'Permanently disabled', Harrison fighting for benefits NFL took away

Wednesday January 29th, 2014
Dwight Harrison played 10 years in the NFL and now suffers from dementia, but he has been repeatedly denied benefits from the NFL that he feels he deserves.
AP

Harrison's current lawyer, Jeffrey Dahl, argues that the trustees had no legal right to touch Harrison's pension, and he is fighting to have it restored. But attorneys for the retirement plan wrote in a court filing last summer that Harrison has "unquestionably already received more than his fair share of benefits." They also wrote: "Harrison's first lawsuit against the Plan nearly 20 years ago exposed him as a fraud."

A fraud?

Dwight Harrison?

"I'm not a doctor," Harrison says. "If you're going to accuse anybody of fraud, charge them, not me."

Yes, the doctors. Harrison gave me access to his medical records but asked me not to quote them directly out of respect for his privacy. They tell a thorough and heartbreaking version of the horror story you have heard about other retired NFL players: post-concussion syndrome, memory loss and ... well, one thing Harrison still has left is pride. He asked me not to go into detail. But I can say this: The records are extremely detailed, and they are painful to read.

The trustees have decided that when several doctors diagnose a man with mental problems, including memory loss, and that man misses a few appointments, he is a "fraud" who doesn't deserve any benefits or his pension. And if that man has dementia now, he should apply for benefits elsewhere.
 

Six doctors have reached the same conclusion about Harrison, independent of each other. The first was in 1993. The most recent was in 2008. And in some cases, the doctor was a neutral psychologist chosen with the approval of the trustees.

Also, in 2008, the Social Security Administration confirmed their findings and said his condition was "due to head injury."

It's a pretty convincing case ... unless you really, really don't want to be convinced.

*****

So what is the NFL's response to all this? Well, Mike Miller, the Director of NFL Player Benefits, did not return several calls. The three current league-appointed trustees (executives Ted Phillips of the Bears, Dick Cass of the Ravens, and Katie Blackburn of the Bengals) referred me to the Groom Law Group, counsel to the plan.

Doug Ell, an attorney with Groom, repeated via email his contention that the plan "has been subjected to both fraud and frivolous litigation by Mr. Harrison."

I asked Ell about the six doctors who have examined Harrison, including at least one who was appointed by the league. Did Harrison dupe them?

Ell's response: "I do not know what doctor reports you refer to, when they were written, or what they say."

I sent Ell a 45-page file of medical records -- which, of course, has been in the record of the case. I asked again if he thinks Harrison duped the doctors.

In his response, Ell did not answer that question or even acknowledge the medical records. Instead, he wrote that Harrison lost benefits because he did not take a medical exam.

"Mr. Harrison was explicitly and repeatedly warned of it, and a federal judge even ordered him to attend, and he refused to do so," Ell wrote.

Ell also wrote: "There is a very generous benefit plan for former NFL Players who have dementia. It is called the '88 Plan. You might encourage Mr. Harrison to seek those benefits."

Why would Ell suggest that Harrison apply for the '88 plan, when his firm has argued in court filings, for many years, that Harrison does not have dementia?

Ell's response: "I do not know whether Mr. Harrison currently has dementia. If he does, there are generous benefits. I do not understand why he would not seek those benefits if he does have dementia."

Dahl, Harrison's lawyer, is skeptical about getting '88 Plan benefits, because the trustees have declared he is no longer a participant in the NFL retirement plan.

To sum up: The trustees have decided that when several doctors diagnose a man with mental problems, including memory loss, and that man misses a few appointments, he is a "fraud" who doesn't deserve any benefits or his pension. And if that man has dementia now, he should apply for benefits elsewhere. After all, the trustees are tired of his "frivolous" actions.

The trustees convinced courts they were right, but Harrison was severely under-lawyered. They have taken a few anecdotes about Harrison trying to conduct business, meeting with college teammates and failing to show up for doctor's exams and court appointments, and used them to punish him for two decades.

*****

How do you measure what is left of a broken man?

Harrison's memories are scattered like leaves on a windy day. He recalls watching game film as a player and not remembering that he played in the game. Sometimes he does not even remember all of his injuries.

Harrison was 44 when this fight began. He is 65 now. His battle for benefits has lasted twice as long as his NFL career. He could have lived a more comfortable life, with better medical care, if the NFL had not cut off the payments he deserved.

For Harrison, the pain cuts deeper than the money he lost. The trustees have essentially told him that his life did not happen the way he says it happened.

"They've got it in there that I am a fraudulent person," he says, and is there a worse charge than that?

"Why?" Harrison asked me. "Why in the world are they treating us so bad? You are dealing with some evil people."

He knows that his only hope is through the legal system. But he is worried about showing up in court and hearing the trustees and their lawyers call him a fraud.

"I don't know if I could take it," he says. "You ruined my life."

I didn't realize it when I called, but this story will remove another piece of Dwight Harrison. The stress of defending himself overwhelmed him.

"I'm not going to give another interview," he said. "It was just too much."

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