Like Mark Brunell, Billy Joe Hobert, Drew Bledsoe and others mentioned in this week's SW cover story, Lew Bush was a 1993 NFL draft pick from a Washington school. But unlike them, the former Washington State University linebacker from Tacoma who played pro ball ten years, is dead. When he died of a heart attack December 8, he was all of 42 years old.
Besides financial and marital stress, studies show football players, particularly bulky linemen, are at greater risk for heart problems during and after their careers, and likely will face costly medical expenses once they retire.
Consultant (and ex-Green Bay Packer) Ken Ruettgers tells us that some pros discount the possibility that an injury or stress could end their careers and leave them with lifetime medical or psychiatric complications. "Thoughts of suicide are very common," he has found.
In some cases, they're carried out: Earlier this year, in the throes of bankruptcy, ex-Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson, 50, took a pistol and shot himself in the chest. His suicide was thought to have been related to psychological problems he suffered, which he blamed on the head-banging that pro football players endure. In fact, Duerson left a note asking that his brain be used in a study of NFL concussions. In a somewhat similar case, ex-NFL lineman Shane Dronett, 38, committed suicide in 2009 due to delusions resulting from concussions, according to his family.
Too many others die before their time from heart problems. Bush, for example, was one of three members of the 1995 San Diego Chargers Super Bowl team who died young: The deaths of Shawn Lee, 44, and Chris Mims, 38, were also caused by heart failure.
As a 2009 University of Michigan study put it, "Older NFL retirees have rates of hypertension, high cholesterol, and poor circulation (a risk factor for clots) that are similar to the general population. Younger retirees, on the other hand, have higher levels of high cholesterol and high blood pressure than the general population."
Picked by his Cougar teammates as the player who best exemplified courage, spirit and attitude, Bush struggled with an assortment of injuries in his career, dating back to his WSU days. As Chris Cluff writes on outsidethepressbox.com:
"Bush overcame multiple setbacks during his career: injuries, academic issues, position changes. A linebacker in his first few years, he was switched to defensive end as a senior. And then he broke his leg and missed a month. At the time, coach Mike Price told reporters, 'There's not a guy on this team who has gone through what Lewis Bush has faced. It is tragic. But he has a tough attitude and he will eventually get to play his senior year.'"
In an aside, Cluff notes that Bush's death comes on the heels of bad news about two other former Cougars who turned pro - All-America running back Jerome Harrison was diagnosed with a brain tumor (found during a physical when the Detroit Lions tried to trade him to the Philadelphia Eagles this year) while linebacker Steve Gleason, who played on WSU's 1997 Rose Bowl team and spent eight years with the New Orleans Saints, was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease early this year.
Larry Kaminski, a former Denver Bronco who lives in Poulsbo and is party to a lawsuit over concussions brought against the league by 75 former players (including nine ex-Seahawks), says he suffers from a double whammy - heart problems and a post-traumatic brain injury.
He's gone so far as to apply for workers' compensation to get help, to no avail. And he doesn't hold out much hope for change. The NFL's strategy in dealing with ex-players in any sort of hardship, he feels, is "Delay, deny, until they die."