Ailing ex-Lion Scroggins: I should have stopped playing sooner

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News
Tracy Scroggins

Insomnia keeps Tracy Scroggins up at night, unless he has a sleeping aid.

He can’t run without back and knee pain, but he has to work out to keep his weight down to avoid worse discomfort in his back.

“My social life is next to non-existent,” he said in a phone interview Thursday morning.

For the former Lions defensive end and linebacker, life after football has been painful both physically and emotionally. He hasn’t held a job since his career ended in 2001.

And with all the recent studies linking football concussions to degenerative brain diseases, Scroggins is worried things will continue to get worse.

“I don’t have any regrets,” he said of his career. “I think things happen, sometimes for a reason. But if I had the knowledge that players today have, I think that probably my career would’ve been five years shorter than it was.”

Scroggins, who now lives in the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., area, filed a class-action lawsuit last Friday in U.S. District Court for The Southern District of Florida charging the NFL with racketeering. The suit claims the NFL concealed the relationship between repeated head trauma and brain diseases like chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

His attorney, Tim Howard, said he planned to file an updated complaint by the end of this week that will include Rose Stabler, the ex-wife of Ken Stabler, as a plaintiff. The Hall of Fame quarterback died last July.

Scroggins does have some normalcy in his life as he’ll marry his fiancée, Michelle Burke, in June. But, when their relationship started getting serious three years ago, she said he warned her about some of his psychological issues. At first, Burke said it was frustrating that he didn’t have a job, but she now understands why it would be hard for him to work a full day.

Free-agent LB Bruce Carter visiting Lions

A second-round pick in 1992, Scroggins played 142 games in 10 seasons with the Lions, tallying 250 tackles and 60.5 sacks. During his career, though, he said he suffered “several” concussions and other injuries that weren’t treated properly, whether he stayed quiet to appear tough or practiced a day after undergoing an MRI to see if he suffered a concussion.

“After playing 10 years in the National Football League, anything that you have suffered throughout your career, as years go by, everything gets worse,” he said. “Trust me.”

Scroggins' ailments 

Scroggins, 46, said his right pinky is permanently disfigured because he suffered ligament damage during practice, but didn’t immediately undergo the necessary surgery.

“I would’ve been laughed out of the league for having surgery on my pinky finger and missing a game,” he said.

Scroggins said he started experiencing insomnia before his sixth season in the NFL, 1997, but he didn’t have it diagnosed until after he retired.

“I didn’t know who to talk to about it, so I just started taking NyQuil to go to sleep,” he said.

The lawsuit states that Scroggins has a preliminary diagnosis of CTE, but he hasn’t undergone definitive testing.

Among the other physical ailments Scroggins claims to suffer from are a back fracture, a neck fracture, nerve damage in his shoulder, pain in both of his knees, arthritis and hand tremors. He also said past hamstring injuries limit how far he can stretch, though he has a trainer stretch him twice a week to help with his overall pain.

Without insurance after being out of the NFL for 15 years, Scroggins can’t seek the necessary help.

Scroggins, who's getting married June 4, said he used to be incredibly social, but his personality has changed to the point where he often waits multiple days or longer to call back friends because he doesn’t like being bothered.

“I can only engage in social interactions in spurts and then I need to get away and take a break and take some space and room all by myself, for maybe hours,” he said.

Burke said she and Scroggins have to think ahead when making plans to ensure he has a place to rest, and the fear of him becoming moody or aggressive often impacts any plans they make.

Even during the holidays last year, Burke said Scroggins could socialize for about an hour before needing to take a break.

“Even if he were able to get a job, there’s no way he could work an eight-hour job,” she said.

The road ahead

It’s unclear if Scroggins will be successful in his lawsuit. The NFL, which did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday, already sent his attorney a letter demanding he immediately and voluntarily end the suit because Scroggins is prohibited from bringing separate litigation after being a part of the league’s concussion settlement from April 2015.

Although the previous settlement provides monetary awards for players diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease), Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and dementia, the NFL will only pay for certain cases of CTE, which could only be discovered posthumously until recently. However, testing for CTE among living players remains in its infancy.

The goal of Scroggins’ lawsuit is to ensure the NFL diagnoses, treats and provides compensation for players living with CTE. In addition to covering the players involved in the previous settlement, the lawsuit represents the 225 players who opted out of the settlement and the hundreds of players that retired since July 7, 2014, who weren’t included in that settlement.

Although Scroggins was coherent during a 30-minute interview Thursday, he said it’s “scary” to think that he doesn’t know what the condition of his life will be in the future.

“Today’s players, they have the option — because of the knowledge and the awareness and the attention that’s been brought to long-term effects of playing — to choose whether or not they want to continue to play,” Scroggins said. “That option wasn’t given to us.”