NFL Legacy Benefit leaves widows and beneficiaries on the sidelines

A November 11, 2011 letter from the NFL Commissioner stated that Current benefit payments to retirees and their beneficiaries/former family members will be increased to no less than $600 per month……”

It goes on to say that “In addition to the floor of $600 per month, the new Legacy Benefit will be added to your current monthly pension payment.”

Based on that wording, many people were under the impression that all widows and beneficiaries would receive survivor benefits under the new Legacy Fund.

Unfortunately, we have been informed that this is not the case.  

Widows and beneficiaries are not eligible for the Legacy Fund survivor benefits if their husband died before August 4, 2011.  The benefit is only available to the wives and beneficiaries of players that die after August 3, 2011. 

John Mackey showing his rings while Sylvia stands behind him – and what he stood for!

John Mackey must be looking down from heaven and wondering WTF is going on.  He died on July 6, 2011 – just 28 days too soon for his wife, Sylvia Mackey to receive the Legacy survivor benefit.

Excluding the wives and children of players that died before August 4, 2011 is a travesty.

In a January 23. 2012 email to NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith, Sylvia said “Not one single person to whom I have spoken can give me any logical reason why this is right. Am I missing something here? Why can’t anyone come up with a logical answer.”  

She went on to ask him “Who is going to go broke, suffer, or be deprived of anything if the RIGHT thing is done. I can see why years of service (vested) could be a reason, but the date of death of a Legend should not be a reason for elected benefits to be denied to their loved ones who suffered the agony of seeing them die before August 4, 2011.” 

Together, Sylvia and John Mackey pressured the NFL to investigate the connection between player concussions and the onset of dementia.  After the “88 Plan” became reality, Sylvia Mackey said, “I told John he has become the poster child for a solution to this problem. His greatness on the football field is always going to be his biggest legacy. But this is No. 2.” 

After his death, DeMaurice Smith said ” John Mackey has inspired me and will continue to inspire our players and define our institution. His unwavering loyalty to our mission and his exemplary courage will never be forgotten.”

Commissioner Goodell said, “John Mackey was one of the great leaders in NFL history, on and off the field. He was a Hall of Fame player who redefined his position. John was a courageous advocate for his fellow NFL players as head of the NFL Players Association.”

Words must be backed up by deeds…..and not only for the men that played the game, but for the wives and children that stood by them all the way.

I thought this was called the Legacy Fund for a reason.

I thought we were honoring and assisting the pre -1993 players that laid the foundations of the NFL.

I thought all widows would be rewarded for the support they gave their husbands during and after their careers.

I thought the children and families that helped many of these players with the debilitating injuries they suffered during their pro football careers would also benefit from their Legacy.  

I thought wrong.

It’s just my opinion, but I think the NFL and the NFL Players Association need to review their decision to deny this benefit to surviving widows and beneficiaries of players that died before August 4, 2011. None of the retired player advocates that sat in the meeting with Roger Goodell knew that this was in the “fine print” of the Legacy Benefit.

In reference to this issue, NFL Alumni Executive Director George Martin said “I am appalled and dismayed regarding the Legacy Fund survivors benefit omission.  Currently we are pursuing measures to address this gross inequity with full Board support. The Board is willing to make this one of our key cornerstone issues during this year’s 2012 engagement with both the League as well as the NFLPA.  I have asked Sylvia Mackey to join me on the podium during my Super Bowl press conference to emphasize the point.”

For the record, I’m not suggesting that the $620 Million in funding for the Legacy Benefit be further diluted to fund the cost of grandfathering in all of the widows and beneficiaries, but I am suggesting that they find additional funding to help them in some other way. 

The additional money could come from the 22 million – plus 5% annual increase ($250 million over 10 years) that the NFLPA has at its discretion for retired player benefits, but I would prefer to see it come from a new source of revenue.

It may be impossible at this point to build this survivor benefit into the existing Legacy Benefit, so the only other option would be a lump sum payment or some other form of payment that recognizes the contributions of the wives of these pioneer players.

The NFLPA discretionary funding should go to whatever benefit, or benefits a majority of former players feel it should go to……. and it should be done in an open, transparent, democratic way that allows for the input of all former players.

I just hope that when it’s all said and done, we haven’t forgotten the wives and children of the former players who laid the foundations of the NFL.


About Jeff Nixon

Jeff was a first team consensus All-American from the University of Richmond in 1978. He is 7th in NCAA history with 23 career interceptions. Played for the Buffalo Bills 1979-1984. Led the team with 6 interceptions in Rookie Year. Holds Bills record for 4 takeaways in a single game - 3 interceptions and a fumble recovery. Tied Bills record with four consecutive games with an interception. After 5 knee surgeries Jeff retired from pro football in 1985. He worked for 13 years (1988-2000) as the Youth Bureau Director for Buffalo and Erie County. He has worked for the past 11 years as the Youth Employment Director for Buffalo. Plays guitar and was voted best R&B guitar player by Buffalo Nightlife Magazine in 2006, 2007 and 2008.

Posted on January 25, 2012, in NFL Alumni News. Bookmark the permalink. 25 Comments.

  1. It seem to be a mark of all Law executive type to use new a Plan that not only screw over the family involved directly but to never let if work for the purpose it was intended to be use for in the first plans. It seem Mr. Smith is just like the rest and only look out for himself! Mr. Smith you and only you can answer Ms. Mackey’s question and I believe you need to deliver an answer that will give her peace of mind and restore faith in the US Corporate Machine!!

  2. This is a shame and also what else is a shame is that players who have qualified for the increase, like myself, are still waiting for our election forms from the Bert Bell Fund to be sent to us. We were told to expect our money in January. Now, we have been waitng for a form and God knows when that will be and when we will finally get our money, including the retro. They keep saying when I call, any day now, but nothing concrete. I know that there is interest being generated on the money that’s been there for quite some time. Are we getting any of that? NOPE…..

    • Ultimately and as soon as possible De Smith needs to call Ms. Mackey and assure that surely this is all a mistake. How much more does the nflpa have to do to continue to alienate all of us retirees? This is all beyond belief. Just another pathetic act. Their actions continue to show why we retirees need to have our own representation and not the nflpa who continue to show their true allegiance, which is the active players.

  3. Bobby, at least you’ve been able to get through. I have tried several times and am always sent to the “black hole” voicemail where it says that someone will contact you in the next couple of days. I’m still waiting for that call but I do know of someone that has received his election form so they must be going out on horseback. Mrs Mackey, we are all in your corner and anyone else who has been denied this so called benefit. The people who are in charge of this are based in Washington DC and we know the lies and deception that go on in that town. We have been bamboozled and hoodwinked when it comes to the Legacy Fund.

  4. Jeff,

    Keep up your good work.

    It is almost beyond comprehension that the NFL and NFLPA would exclude the widows and legitimate heirs from the Legacy Fund. Let’s all get behind the effort to resolve this unjust act.

    Lee Folkins
    1961 Green Bay
    1962-62 Dallas
    1965 Pittsburgh

  5. Just like rest of the retired players, or maybe just some , I feel that the retired players advocates should read the fine print. I think it’s bull that they didn’t and they should not be advocating for anybody. This is f-ed-up . Those advocating should step aside and let someone with some intelligents take their place.

    • Cody:

      I read your recent comment “Just like rest of the retired players, or maybe just some , I feel that the retired players advocates should read the fine print. I think it’s bull that they didn’t and they should not be advocating for anybody. This is f-ed-up . Those advocating should step aside and let someone with some intelligents take their place.”

      In my article, I was using the term “fine print” only as a way of describing the fact that none of the retired player advocates that met with Roger Goodell knew that survivor benefits would not be given to beneficiaries of players that died before Aug. 4, 2011.

      There was never anything “in writing” that any of them received indicating this was in the Legacy Benefit.

      The only thing those players were asked to do was assist in determing the amount of the benefit for retired players. They had no input whatsoever on how the survivor benefits would be allocated.

      I hope that clears up any confusion on this issue.

  6. A quick thought….after reading several emails from others…..I’m hoping that this may be a genuine oversight or error on the part of the NFL/NFLPA. Several widows of men who died PRIOR to taking their pensions, have also been complaining about not receiving Legacy Benefits. I will try to find the official answer, but I’m quite sure that they are paid widow benefits that are quite a bit more than those who have the “continuing benefit” from husbands who began their payments during their lives. I have been given a monthly figure from one widow that is quite surprising and if perhaps you remember or have the documentation, after settling the previous CBA there was a good deal of “proud” conversation about a large increase in Widow Benefits…again, benefit to women married to men who died prior to taking their pensions. Goodness knows we would NEVER complain about any widow receiving whatever she needs and will support the best possible care for these women in our family….but perhaps it is THAT benefit and that larger amount that caused those negotiating the current Legacy Benefit to see widows as “taken care of”.
    I hope this is the answer to this disappointing situation….and that it can be remedied.

  7. Jane, I understand your rationale, but I just wanted to point out that some of us were unfortunate enough to lose our husbands at a very young age and consequently, never received that “quite surprising monthly figure” that is in effect since the previous CBA.

    That aside, I am happy that the contributions of the living pre-93 players are being rewarded. I wish the distribution were more equitable with current revenues and am perplexed with how it finally was negotiated; however, I pray that the health and financial tribulations mentioned here will be eased when the Legacy Fund is finally implemented and the monies distributed.
    May God bless all of you.

    Laurel Ayers
    John Ayers 1953-1995
    SF 49ers, Denver Broncos 1976-1987

  8. Mary Hilgenberg

    My husband Wally Hilgenberg played 16 years in the NFL. He died one of the worst deaths that you can imagine,ALS. By the time he died he could not move at all. The only way he could communicate was by blinking his eyes. After we donated Wally’s brain we discovered he died because of football concussions. Yes football killed him! I have not received a penny from the NFL and now they have eliminated me and other widows from the Legacy Plan. I feel like I have been slapped in the face! I am crying as I write this.Was not our husbands part of the NFL’s legacy? Our husbands can’t fight for us. We need all your help. I feel an injustice has been done.
    Thank You,
    Mary Hilgenberg

    • Hi Mary, My name is Sheri Waters and my husband Bobby Waters (49ers, 1960 -1965) died of ALS in May 1989. I truly know the pain you endured. Two of Bob’s teammates, Matt Hazeltine and Gary Lewis also died of ALS. I am very grateful for the retirement benefits that I receive, but I am so disappointed that we widows were left out. The way I read the Legacy Fund letter that went out to former players we were not separated out from the former players who will receive this new benefit. I would love to communicate with other ” NFL widows”, maybe collectively we can help to not be overlooked again. Sheri Waters

  9. I understand this blog is not meant to be a “chat room” but I want to say that I am in no way trying to excuse the decision to omit beneficiaries of men who have passed, nor am I implying that widows are somehow doing just fine. Other than many of our wives and widows themselves, no one seems to truly understands the enormous often heartbreaking burden some of our women carry. What I am struggling with is trying to understand possible reasons the NFL/NFLPA….
    … directing only half of the available money towards the retirees and their beneficiaries.
    …..did not simply add the money to the existing pension fund so that the overall rate of payments could be raised accross the board to all.
    …..created a “fund” that is structured with it’s own set of rules basically to the pension.

    There are even more questions regarding many aspects of the entire pension…..who is truly (and rightfully) “in charge”, why the retirees involved in decision making are hand picked by the league and the PA and why there is NO transparency, just to mention a few. I have been given fairly “official” explanations for the above questions but none truly satisfy those and many, many other questions.

    Laurel and Mary, as wives and widows we share unique circumstances and are in the important position of supporting (or having supported) these special men…it’s important that we support one another as well. At the very least let’s “do” and speak for those who are not able to. A few of us have been working for years to foster a network of wives, girlfriends and children of our NFL men. I would love to connect with both of you Whether our voices make a difference or not in the greater issues, we are at the very least “there for each other”. Please email me

    (wife of Jon Arnett, Rams 57-63, Bears 64-66)

  10. Thank you very much for your support of players widows. A monthly amount, rather then a lump sum, similar to the Legacy Fund would certainly help pay utility and other monthly bills we incur. Thank you again for remembering me. Marilyn Bishop widow of Bill Bishop 1952-61.

  11. To Mary Hilgenberg,

    The greed of the NFL Owners and current players as manifested in your familiy’s plight sickens me. Right now all we can say is that the fight goes on, but I thank you for sharing this post and I guarantee you that I (and it is presumed many other readers) will NEVER forget your chilling words. We will NEVER qive up, and if any caring people are in control of future financial benefits restructuring due to lawsuits or political intervention (which are our two best alternatives), widows and other dependents as well as non-vested men and their families will not be forgotten.- Bruce Jarvis, Buffalo Bills 1971-1974.

  12. My husband, Pete Duranko died July 8, 2011. I am in the same situation as Sylvia Mackey, missing the legacy fund cut-off by one month. Pete as the same with Wally Hilgenberg died after fighting a battle with ALS for 12 long years, that was heartbreaking enough but now we know he also had football related head trauma (TCE), from the Boston Medical report( his brain.spinal cord and eyes were donated for research). Along with Mary, Sylvia and countless others we are the widows, families etc. that are trying to cope with life after our husbands, fathers etc. died much too young because of football. The fact that we are being left out of the legacy fund, brings almost as much heartbreak as watching our husbands die a slow death. Remember these guys were the ones that made this league. We only want what our husbands would have wanted for us. We need help to fight this!!! God Bless You All Of You!JanetDuranko(widow of Pete Duranko 1967-1976 Denver Broncos

  13. Last night I received a phone call from my very upset and disappointed mother, Carole Felton. She informed me that she would not be receiving any compensation from the NFL Legacy Fund because my father died Jan. ’11, (8 months before the Legacy agreement), thus making her ineligible to receive any additional survivor benefits. My father, Ralph Felton, played for the Washington Redskins from ’54-60 and for the Buffalo Bills from 61-62, a total of 9 years. As previously mentioned, my father died in Jan. after battling Alzheimer’s for 4+ years. My father’s last year was particularly difficult for all of us because he required almost constant care and attention. We knew about and applied for help with the “88 Plan,” and thankfully he was accepted into the plan, even though we used only 3 months of benefits which he had been eligible to use for a year. For those benefits, we are extremely grateful. However, now that he has passed, it seems that NFL wants to forget about the sacrifices that both he and my mother made while he was playing. It is our hope the fund advisers/administrators both revisit and reconsider their decision to exclude the beneficiaries’ survivors, the widows of those “legacy” players. If they do reconsider, I further hope that they remember that those “legacy” players played in an era long before the lucrative TV deals and the big contracts of today. Please recall that those “legacy” players and their families made great personal sacrifices for what would be a pittance today. I urge you to reconsider and do, as the quote below states, what is morally right for all of the “legacy” players and their beneficiaries.

    “Nothing the league can do can ever fully express our appreciation to the players who helped build our league,” said Commissioner ROGER GOODELL. “However, the Legacy Fund is as significant step, especially as the benefits apply to the older players.”

    Sincerely yours,
    Terry Felton

  14. For a very long time, I have wondered how many former NFL players have died of ALS (Lou Gerhig’s Disease). My husband Bobby Waters, as well as two of his 49er teammates from the 60’s, Matt Hazeltine and Gary Lewis died of this cruel illness. I hope others will respond to this question, it can only help research and possibily help others.
    Sincerely, Sheri Waters

  15. After numerous calls to the plan office, leaving voicemails, and receiving no return calls, I wrote a formal letter of demand, and mailed it by certified mail, return receipt requested, to the plan office. I mailed my demand letter of Januray 27th, and received the Election Forms, via Express Mail, on February 8th. I would urge you to do the same. If you would like a copy of my demand letter to use an an example e-mail me, and I will e-mail you a copy.

    John Beasley
    Vikings ’67 – ’73
    Saints ’73-’74

  16. Jeff, I also sent a copy to Bob Stein in Minnesota. You know Bob is a retired player and attorney who is working with retired players also. I told Bob to pass along the letter to anyone he thought it may help.

  17. JOHN I would love to have a copy of your letter just to help me blow off more steam. although we got our mula, I am still pissed. Thanks

  18. Pat, I sent it out this morning. Sorry for the delay.

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