CHICAGO (AP) -Da Coach has another wrinkle to his game plan to help retired players.
Doctors in Arizona and Pennsylvania announced on Tuesday that they are donating medical care to those in need through the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund.
``The game today is not what it is today because of the people today,'' said Mike Ditka, the group's most vocal member. ``It's what it is today because of things that have happened over a period of years. A lot of people have persevered and suffered and played and made things happen.''
Ditka, the Hall of Fame player who later coached the Bears to a Super Bowl championship, has criticized the players' union for ignoring the medical needs of former players with serious injuries who can't afford to pay for their care. Gridiron Greats has raised more than $1 million since it was formed a year ago.
Now, it has doctors at the Surgical Specialty Hospital of Arizona in Phoenix and the OAA Orthopedic Specialists in Allentown, Pa., providing free treatment to former players who qualify, while the organization covers travel and helps with other expenses.
``The biggest scandal in football today is not Spygate,'' said Dr. Terry Simpson of the Surgical Specialty Hospital.
Allentown-based Dr. Robert Palumbo hopes to get former players ``into the pipeline'' for treatment.
``We're here to help,'' he said. ``There's nobody that we're going to say no to if they're a surgical candidate.''
Ditka and other former players say the NFL Players Association refuses to award disability benefits or is slow to provide them, meaning some go without the medical care they need.
The Gridiron Greats' process will be faster, said Jennifer Smith, the group's executive director.
``We don't have to go through levels of red tape,'' said Smith, estimating that players will know within three weeks whether they have qualified.
The union and the league have defended their system.
Ditka, former teammate Gale Sayers and recently retired Kansas City Chiefs offensive lineman Kyle Turley were joined Tuesday by several former players who have football-related medical issues and can't afford treatment: Andy Livingston (Bears), Mercury Morris (Dolphins), J.D. Hill (Lions and Bills) and Brian DeMarco (Jaguars and Bengals).
``Oftentimes in our lives, we walk around and we turn a blind eye to things,'' DeMarco said. ``We see the homeless guy in the street ... (and) we kind of just walk on by.''
At 36, he walks with a cane and is unable to get in and out of a chair without assistance because of a spinal injury. Mounting bills have left him and his family homeless three times.
Morris lashed out at the league and union: ``They sit out there as if they're actually doing something when they're really doing nothing. ... Maybe, just maybe, we need to start litigation and try to find a way to make these people do what they (need) to do.''
Congress has taken up the issue, releasing a 144-page report last month that encouraged the league and union to change benefits programs and fund independent research on the toll the game takes on players.
The NFL Alliance - a recently formed group that includes commissioner Roger Goodell, NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw, and representatives of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and NFL Alumni Association - streamlined some processes in February. It also doubled the ``total and permanent'' disability for retired players to $40,000 a year from $20,000 a year.
``How do you get to it? What's the process?'' Ditka asked. ``How do you get to the money? I'm only asking because I don't know. You can put $10,000 in the closet, it's going to stay in the closet.
``I'm not being critical,'' he continued. ``I think it's a great thing if it's legitimate and they put it up there and it's going to be used to help people. Fine. I'm all for it. This is not about us; this is about helping people. Whoever helps them - they help them, we help them, somebody else helps them - it's all good.''

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