March 8th, 2011
Pfeifer Hoping His Story Can Help Others
Former Shamrock and Wildcat still dealing with football injuries
I remember getting injured like yesterday, says former Trinity High School and University of Kentucky football standout Mike Pfeifer. It was late in the second quarter my junior year (at UK). We were on the 35-yard line versus Alabama on October 1, 1988. The quarterback fumbled the ball to my right foot. I looked down and all of the sudden, Keith McCants, went full speed to dive onto the ball, and my knee was between the ball and him. It happened so quickly, and there was no question I just blew my knee out. It was like standing on a noodle.”
It was in that brief moment, more than two decades ago, that started years of disappointment and disability for Pfeifer.
Just ten months later after that knee blow-out, a right foot injury plagued Pfeifer’s career again and inevitably kept him from pursuing professional football.
“I kept quiet through senior year about my foot,” said Pfeifer. “I once had a coach tell me, ‘You’re not hurt until I tell you you’re hurt’. So, I fought through it. I think it started out as a stress fracture, and I was eventually told it was a career ending injury.”
Now, at age 44, Pfeifer can barely get out of bed due to pain.
“It’s tough,” said Mary Pfeifer – Mike’s wife. “Our kids are realizing what he can’t do. Just recently, Mike couldn’t participate in a father/son scrimmage. He loves coaching football, but because of his injuries, football is not something we pushed onto our own boys.”
After early success in his career as a Shamrock, Pfeifer earned a scholarship and played for Kentucky from 1985-1989. As a preseason All-American, he was named All-SEC and made the Playboy All American Team in 1989 as a senior.
“It was an awesome experience, and without my injuries it would have been more awesome,” said Pfeifer.
Pfeifer’s trainer at UK – Al Green – who is now at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, FL, worked to try and help Pfeifer heal quickly.
“He was definitely hurt a lot in school,” said Green. “He sustained a very complex foot injury, as well as a knee injury. I know recently his foot has given him a lot of problems.”
Professional football should have been the next step for Pfeifer. While he worked tirelessly to heal, he bounced around teams as a free agent for more than two years.
“My draft stock went down to almost zero,” said Pfeifer. “After more than two years, it took an emotional toll. I was an All-American, and I had high expectations.”
After deciding to move on from his football career, Pfeifer started working in construction. He became a contractor for his company, Pfeifer Construction, as he built decks and then homes. As the years passed, Pfeifer’s injuries left him able to do less and less labor himself.
“He used to do some of the labor, but now more of his team does the work,” said Mary. “They do more remodeling than building at this point, but his injuries keep him from doing a lot of the work.”
Along with a tough professional life, Pfeifer and his wife have seen how hard it can be to pay for health insurance after serious injuries. Pfeifer is on his own plan separate from his family’s plan due to high costs.
“He’s self employed and his medical bills and insurance are expensive,” said Mary. “He’s even been denied to get it before. The older he gets, the worse he gets. He has to grab the post of the bed to get up in the morning. There should be physical therapy or health insurance of some kind to help athletes like him after play.”
Mary and Mike pose a question to the schools and the NCAA about support of athletes after play everywhere. Why isn’t there more assistance to those hurt? What injuries are serious enough for financial help?
NCAA Associate Director For Travel and Insurance Juanita Sheely says there are certain rules in place to distinguish athletes that need assistance.
“In 1992, the NCAA began the “Catastrophic Injury Insurance Program” to help athletes who need special aid after injury,” said Sheely. “That means after the student athlete’s insurance reaches a $90,000 deductible, the NCAA covers medical, death benefits and disability benefits for serious injuries.”
Medical assistance (after $90,000 deductible) ensures that athletes whom encounter injury during play in college are taken care of until they heal. Still, after two years of no treatment, the NCAA considers the athlete “healed” and discontinues assistance for that injury at that point, even if it was to reoccur later on.
While the program does assist athletes with life threatening injuries or travel tragedies, it does not assist those with serious issues that aren’t life threatening such as more orthopedic concerns that often don’t reach that deductible.
“There are no programs available for those issues that don’t meet the $90,000 deductible after play,” said Sheely. “Yet, I just recently heard of an organization for past student athletes injured years before that need help with medical bills through donations called FanInc.org.”
FanInc.org stands for “Foundation for Athlete’s in Need,” and helps former athletes who qualify for medical assistance. Steve Strinko, founder of FanInc.org and former football player at University of Michigan and the Detroit Lions, put together the non-profit organization to help student athletes still suffering from past injuries.
According to Sheely, the NCAA is more concentrated on taking care of injuries of current athletes, but is also discussing new developments and research to help new concerns.
“We are discussing the recent talks about concussions and funding on research on the topic and injuries,” said Sheely. Also, we have discussed lowering the deductible cost from $90,000, but again, it’s all just in a discussion phase.”
While athletes such as Pfeifer look for a solution, Green says that finding an answer to help former athletes in their injuries now is a complex matter.
“If we helped former collegiate athletes with injuries, we would have to be fair about the therapy or compensation,” said Green. “Treatment after play would need to be available for all NCAA levels. And would resources be available to anyone with debilitating injuries? Do star players get more money for their injuries? Again, every athlete on any level should get the same help.”
Green also pointed out that some athletes leave their sports recovered or healed from injury, and after work or physical activity years later encounter reoccurring injuries.
“At that point, do the athletes qualify for help later in life? It’s just very complex,” said Green.
Green stated that Pfeifer’s case would need to be reviewed, and that possibly a plan for some kind of rehabilitation or an additional surgery could solve an issue for him or others in a similar situation. As far as Pfeifer’s life now, he just looks for answers.
“All I’m seeking is a solution,” said Pfeifer. “I’ve spent more money on medical procedures than what the scholarship was worth. I just think the enticement at playing at that level and the excitement that comes along with it, there has to be more to it. You have to think about the effects to your body after you’re done. You take for granted you will simply get out of bed and go to work everyday. It’s just not that easy for me.”
While Pfeifer says he knows football is a rough sport that comes with “no guarantees,” he wishes there was something that could be done to help serve past athletes still in pain.
“I’ve heard a ballpark figure that if Division I schools each gave two percent of their gross revenue each year for five years to some kind of insurance fund, they could raise around $100 million,” said Pfeifer. “That kind of money could help former players like me.”
And while he prepares for a possible knee replacement in April this year, he holds on to the fact that his experience and love for football can still help Holy Spirit Elementary School Falcons develop into fine young men.
Said Pfeifer: “I had the opportunity to see the good come out of football through my time playing, and I know the valuable lessons you learn in the sport you can use in life. I just hope in the future more can be done to help the next group of kids, even after play.”