Carl Eller, Ex-Viking, Is Using the Super Bowl as a Platform

Carl Eller, one of the Minnesota Vikings’ Purple People Eaters from the 1970s, in his pottery studio in Minneapolis.

MINNEAPOLIS — The Eagles and the Patriots may be playing in the Super Bowl on Sunday, but football fans here will be seeing a lot of former Minnesota Vikings, and they will be hearing a lot from one — Carl Eller. Maybe more than the N.F.L. would like.

Every year, retired N.F.L. stars who played in the city hosting the Super Bowl are trotted out to sign autographs, raise money for charity and work as ambassadors for the league and the home city. In Minneapolis, where the football team has yielded far more heartache than happiness, Eller is part of the most hallowed group of former Vikings — the brilliantly named Purple People Eaters, a defensive line that carried the team to four Super Bowls in the 1970s.

For Eller, this Super Bowl is a chance for something more than signing autographs and human-mascot duty. True to his longtime form as a thorn in the side of the N.F.L., he wants to use the opportunity to remind everyone about the plight of retired players and how he thinks they are often tossed aside by the league that profited from their talents. His moment in the spotlight will even steal time from his beloved raku pottery habit.

“It’s always been a battle to get more for retirees from the league,” Eller said on Thursday at a pancake breakfast he hosted to raise money for the N.F.L. Retired Players Association, a group he created to provide benefits to former players.

The breakfast was one of many events Eller planned to lead or attend ahead of the Super Bowl. He auctioned some of his memorabilia to raise money for nonprofit groups supported by the N.F.L. and its teams. He is to host a party with the other Purple People Eaters on Friday, with proceeds going to the Retired Players Association.

The events are a continuation of the decades of work that Eller has done to fight for retiree benefits, including pensions, health insurance and tuition assistance. The effort hasn’t been easy. Eller was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the N.F.L. and the N.F.L. Players Association that accused them of not adequately caring for former players.

The N.F.L. has plenty of problems to address besides its retired players. Television ratings have fallen. Young fans seem more consumed with video games. Concern about the long-term impact of repeated blows to the head has turned off some fans.

Eller, 76, is aware of all this. But players, especially those of his generation, laid the foundation of a league that has become a $14 billion behemoth, he said. The retirees earned a fraction of what today’s players do, and they formed the union that fought for the free agency that rewards current players.

The year after Eller retired, 1980, the average N.F.L. salary was $78,657, or about $250,000 when adjusted for inflation. Today that number is about $2.1 million, or more than eight times as much.

Most careers rarely last more than a few years, and the injury rate is essentially 100 percent. The bulk of players from the past never received big contracts or lucrative endorsement deals. Many of them have medical problems that require long-term care, burdens they have often dealt with alone.

For Eller, the hardest part of leaving the N.F.L. was finding a new purpose in life while coping with the loss of a network of friends and coaches who provided a sense of stability. Many players compensate for the absence of that structure with unhealthy behavior.

Eller struggled with cocaine during the last six of his 16 years in the league. He made poor investments, he said, which led him to file for bankruptcy the year after he retired.

“It was really damaging to me and the family,” Eller, who had three children with his first wife and recently remarried, said of those years. (Eller’s son, Regis, works as a scout for the Los Angeles Chargers.)

Rather than hide from his problems, Eller sought counseling and spoke out. He helped the league develop its substance abuse policies. He also designed programs to help former players find new careers. For about a decade in the 1980s and 1990s, Eller ran an outpatient rehabilitation center that served thousands of substance abusers.

“I’ve lived all the things I’m talking about,” Eller said. “I’ve experienced it.”

At the pancake breakfast, Jay Ness, a longtime Vikings fan, recalled that as a college student in 1985, he went to hear Eller speak in Fargo, N.D. Ness expected tales of football exploits. What stuck, though, was Eller’s discussion about his battles with addiction.

Ness said when heavy drinking derailed his own life several years ago, he remembered Eller’s brutal honesty. It motivated him to enter a rehabilitation program and to become a substance abuse counselor.

“He made a great speech, and I wish I took it to heart 20 years ago,” Ness, 53, said. “Carl showed that it can happen to anybody.”

In addition to his work with substance abusers, Eller took a job with the state to promote awareness about AIDS and the need for protected sex, focusing particularly on the African-American community. He also began working with a charter school in Minneapolis.

Eller’s demons did not entirely disappear. In 2006, he pleaded guilty to a drunken-driving charge. Two years later, he was charged with assault, drunken driving and refusing to take a sobriety test.

In 2011, he and other retired players accused the union of selling them out to cut a deal with the league and renew the collective bargaining agreement. They hired the well-known plaintiffs’ attorney Michael Hausfeld to sue the N.F.L. and the union.

“He was very upset that the league and players association were paying no attention to those who helped build the game,” Hausfeld said.

A spokesman for the union, George Atallah, declined to comment.

A judge threw out the case, ruling that the union’s primary responsibility was to represent current players. But Eller’s suit inspired other litigation against the league, including a case focused on the right of players to be paid for the N.F.L.’s use of their images. The league settled that case, and part of the compensation was a dental plan.

After litigation that accused the league of hiding the dangers of repeated hits to the head, the N.F.L. agreed to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on players with severe neurological diseases.

“Carl’s a player’s player,” said Charles Grantham, who helped start the National Basketball Players Association decades ago. “Just the idea he put his name on the lawsuits, most players wouldn’t do that. What you need is a voice that is strong enough that others will hear it.”

Eller lends his voice to the N.F.L. Legends Community, a program run by the league to publicize the benefits available to players after they leave the game. Eller is one of 22 former players who speak to the 6,500 retirees in the Legends Community.

“A lot of the players just don’t know what’s available to them,” said Tracy Perlman, who runs the program for the N.F.L. “Carl is very transparent and a great mentor.”

Often dressed in purple, Eller remains a visible figure in the Minneapolis area, and at Vikings games. The Purple People Eaters — which also included Gary Larsen, Jim Marshall and Alan Page — are still mobbed by fans asking about their exploits. Eller is stopped at restaurants and in the street by people who remember his days playing at the University of Minnesota and with the Vikings. Some even call him by his nickname, the Moose.

After a serious health scare last summer, Eller returned to a more contemplative passion that he discovered decades ago, working on pottery at his studio in a warehouse in northeast Minneapolis. There, he spends hours molding clay into decorative plates, and tunes out his personal problems, and those facing other former players.

“I can calm down and the world slips away and I get lost in it,” Eller said, a dainty paint brush buried in his big hands. “It’s the polar opposite of football, when you have to be present at every moment.”

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