Search

HIGH COST OF GLORY

Nov. 14, 1994
Nov. 14, 1994

Table of Contents
Nov. 14, 1994

Spotlight
Reporter At Large
Skiing
College Football
Foreman-Moorer
Pro Football
Tennis
Football
Hockey
SI 40th Anniversary
Iooss
Curt Marsh
Focus
Weightlifting
Equestrian
Baseball

HIGH COST OF GLORY

Former Raider Curt Marsh lost his right foot to amputation, probably because of an injury misdiagnosed by a team doctor

It was still there. It had to be. He could feel it.

This is an article from the Nov. 14, 1994 issue Original Layout

Curt Marsh lay on his hospital bed with his eyes closed. He could feel the toes of his right foot pressing against the smooth, cool metal of the bed's guardrail. Maybe they didn't take it, he thought. Maybe the doctors had made a mistake. Though they had intended to amputate, perhaps they had found another way.

Marsh opened his eyes and looked down. Slowly, he lifted the sheet and strained to see the foot he swore he could feel. But it was gone.

He closed his eyes again, blinking back tears. It was over.

When he came out of the University of Washington in 1981, Marsh was one of the best offensive linemen in the country. He had been raised in Snohomish, Wash., and bulked up by tossing bales of hay for local farmers, who marveled at his strength. When Snohomish High won the state football championship in '76, townsfolk knew that much of the credit belonged to Marsh, who played both offensive and defensive tackle. Marsh was a four-year letterman and a major force on Washington's '78 and '81 Rose Bowl teams. By the end of his college career he stood 6'5", weighed 285 pounds and had a 52-inch chest. He was on every NFL team's wish list.

"He was the guy we wanted," says Tom Flores, a former Raider quarterback who coached the team from 1979 to '87 and is now coach of the Seattle Seahawks. "We liked his size, his thickness. Everything about him. We wanted him first and [future Hall of Fame defensive end] Howie Long second. That says a lot."

The Raiders made Marsh their first draft pick—the 23rd overall that year—and as a rookie, he lived up to his billing, starting at left guard for most of the season, opening up cavernous holes for Marcus Allen and earning a spot on the 1981 All-Rookie team. "He had the whole package," says former Raider linebacker Matt Millen. "If he had stayed healthy, he would have been All-Pro over and over and over."

But Marsh did not stay healthy. In fact, after his rookie season, injuries plagued him for much of the next six years, eventually forcing him out of the game in 1987. By the time Marsh finally called it quits, he had endured 12 operations, including four on his right ankle and right foot. He had also broken his right arm, his left hand and a finger, and he had torn a ligament in his left knee.

But Marsh's ordeal did not end with his retirement. For seven years thereafter, he was tormented by chronic pain, which numerous surgical procedures failed to alleviate. On Sept. 21 at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, Marsh underwent amputation of his right foot and the lower leg from eight inches below his knee.

According to Marsh, the Raiders have said that his use of muscle-building anabolic steroids was responsible for his injuries, that his muscles grew too large for his ligaments, tendons and bones to handle. And Marsh does not deny having used steroids. He says he first took them in 1980, before his senior year at Washington: three five-milligram tablets of the synthetic steroid Dianabol every day for a month. Marsh says that the next time he took steroids was in '82, when a doctor in San Francisco prescribed a once-a-month shot of one cubic centiliter of testosterone combined with one cubic centiliter of Deca-Durabolin, another synthetic steroid. He also prescribed 10 milligrams of yet another, Anavar, taken orally once a day. Marsh says he was on this program for two months.

From 1983 to '85, says Marsh, his steroid use was limited to a few pills and shots after injuries. "It would get me back quicker from surgery," he says, "but it was in very short little spurts."

Steroid use was hardly unknown around the NFL during the 1980s. "We knew the steroid guys," Millen says. "We knew [Pittsburgh Steeler guard] Steve Courson and [Raider defensive end] Lyle Alzado were the big users. It was obvious, their personality swings, their bodies. But Curt was never like that. He couldn't have been a big user. He was too even-keeled."

One observer who knows only too well the impact of steroid use is former team internist Robert Huizenga. "On the Lyle Alzado scale," says Huizenga, "[Marsh] was way, way low. Which was still way too high for me. It is possible that steroids may have contributed to some of the injuries he suffered."

But, says Huizenga, in no way can steroids be blamed for the manner in which Marsh's injuries, specifically those of his right ankle, were diagnosed and treated. "Curt Marsh was misdiagnosed and mistreated," says Huizenga. "There is no doubt in my mind about it."

And Huizenga places most of the blame on the Raiders' orthopedic surgeon, Robert Rosenfeld, who died last January of lung cancer.

Midway through training camp in the summer of 1986, Marsh suffered the injury that would ultimately lead to amputation. He doesn't recall exactly when or how it occurred, but he remembers looking at his ankle one day in camp and seeing that it had swollen to the size of a grapefruit. From the beginning, say Huizenga and Marsh, Rosenfeld stated that the pain in Marsh's ankle was caused by strained ligaments. Through two operations after the '86 season to remove bone chips from the ankle, Rosenfeld stuck to his diagnosis. Huizenga was present on one occasion when Rosenfeld examined Marsh. "He probed his fingers around the ankle a bit and reached his same conclusion," says Huizenga. "He never even suggested that something else might be wrong."

Yet a CAT scan would subsequently reveal that Marsh had broken the talus bone, which, with the tibia and the fibula, forms the ankle joint. Rosenfeld had never ordered either a CAT scan or an MRI, either of which would have been warranted for an injury as chronic as Marsh's. Marsh says his doctors now conclude that, based on the extent of the deterioration of the ankle, the bone may have been broken during training camp in 1986.

Despite repeated requests from SI, neither Raider owner Al Davis nor anyone else with the team would comment on Marsh's allegations concerning the treatment of his injuries. Nor would they comment on a book recently published by Huizenga, titled "You're Okay, It's Just a Bruise," which discusses Marsh's case and cites dozens of other examples of what Huizenga characterizes as improper medical treatment by Rosenfeld.

The Raiders' orthopedic surgeon since 1968, Rosenfeld also practiced at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles for 46 years, and his patients included many of the city's leading personalities. But, says Huizenga, Rosenfeld was proudest of his Raider affiliation, decorating his lavish Beverly Hills office with team memorabilia and photographs.

In 1983 Huizenga, who was an assistant clinical professor of medicine at UCLA, joined the Raiders at the invitation of Rosenfeld, who was 40 years his senior. Huizenga says that he and Rosenfeld were often at odds, but that he stayed with the team "to see what I could do to help from the inside. It was tough, it went against a lot of what I believe in as a doctor." Huizenga finally resigned in '89 after learning that Rosenfeld had refused to tell safety Mike Harden that another injury to his neck could cause paralysis. The Raiders say that Huizenga was fired, but they have never offered a reason for his dismissal.

"Rosenfeld was a sports-medicine institution in Los Angeles and in the country," Huizenga says. "And he was Al Davis's closest confidant. Rosenfeld understood perhaps best of all what Davis meant when he said, 'Just win, baby!' It meant. Do whatever it takes."

And that, Huizenga says, is what led Rosenfeld to give players diagnoses that he knew were incorrect and then pressure players into accepting those diagnoses. Injured Raiders were also discouraged from seeking second opinions and wound up playing when their bodies were screaming for treatment and rest. In his book Huizenga calls Rosenfeld a "horror surgeon" and blames Davis for abusing the trust that players placed in him.

Not everyone from those Raider days agrees with Huizenga. "I think it's wrong to attack another doctor who is now gone," says Flores, who says he hasn't read Huizenga's book and is unaware of any other charges of mistreatment regarding Marsh. "Dr. Rosenfeld was a friend; we obviously trusted him because he was with us so long." As a player, Flores was never treated by Rosenfeld.

For his part, Marsh points no fingers and has never seriously considered filing suit against the Raiders. He says he blames himself for buying into the notion of a Raider family and for believing that the team would safeguard his health. "The bottom line is, I should have gotten a second opinion," Marsh says. "But I trusted the Raiders. I did what the team wanted me to do. I played with injuries. And everyone encouraged me."

Marsh also blames himself for agreeing to an incentive clause in his 1986 contract that would pay him an extra $20,000 if he remained healthy through the first three games of the season. As it turned out, by the second game of the season, some six weeks after he injured his right ankle, it was clear that Marsh wasn't going to make Game 3. At Rosenfeld's suggestion, he says, he had been taking painkilling injections for the ankle since midway through training camp. "He'd shoot me before major practices and before the games," Marsh says. "I couldn't feel a thing. But afterward the pain in my ankle was unbelievable. I was in total agony until we'd shoot it up again."

During the second game of the 1986 season, against the Washington Redskins at RFK Stadium, Marsh twisted his left knee and dislocated a finger. He begged the trainer not to tell Davis about the knee, figuring he could limp through another week and collect the bonus. But the coaches saw that Marsh was hobbling, and he was moved to injured reserve. Looking back, Marsh says the $20,000 was important to him, but he was also afraid of angering Davis by asking to see a doctor other than Rosenfeld.

"Most of the players were terrified of doing anything to upset Al Davis," Huizenga says. "I didn't realize until I resigned that they didn't even feel they could come to me with their medical problems because I was his doctor."

"You have to remember that before 1982, we were forbidden by the league to get a second opinion," Millen says. Once the rule was changed, he adds, and teams were obligated to pay for second opinions, "everyone was afraid of doing it."

After the 1986 season Rosenfeld operated twice on Marsh's ankle to remove bone chips, but he never ordered tests that might have revealed why the bone chips were there. Huizenga says that Rosenfeld continued to maintain that the injury was a ligament strain.

Marsh's ankle still bothered him during that off-season, but by altering his workouts, he was able to stay off it for most of the summer. By the time camp began in August 1987, Marsh felt ready to play. But his efforts would be for nothing. During the third day of camp, the pain in the ankle flared anew. After Rosenfeld again prescribed painkilling shots and repeated his contention that the pain was because of a strained ligament, Marsh decided he'd had enough. He sought a second opinion. "Rosenfeld went nuts," Marsh says. "He said the outside surgeons would only recommend surgery because they wanted to operate on a Raider."

Marsh saw three doctors, each of whom said he had no way of knowing what was wrong with the ankle until a CAT scan could be administered. Tony Daly, now the orthopedic surgeon for the NBA Los Angeles Clippers, discovered the broken talus bone after ordering the scan. Daly says that the bone chips could well have been caused by the broken pieces of bone grinding against one another, and he believes it is possible that the fracture occurred as early as 1986. Daly inserted screws into the ankle to force the bone together. But the surgery took an enormous toll on Marsh. He woke up sick and in great pain. Weary of the struggle and thoroughly disillusioned with the Raider organization, he decided to retire. "I told my wife right then that I was done, that if I ever mentioned playing football again to shoot me," Marsh says.

For years Curt and his wife, Pam, had dreamed of days filled with family football games in the backyard, hikes and camping trips. By the time Curt decided to quit, his older son, Jake, was six and Chris was four. (A daughter, Jillian, would be born in 1989.) But as long as Curt was a Raider, family life had taken a backseat to his career and his pain. "Everything we did was based on how far I'd have to walk or if I'd have to stand for a long time," he says. "I would be grumpy at night because it hurt so bad. I shouted a lot. My ankle kept me from football, but it also kept me from being a father."

"I just wanted him to be out of pain," Pam says. "When he retired, I thought we were close. I thought everything would be O.K."

By 1990, though, it was clear that everything was not O.K. Unable to walk without excruciating pain, Marsh had undergone a series of operations to insert and replace screws in his ankle. Finally Sigvard Hansen, an orthopedist at Harbor-view Medical Center, recommended that the joint be fused. Marsh would not be able to bend his ankle, but his foot might be saved. Three times Hansen operated to fuse the ankle, and three times the fusions snapped. During the last procedure an eight-inch steel post was inserted from the heel bone into the shin. None of the operations enabled Marsh to walk without pain. In late July, Marsh realized he had only one option left. "When the doctor first said amputation, my heart sank," he says. "We sat down as a family, and I cried. But I knew it was the only way I'd be able to live the way I wanted to."

Marsh says he had run into Rosenfeld about a year before deciding on the amputation. It was after a Raider-Seahawk game in Seattle, and Marsh had stopped by the Raider locker room. "I was standing there on crutches, in a cast, and he walks by," Marsh recalls. "I say hello, and he looks down and says, 'Oh, you're still in one of those things?' "

The night before the amputation, Marsh says, he had one last man-to-foot chat: "I said, 'You've been a good foot. You've taken me a long ways, and I appreciate all you've done. But I'm going to have to let you go.' It said, 'O.K.'

"I was most worried about how I would feel when I woke up after the operation. After the first look—it took me a day to get up the nerve—it was O.K. It's still not easy to look at it, but I'm getting used to it. We all are."

A month after the amputation, the Marsh household is slowly returning to normal. The kids are fighting with stuffed socks and swinging from a bar above their dad's hospital bed, which has been placed in the dining room. Pam, who evidently does not share her family's macabre sense of humor, has put away the box that holds the toenails from Curt's foot. "I wanted the whole foot," says Chris, "but they said it would rot. So I asked for the toenails."

"The kids were attached to that thing," Curt says. "I had traded a lot of money for ankle rubs." Everyone in the family takes turns unscrewing and screwing on the temporary plastic foot. Not surprisingly, Chris dreams of being a doctor.

Daily life Is still a struggle for Pam and Curt, who at the time of the amputation also had surgery to correct a problem in his hip. He'll be in a wheelchair for a few more months, and that makes life a mess. Doorways are too small, corners too sharp. Nights are still far too short.

But in spite of the hardships, for the first time in many years there is hope in the Marsh household, real hope that Curt's pain is finally behind him. In about six months Curt should be walking with a prosthesis, and in a year he might be playing hoops on the new court the family recently poured in the backyard. He plans to go back soon to his job as the youth coordinator for the city of Everett, Wash.; his insurance from that job has paid for most of his post-Raider medical bills. Marsh wants to resume traveling across the country talking to kids, making them aware of the importance of making sound decisions. He dreams of hiking on nearby Mount Pilchuck with the kids next fall.

"You know that I haven't run or jumped since 1987?" asks Marsh. "I haven't thrown a football with my boys except from a chair. Life with the ankle had been a series of bad days with a few good ones sprinkled in."

Today is a good day, one of many the Marsh family hopes will come. Today is Christopher's soccer game. The family piles into the van and heads to the field. It is Curt's first real outing since the amputation, and fans and friends flock to the wheelchair and the big bear of a man who sits in it, sucking on sunflower seeds.

"This is great," Marsh tells them as their glances turn toward his leg. "I get to drive right up to the field and sit the whole game. And I can park next to the door at the grocery store! A lineman's dream."

Jillian climbs on his lap. Chris scores a goal with his head. Curt raises his arms and lets out a giant roar.

He has yet to receive a card, flowers or even a phone call from Davis or any official in the Raider front office, except for coach Art Shell. "I heard a few years ago that Al Davis told some guys that he was disappointed because I didn't pan out," Marsh says and shakes his head. "My only regret is that I didn't see the long term earlier. I made some bad choices. I trusted people. Cutting off my foot and ankle is not what I thought would happen. But you know, I'm really O.K. about it. I really am. I'm going to get my life back."

PHOTODAVID WALBERGPHOTORICHARD MACKSONIn seven pro years, Marsh was—when he wasn't hurting—a bruising blocker for the like of Allen.TWO PHOTOSGREG CAVAHuizenga (above, second from left, with Rosenfeld) says players risked angering Davis (below, right, also with Rosenfeld) if they questioned team doctors.THREE PHOTOSDAVID WALBERGAfter amputation ended Curt's anguish, Pam (top), Jillian and Christopher (below, right) have helped ease his rehabilitation.