By Joe DeLamielleure
I grew up the son of a bar owner outside Detroit. My father decided kindergarten was overrated and instead brought me with him to the bar every morning at 7 a.m. to open up. He said I’d make something out of myself through hard work, not coloring in books. So, I filled salt and pepper shakers and mustard and ketchup dispensers until it was time to attend first grade.
By the time I was 10 my father had me join my older brothers to clean the bar. He’d come home from closing at 2:30 a.m. and wake us up so we could head to the bar and clean it in time for the 7 a.m. opening. It was a lot of grunt work until I left for Michigan State to play football.
I was selected by the Buffalo Bills in the first round of the 1973 NFL Draft and became a member of the famed “Electric Company” offensive line. We blocked for O.J. Simpson as he ran for an unprecedented 2,003 yards in a 14-game season — a record still intact today.
Having been a six-time Pro Bowler and enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I’ve come a long way from cleaning The Victory Inn Bar.
I’m proud of the game we played. As athletes, we knew we could break a leg or blow out our knees, but we didn’t know we’d be disregarded in our pensions once we left the game.
Prior to 1993, players didn’t get rich playing in the NFL, and a pension was all many could count on. As a first-round pick in 1973, I signed a five-year contract for $22,000 and topped out at $30,000 my fifth year. With no free agency, we couldn’t negotiate or bargain for our salaries. We went on strike four times to win that right and achieved our goal in the 1993 collective bargaining agreement (CBA). Unfortunately, we were excluded from the increased benefits we fought for. We thought we were striking for all players who played the game.
We deserve better than this from the union and league we helped build. The last chance they have for any equity in their pension is in the 2021 CBA. This is why I have joined Fairness for Athletes in Retirement (FAIR).
FAIR is a nonprofit organization that represents the voice of approximately 4,000 NFL players who vested and retired before 1993. FAIR is dedicated to working with the NFL and the NFL Players Association to address the disparity between retirement plans. Pre-’93 retirees have the lowest pension among their peers in Major League Baseball and the NBA, and the lowest pension in the NFL.
If we don’t right this wrong in the 2021 CBA, the players who built the league will not have another chance to get the pension they earned.
Joe DeLamielleure was inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2003 after playing offensive guard for 13 years with the Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns.