Little makes plea for retired NFL players

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Hall of Fame running back Floyd Little expressed confidence Thursday that the NFL lockout won't impact the season, claiming "someone has to be an absolute idiot to walk away" from $9 billion in annual revenue, but he's concerned about whether a new labor agreement will provide enough financial support for retired players with health issues.

The matter is dear to Little, 68, a close friend of Hall of Famer John Mackey, who suffers from acute dementia and lives in a nursing home in the Baltimore area. Little -- introduced Thursday at his alma mater as Syracuse's new special assistant to the athletic director -- said the first person he met on campus nearly 50 years ago was Mackey, then a star tight end at Syracuse.

The charismatic Little lowered his voice to a whisper as he talked about Mackey. He keeps in touch with Mackey's wife, Sylvia, always checking on his old friend.

"John is in pretty bad shape," Little said. "I watched John here when they retired his jersey [in 2007]. He wasn't really himself. He lost a tooth. I asked Sylvia, 'What happened?' She said he's pulling his own teeth out. That's sad. For such a great player to end up in a nursing home, that's sad."

After initially refusing to pay for Mackey's health care, the league and players' association created the "88 Plan," named after Mackey's number. It provides $88,000 per year for assisted-living care.

Little hopes a new collective bargaining agreement will include more assistance for the ailing, older players.

"The thing I'm concerned about is the players that have given up so much for the game, that they're taken care of," said the former Denver Broncos star, who considers himself relatively healthy. "The life expectancy for an NFL player is 51 to 53 years. The quality of life, after that, isn't great if you make it beyond that.

"There should be something in the new package for those who made tremendous sacrifices, something that says, 'We care about you, and we're going to make sure the quality of life you have will be the best it can be.' They owe it to those guys."

As for the work stoppage, Little doesn't see it continuing into the regular season. Quoting commissioner Roger Goodell, he said the conflict must be decided at the bargaining table, not in the courts.

"I'm not concerned," said Little, who played from 1967 to 1975. "There has been a lot of fanfare about this lockout. There will be a season. There will be football. You've got $9 billion hanging in the balance. Someone has to be an absolute idiot to walk away from that. They will figure this out."

The outspoken Little supported the league's crackdown on illegal blows to the head, but he said he'd take the penalties a step further than fines and suspension.

"If it were me, and I were the commissioner, not only would they be fined to the point where they'd be on the corner with a can collecting [money], but they'd be out of the league," he said. "I wouldn't stand for it. That's why I'm not commissioner."

Rich Cimini covers the Jets for ESPNNewYork.com.