in financial need and contributed $6.6 million to medical research studies. In 2010 the NFL added a neurological care program to evaluate and treat “possible” conditions for vested retirees. Problem is, Jim knew none of that—and Austin was flying blind.

“I’ve had zero contact with the NFLPA,” he says. “As far as speaking direct to an NFL employee, that has not happened.”

“There is help out there,” says Merle Wilcox, one of the NFL wives and widows who in 2015 signed a public letter holding the NFL responsible for “the deplorable living conditions” of many retirees who played before 1993. “You just have to go through all these hoops and figure it out. But that’s just it: They shouldn’t have to go through hoops to get it figured out.”

With an estimated 20,000 NFL alumni scattered nationwide—some off the grid and some like Kiick, whose mailings from the NFL often went unopened or got buried beneath his home’s expanding disarray—it’s easy to see how ex-players can fall through the cracks. “This is a challenge we recognize, and we’ve been trying to deal with it,” Lerner says. “But we do try to tell them. We have had websites available to provide them with whatever benefits they have, with descriptions of how they work. But recognizing that often doesn’t always happen, we’re trying to use more methods to do better outreach and simplify the process so that players will be able access it and it won’t seem so overwhelming.”

“He has holes in his brain,” says Ross, the NFL-approved neurologist who studied Kiick. “There’s no question that he suffered significant brain trauma.”

Finally Mary did some research. In 2012 she called Nat Moore, Jim’s ex-teammate and now a Dolphins vice-president in charge of alumni relations, to inquire about the “88 Plan”—founded in 2007 and jointly run by the NFL and the Players Association—which provided up to $50,000 for in-home care and $88,000 for institutional care annually (since raised to $118,000 and $130,000, respectively) for ex-players afflicted with dementia, ALS or Parkinson’s. Austin, now vested with Jim’s power of attorney, had had no idea about the program. He gathered all of his father’s test results, filled out the paperwork and filed. Six months passed, and the claim was rejected: Kiick had not been evaluated by a NFL-approved neurologist.

Austin tried arguing, hired a lawyer to appeal and sent Jim to a neurologist on the NFL list, Dr. David B. Ross, medical director of the Comprehensive Neurobehavioral Institute in Plantation, Fla. His diagnosis: Near definite CTE, leading to dementia, “with probable Alzheimer's variant”—i.e., a form of Alzheimer’s likely caused by CTE due to countless blows to the head.

“His imaging tests show that he’s suffered concussion trauma,” Ross says. “I’ve dealt with a few football players and other sports people, and most of the time you don’t see clear evidence of traumatic brain injury because it’s usually microscopic. Jim actually had signs of contusion: bruises. You can see it clearly: It’s called ‘encephalomalacia’—wasting or hardening; there are areas of the brain where there are gaps, and that’s where a specific brain injury occurred. It’s the stuff you see after significant localized head trauma or stroke.

“He has holes in his brain. Earlier in his career he had enough impact that he had bruises on his brain that left scars and holes. So there’s no question that he suffered significant brain trauma. This is more than Alzheimer’s. This is more than frontal-lobe dementia, Parkinson’s dementia. This is more than infection. He had brain trauma, and that’s unequivocal.”

Austin re-filed for the 88 Plan and, after another six months, in late 2013 received approval. The NFL would have reimbursed the family retroactively, but Austin hadn’t kept the required paperwork and receipts. The Kiicks got a small amount of money back for some prescriptions, but thousands of dollars in medical bills and attorneys’ fees over the previous two years were gone.

* * *

Allie had been absent for months, then, as she rose in the tennis rankings; after her return from Europe in the summer of 2014 she was stunned by her dad’s decline. “I just remember seeing the biggest change in him,” she says. “He just acts like a kid, in every way now—not taking care of himself. We tell him what to do and he listens, but he was pooping his pants, all that stuff. So I—literally—mean that he had turned into a kid.”

And their troubles were hardly over. Austin tried handling Jim’s care himself; it seemed impossible that an in-home nurse would work in the moldy horror of Jim’s apartment. Then Jim overdosed on Coumadin, his blood thinner medication, and in mid-2015 Austin waved the white flag. Mary’s mother fronted a $2,500 deposit for a spot for Jim in a soon-to-open assisted care facility. Construction delays pushed the opening into 2016, and by then Jim was constantly losing his ATM cards, demanding odd repairs to his car. Tipped off, state health officials inspected his apartment, declared it unlivable—and Jim too unstable to live alone.

But the new facility still hadn’t opened, so Austin kept stalling. Jim got worse. In July 2016, heart failure sent him to the hospital; a social worker refused to let him return to his apartment’s sty-like conditions. Mary worked a connection at another assisted living facility, and after two weeks there of phoning his kids, begging to be taken out of the place, Jim forgot his old home. Ross is trying to get Kiick qualified for a federally funded brain study program in Fort Lauderdale.

Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick, photographed for Sports Illustrated in 2002.
Michael O'Neill for Sports Illustrated

Allie says her father doesn’t know he has dementia. Visitors—Mercury Morris has been by—say that he has good days and bad. During an April phone call, Kiick said, “I have no problem, fortunately. I still go to the gym three times a week, and my memory’s fine.” He couldn’t say, however, who put him in the facility or why he was there, or recall the name of Allie’s coach of six years, Harold Solomon.

“It’s ironic: Me playing football that long and never having problems with my knees and she’s had operations on both knees,” he said. “She was out for a while, and now she’s back training. I always believed pain was just something in your head.”

Overall her dad seems happier now, though each visit produces new obsessions. Sometimes it’s the phone, or his Super Bowl rings, or food. “He’s put on a lot of weight because he eats and then forgets that he ate,” Allie says. “He’ll say, ‘I’m starving, I never eat, they never feed me. …’ He’ll just be done with his meal—and full—but literally every minute, he’ll say that he’s hungry—the whole time that you stay with him.”

It isn’t easy, in moments like that, to recall good times. Allie has one: She was six, playing in a game of flag football, and flung a pass so far, so perfectly, that Jim couldn’t stop crowing. But in truth there’s no need to go back that far. Solomon calls Allie “Jim” whenever her temper flares, and she pretends to dislike it but doesn’t. Because then he’s right there with her. Because maybe her dad’s legacy should be a fresh bit of rage.

Retired NFL Players seeking guidance on benefits, disability, medical resources, grants, and outreach programs like the 88 Plan can call 1-800-635-4625 or go to www.mygoalline.com.

Question or comment? Email us at talback@themmqb.com.

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