Union sets up group to help former players

Retired NFL players now have another option for aid.

The NFL players union has set up an organization to help former players, establishing it out of a $22 million fund from the collective bargaining agreement with the league. Such an organization created by the NFL Players Association was called for by former players for years before the CBA was reached in 2011. It's finally here.

Called The Trust, the group will assist players in areas such as brain and body evaluations; health and nutrition; physical fitness; career transition; and financial education. All of these services will be provided with no out-of-pocket costs to the player.

Any player who had two or more accredited seasons in the league is eligible. Program managers to assist each player, working to create a specific plan to achieve his goals, will be available. "I think it is going to change lives," Bahati Van Pelt, executive director of The Trust, said Wednesday. "I know that is a grand statement. I have seen the good and the bad and what happens when players transition out of football. I have seen families and players who have struggled or who have been successful. I know what we have available is what players need."

The group will use social media to get out the word to former players and has four program managers who, in essence, will be their case managers. Two of them are former players, Hannibal Navies and Zamir Cobb. Each retiree who reaches out to the organization will be assigned a program manager to find out his needs and information and walk him step by step through the process of getting help.

There's even a person assigned to handling travel arrangements, if needed, for the retirees to get health care. Van Pelt said the phones lines already have been active. "We are not going to sit here and wait for the phones to ring," he said. "We will find ways to engage."

The union often was criticized, as was the league, by former players for not doing enough for retirees, particularly those suffering from long-term injuries stemming from their NFL careers. During the CBA negotiations, the voices of those former players rang loud and clear that the new agreement should account for retirees.

Recently, the NFL reached a $765 million settlement of concussion lawsuits that made about 19,000 retired players eligible to seek awards or medical testing. The NFL also has programs for retired players under the guidance of former Pro Bowl defensive back Troy Vincent.

"This initiative supplements the many programs we have developed in recent years to serve the needs of retired players," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said. "Supporting our former players is a shared responsibility that we continue to emphasize as a league priority."

The Trust provides an additional suite of services for former players, another option for them to turn to. And it creates a specialized set of services for retirees that has funding guaranteed through 2021, with a 5 percent escalation per year.

Money is designated for such funding before the salary cap is determined each season. Van Pelt has worked with Vincent and also worked for the Jaguars and Falcons. "Our mission is living up to our word every day," he said, "and by doing that we will build something that is significant. As more players retire, we will be a resource for them for the rest of their lives."

Van Pelt wants the message to be clear that not all players retire from pro football and then can't find their way in the world. "There is a misconception all players struggle once they leave the game," he added. "We want to make sure we tell the stories of players who transitioned successfully, or those who did have trouble transitioning and then turned that into a successful career."

The Trust also has partnered with the University of North Carolina, Tulane University and the Cleveland Clinic to provide brain and body assessments for former players. A player's spouse can accompany him for free.

"One of the things we have charged ourselves with is being flexible," Van Pelt said. "If there is a need we're not meeting, we can address that. If we are not doing something correctly, we make sure we fix it."

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