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Mike Ditka relieved, wary as NFL plans help for retired players

Mike Ditkwas hopeful but bit wary when discussing additional help that’s supposed be forthcoming for retired players.  |

Mike Ditka was hopeful but a bit wary when discussing the additional help that’s supposed to be forthcoming for retired players. | Sun-Times Media

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Updated: July 20, 2011 2:17AM

When it comes to former NFL players in need, owners and players finally might be doing what Mike Ditka has been urging them to do for years: the right thing.

‘‘If what they’re saying is reality, it’s terrific — it’s what it should be,’’ the former Bears coach said. ‘‘You should take care of the guys who helped make the game what it is. Maybe now I can get out of the business.’’

Ditka has done more than his part to raise awareness of (and money for) the plight of former players who’ve fallen on hard times because of health and financial problems.

Imagine his relief after hearing that owners and players have agreed to add $1 billion in benefits to help retired players during the next decade, including $620 million to go toward pension increases, long-term care insurance and disability benefits to those who played before TV revenue spiked and salaries entered the stratosphere.

Negotiations are ongoing. Ditka remains wary.

There’s no consensus on who will receive benefits, who will disperse them or what restrictions will be put on the available funds. An especially acute concern is the routine denial of assistance for needy players who apply for help, as has occurred in the past.

Those issues aside, the mood among long-neglected retired players is one of cautious optimism.

‘‘It sure took a long time, but it has been a worthwhile struggle,” said former Green Bay Packers guard Jerry Kramer, who, along with Ditka, has fought long and hard for improved benefits. “We got a lot of help from Mr. Ditka and Mr. [Gale] Sayers. It’s really nice to be able to try to do something and get the kind of help and interest we received. I feel pretty darned good about it.”

‘‘It was a long time coming, no question about it,” Sayers said. ‘‘If it’s true, I’m very, very happy. Thanks to the players and the National Football League for going back and getting those players the money they need.’’

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