News Column

Minnesota Vikings: Former running back LeRoy Hoard still fighting off the hits

January 31, 2014

By Chris Tomasson, Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.

Jan. 31 -- Leroy Hoard can pinpoint when he hit bottom. For seven years following his retirement from the Vikings after the 1999 season, Hoard had been in pain. He had surgeries to repair knee and shoulder injuries, and plagued by constant headaches and memory problems, doctors told him he was suffering from post-concussion syndrome related to all the hits he took playing football. Living in South Florida , the former Pro Bowl running back had trouble holding down a job in the mortgage loan business. He said he spent several years after his retirement just lying around all day and doing little. Then came November 2006 . "I remember it was, like, a Monday," Hoard said. "I was lying in bed, and I didn't go to work. I took migraine medicine, which makes you a little loopy. And then I hadn't slept in a couple of days, and I took some Ambien and I got up on a Thursday. "I was terrified. I mean, I was literally terrified. I had no idea what happened. It was scary. I turned on the TV, and it was (on the news that former Philadelphia Eagles defensive back) Andre Waters committed suicide. I was literally that close. And I was like, 'Holy smoke. What in the world?' And I was basically, like, I didn't know where I'm headed." It was a wake-up call for Hoard, a familiar face to Vikings fans among a growing number of former NFL players whose post-football lives have been severely curtailed by concussion problems. He took a look at his overweight body and decided to drag himself to a gym and do his best to get in better shape, even though he remained in pain. With help from family and friends, particularly former backfield mate Robert Smith , Hoard, 45, has rebounded. Dedicated to his young family and working as a radio analyst on South Florida sports network 790 The Ticket, he says he still has his troubles -- physical and emotional -- but is determined to tell his story so that it might help others. 'BATTERING RAM' The 1989 Rose Bowl MVP while at Michigan , Hoard played in the NFL from 1990-99, his final four seasons with the Vikings . He called himself a "battering ram," rushing for 3,964 yards in a career that included a Pro Bowl appearance after running for 890 yards for Cleveland in 1994. "Like all big backs like that, no position takes more of a pounding than running back," said Brian Billick , Hoard's offensive coordinator during his first three seasons in Minnesota before Billick left to become Baltimore's coach. "That was his style of play. He would just kind of pound away." Hoard said he doesn't know the number of concussions he suffered as a player, saying he had a "ton." He said he missed only one game in his career because of a concussion, and that was when he was hospitalized while playing for the Browns in the early 1990s. Hoard said he is learning to cope better with his situation with medication, exercise and a positive attitude. But he continues to fight physical troubles, including back, shoulder, knee and ankle issues. He said he sometimes gets headaches "so bad I'm literally scared to open my eyes during the daytime." Diagnosed with vertigo, Hoard gets dizzy at times. Memory problems are sometimes so acute that Hoard said he can wake up and not know right away where he is. But he is determined he's "not going to sulk" and wants to do his best for Melanie, his wife of six years, stepson Alphonso, 14, and daughter Rebecca, 5. He said they have provided valuable support. The family lives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. , and therapy for Hoard includes appearing his radio work. During football season, he's an analyst for the Miami Dolphins' postgame show. The rest of the year includes hosting his own weekend golf show and appearing three times a week on "The Eric Reed Show," on which he talks about a variety of sports. But it often has been a struggle in the 14 years since he retired. Hoard doesn't deny that suicide was at times in his thought process but said something always would surface to snap him out of his darkest times. "I think everybody has a moment when things are going so bad, whether they feel bad or situations are so bad that they just wanted it to be over, and they can't find a way to either not to be in pain or not to be in the situation they're in, and so they consider it," Hoard said. "I have been very fortunate that, if it ever occurred to me, something happened that woke me up. "I would turn on the TV and they would be talking about a story about a former NFL player who committed suicide, or I would turn on the TV and hear about something tragic happening to somebody that I probably looked forward to the next day. And every time I saw those things, I always thought to myself, 'Do I really have it that bad?' " In addition to Waters' death, Hoard has been influenced by the 2011 suicide of former Chicago Bears defensive back Dave Duerson and the 2012 suicide of former San Diego Chargers star linebacker Junior Seau . All three died from self-inflicted gunshot wounds. Hoard said he has made sure he never owns a gun. "People who killed themselves, they have a moment in time, and they have access to something to do it with, and they don't think it through," he said. "They don't have a support system. They don't have anyone they can call." Because of his memory problems, Hoard fills notebooks with reminders of what he needs to do each day. He begins each notebook by writing down the names of Waters, Duerson and Seau. He wonders if they would be alive today had they spoken openly about their difficulties. LEGAL BATTLES Hoard said he doesn't know how much worse his health situation could get. Adding to his frustration, he has been been battling the Vikings' previous ownership group in a workers' compensation case. The next hearing in the decadelong case is in March. Hoard initiated legal action against the Vikings in 2003, and a settlement was reached in 2004 regarding payment for medical problems stemming from football injuries and for future problems resulting from it. Kevin Warren , the Vikings' president of legal affairs and chief administrative officer, stressed Hoard's situation relates to the team's previous ownership group. The case involves Red McCombs , Minnesota's owner from 1998-2005, and not the Wilfs, who bought the team from McCombs. "We've had reoccurring beefs with them about not paying medical bills (in a timely fashion)," said Hoard's lawyer, Ray Peterson . "The difficulty for injured players is oftentimes, if they're getting treatment and there are outstanding bills, they're like anybody else. The doctors don't want to continue with the care if they're not getting paid." Peterson said there were medical bills related to Hoard dating back to 2006 that weren't paid until 2013, resulting in Hoard being "frustrated to no end." Peterson, who called many of them "no-brainer kind of bills," said litigation was brought against the Vikings in June 2012 to get paid roughly $35,000 in expenses, and a settlement finally was reached in August 2013 for payment. Jim Waldhauser , the lawyer representing the McCombs' concerns, said Hoard now has been paid in full for medical expenses that have been submitted. He said delays in previous payments were due to proper documentation not having been filed, although he did acknowledge the insurance company could have been more diligent at times. "Once we got the supporting medical, those bills were paid or negotiated and Leroy was paid for out-of-pocket expenses himself," Waldhauser said. "I think he has been taken care of as well as we can under the previous ownership and the workers' compensation policies that we have in place." Waldhauser said more than $250,000 has been paid over the past decade related to Hoard's medical issues that "start with his head and you go down to his toes." A settlement conference is scheduled for March 28 in St. Paul to deal with some late payments to medical providers, but Waldhauser expects that to be resolved without difficulty. Full details of the case can't be released without Hoard's consent, and he declined to provide it. "I'm trying to get through this," Hoard said. "I'm trying to get continued health care." 'BELL RUNG' What has made the situation worse, Hoard said, was not being able to get medical insurance on his own because pre-existing conditions. That, he said, changed under the recent Affordable Care Act. Hoard is not a claimant involved in the still unapproved NFL concussion settlement, in which the league would award 4,500 former players $765 million . While the NFL now takes great precautions regarding head injuries, Hoard played in a much different era. Back then, he said, you didn't suffer a concussion, "You got your bell rung." Hoard was a straight-ahead runner who had his share of collisions. Former teammate Robert Griffith called him "a workhorse." "He had a famous saying," said Griffith, a Vikings safety from 1994-2001. "We were in a meeting once and ( Minnesota coach) Dennis Green was being really serious, saying, 'We're going to hand the ball to Leroy.' Then Leroy said, 'Coach, if you ask me to get you 1 yard, I'm going to get you 3. If you ask me to get you 5 yards, I'm going to get you 3.' Everybody was just dying laughing." But Hoard's health issues became no laughing matter. Although often banged up, he played in all 16 games during five of his 10 seasons and missed just one of his final 45 regular-season and playoff games with Minnesota . ""I was young and when you're young, if somebody says, 'I'm a doctor,' you assume that person is going to be looking out for your best interests," he said. "When somebody says they're a trainer, you assume that guy is going to be looking out for your best interests. I could honestly say that that wasn't always the case." Hoard's biggest regret from his playing days, he said, is not having "a full understanding of what was going on and what I really needed to do to be as healthy as I could be long term." BACKFIELD HELP Hoard was 31 when he retired from the NFL following a 1999 season in which he ran for 555 yards and had a career-high 10 rushing touchdowns. He knew it was time to go when he required shoulder reconstruction and knee surgery immediately afterward. Hoard, a New Orleans native, had begun to make South Florida his offseason home in 1994. When he retired, he moved there permanently. But times soon became difficult. "I didn't really do anything because after I had the surgeries I was just in so much pain," Hoard said. "I was pretty broken up then. I guess you can say it was depression. I went and saw a psychologist. I was moody and very easily irritated. There were days, weeks, where I would just get up and not do anything. After a period of time of doing that, like four or five years, I just felt bad both mentally and physically. I would get these terrible headaches. I would be dizzy." Hoard worked in the mortgage loan business but said his job performance was hampered by a period in which he "literally hated very human being I was in contact with." He eventually got a helping hand from Smith, his former backfield mate who also was living in South Florida after retiring unexpectedly in 2000. "We've helped each other," said Smith, who in November revealed he has battled alcoholism. "I've been through my own personal issues, and Leroy's been there for me. We just kept talking. That's really the key, maintaining a connection with people. "He was having some dark times. How close anybody gets (to suicide), you don't really know, but Leroy's a fighter. He loves his family and especially his little girl. We both have baby girls, so it's a motivation for him." Smith had been doing a Saturday radio show and invited his buddy to join him on the air. Hoard found it to be therapeutic. "It was a way to take the love I had for sports and be in an environment with other people who enjoyed sports and be able to talk about it and get stuff off my chest. It gave me an avenue to burn off some steam," Hoard said. Smith soon became "one of those people I trusted," Hoard said, and helped him when he was down just "by being there" and telling him to take things one step at a time. FAMILY MATTERS Headaches still plague Hoard so badly at times that the only way he can get relief is to sit alone in a dark bathroom, sometimes for up to three hours. Still, he makes an effort to get up daily at 5:30 a.m. to exercise, most often by swimming. "He goes day to day with a lot of pain," said Peterson, his attorney. "Unfortunately, although he's looking for the magic solution to take care of it, what a lot of these guys have difficulty understanding is that there isn't a cure. What they've suffered in their playing days is going to be with them the rest of their lives, and there isn't a magic bullet that will take away the pain. "I think probably the best thing for him is his family, and they've been very supportive in helping him through the disability level he has." Hoard indeed has relied on his family. In return, he's made a vow to them he's going to do the best he can to cope with his troubles. "My kids want to hang out with their daddy," he said. "When I have a bad headache and I need to be alone, everybody in my family understands that. But I don't always want to use that as an excuse. If the kids want to go Disney (World) and I'm feeling OK, then I guess daddy will go to Disney with them. It's not always easy, but I guarantee you there are people that are worse off than I am." Follow Chris Tomasson at twitter.com/christomasson . LEROY HOARD Age: 45 Career: Running back at Michigan from 1986-89 and in the NFL with Cleveland from 1990-95, Baltimore and Carolina in 1996, and the Vikings from 1996-99. College highlights: Ran for 752 yards and 11 touchdowns as a junior in 1988; ran for 832 yards and six touchdowns a senior in 1989; MVP of Jan. 2, 1989 , Rose Bowl after rushing for 149 yards on 19 carries in Michigan's 22-14 win over USC . NFL highlights: Rushed for 3,944 career yards and caught 238 passes for 2,340 yards in 10 seasons; caught career-high 48 passes for 567 yards with Cleveland in 1992; made Pro Bowl after running for 890 yards, and catching 45 passes for 445 yards, with Browns in 1994; rushed for 479 yards and caught 22 passes for 198 yards in Vikings 15-1 season in 1998; ran for 555 yards and a career-high 10 touchdowns in 1999. -- Chris Tomasson ___ (c)2014 the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.) Visit the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.) at www.twincities.com Distributed by MCT Information Services


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Source: Saint Paul Pioneer Press (MN)


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