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In this file photo, San Diego Chargers player Chris Mims is cooled off by a trainer during their game with the Oakland Raiders on Sept. 22, 1996. (CONTRA COSTA TIMES/BOB LARSON)

Now that the months have been reduced to weeks, and the weeks to days, those of us interested in the NFL can quit checking the calendar and start eyeing the clock.

Even as each side of the league's labor war braces for the likelihood of a lockout Friday, we've long known the essence of the dispute is money and how it's divided.

The owners want more, the players don't want less.

But if you look beyond the almighty dollar, as the players should and insist they are -- as anyone with perspective would -- you'd find something considerably more significant.

Though money is and always will be at the center of any labor negotiation, this particular negotiation also has to include mortality rates. Players have to think about it, have to note how dramatically theirs contrasts with the people across the table.

Owners tend to live long and prosperous lives, while players who may or may not achieve wealth are far more susceptible to early deaths. This is especially true of linemen, the biggest of the gladiators who play this game.

Another died last week. Shawn Lee was one half of the so-called "Two Tons of Fun," lining up next to big Reuben Davis in the middle of San Diego's defensive line in the 1990s. Both weighed more than 300 pounds. They were key players on the team that lost Super Bowl XXIX to the 49ers.

Lee played 11 NFL seasons, most of them with the Chargers. He made good money and gained a measure of fame before retiring in 1999 and settling in Raleigh, N. C. He battled weight problems and diabetes. He died Saturday of cardiac arrest. He was 44.


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Such premature deaths have become all too common in the football community. Young men bulk up for career reasons -- hoping to entertain fans and satisfy employers -- only to leave the game and collide with the realities that come with obesity.

And most linemen, even while active, are considered obese. Their average weight has increased by more than 60 pounds since the 1970 merger. The lineman who weighs 300 or more pounds is the norm. The Raiders have 12 on their roster. The 49ers, who during their halcyon years believed in smaller, quicker linemen, now have 14.

They get bigger every year. Size is expected by fans, embraced by coaches. Linemen have been benched, even fined, for being too light. So they pack it on.

But the same extra weight that seems to have become a career requirement later becomes a physiological time bomb -- as if concussions and clinical depression and joint replacements and double-digit surgical procedures are not enough of a price to pay for being the grunts of the sport.

Weight-related health issues and death are becoming epidemic among former linemen. Lee's former Chargers teammate, Chris Mims, died of heart failure two years ago. He was 38. He reportedly weight more than 450 pounds. Former New Orleans Saint Norman Hand died in May at 37, of cardiovascular disease. Mitch Frerotte, who played in three Super Bowls with Buffalo, was 43 when he died of a heart attack in June 2008.

There are others, many others.

Then there are those, like former Minnesota Viking Korey Stringer, whose body betrayed him in mid-career. He didn't live to see his 30th birthday, much less retirement.

Moreover, there are those living chronically uncomfortable lives. Whether it is Joe Montana's constant pain, Jim Otto's artificial limbs or William "Refrigerator" Perry's descent into morbid obesity and alcoholism, the infantrymen of the game make tremendous physical and mental sacrifices.

The Mayo Clinic conducted a study from 2006-08 that concluded retired football players are at significantly increased cardiovascular risk when compared to the general public -- which we can safely say includes owners and other NFL executives.

All due respect to physicians and scientists, but did we really need them to tell us that?

I suppose we could blame the players. Nobody makes them play football. Nobody makes them eat like Sumo wrestlers. They went to college, so they have the option of getting an education that leads to a career outside football.

But football has defined most of these men since they were teenagers. It's what got them into college, allowed an opportunity to become financially independent.

But their challenges are undeniable. The same men who thrill us and our children often don't live long enough to see their own children into adulthood.

As this fuss over money gets louder and louder, and likely more contentious, maybe Shawn Lee's grieving family members should enter the room to provide some perspective.

Who better to illustrate why players don't want less?

Contact Monte Poole at mpoole@bayareanewsgroup.com.