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Last updated 2:36PM ET
September 22, 2021
WUSF 89.7 News
WUSF 89.7 News
Teammates Not Left Behind
Former football greats Jack Youngblood and Mike Ditka with Stephanie Matos and retired Col. John Carney of the Special Operations Warrior Foundation Courtesy: SOWF
(WUSF) - Among the many events tied to this Sunday's Super Bowl in Tampa, a lot of them are fundraisers. Wednesday night, former Bears Coach Mike Ditka hosted one to benefit the non-profit group Gridiron Greats which helps former players hit hard by medical and financial troubles. The event also benefited the children of Special Operations service members killed in action.

Retired Air Force Col. John Carney was with the team that attempted to rescue the American hostages from Iran in 1980. Eight Special Operation members were killed that night leaving behind 17 children.

"We literally passed the hat after we got out of the desert that night and decided we would put those put those children through four years of college," Carney said.

Since then, the Special Operations Warrior Foundation has committed to helping hundreds of children through college like Stephanie Matos.

"They have really been a support system taking care of me," Matos said. "They're like a family."

There's a sense of family whether serving together in the military or on the gridiron. And that's what brought Col. Carney together with Mike Ditka's group, the Gridiron Greats, at a press conference in November.

Mike Ditka says many older players are suffering from injuries sustained during their NFL careers. But, they have difficulty qualifying for the league's disability programs even while medical problems drain their savings and endanger their lives.

"In the old days sports medicine was antiquated. The doctors were owned by the teams. Period. Cut and dried," Ditka said.

Hall of Fame defensive lineman Jack Youngblood played 14 seasons for the Los Angeles Rams and is one of more than 100 former players supporting Ditka's efforts.

"Isn't it amazing that Mike Ditka has had to take up this cause and answer the issues and solve the problems for a $ 7 billion industry," Youngblood said.

The Gridiron Greats office fields about 20 requests a month from retired players in need.

Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers says even though today's players make much more money, they need to get involved in changing the system.

Ideally, Sayers would like to see owners step up and help their former players. But until then, he, Ditka and hundreds of others will donate their time and money to keep their teammates going.

To access details on the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, click here.

To access details on the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund, click here.
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