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Part II: The Majik Man's final comeback
Everything was going so, so good in the NFL. Until it wasn't. The good times came to an abrupt end... and Don Majkowski has been fighting for his life ever since.
Miss Part I? READ HERE.
DEPEW, N.Y. — He’d love to teach kids today how to throw a football. That’d sure give Don Majkowski joy.
Unfortunately, he can’t coach.
His ankle. His back. He wouldn’t be able to stand on a field for an hour. His body would shut down. But what hurts Majkowski the most is that he cannot even throw a football today. Period. That badass in the eye black, that darling of the 1989 NFL season is now utterly powerless. On second thought, OK, maybe he could technically throw a ball. But it wouldn’t go far and it’d be ugly. “Really ugly,” he assures.
“My shoulder,” Majkowski says, “is just trashed.”
Everything that happened after that ’89 season in Green Bay has caught up to him, and then some.
Majkowski used to play golf and tennis but had to quit. Tennis was especially his passion but all of those ankle surgeries killed this source of joy.
Mornings are the absolute worst.
“It feels like you got in a car wreck the day before,” Majkowski says, “and you’re all stiff and your neck hurts.
“It’s brutal, man.”
He can’t stand for too long. He can’t even sit for too long. No, this is not the life Majkowski envisioned for himself when he started turning that corner in 1990. His life took a dark turn for the worse that day in Phoenix. In a 24-21 win, Majkowski tore the rotator cuff in his right shoulder when 262-pound defensive end Freddie Joe Nunn body-slammed him out of bounds. Nunn drew a personal foul and Majkowski was never the same again.
Most everyone assumes this career spiraled downhill in ’92 with the arrival of Brett Favre. That’s not true. Majkowski is the first to point out that he was a shell of himself by then because of that wrecked shoulder in ’90. He lost his velocity. His quick release. His touch. His throwing motion became “more extended” and Majkowski underwent intensive, daily physical therapy just to be able to throw. He refused to let anyone know how much that shoulder hurt.
No way would he give this franchise any excuse to bench him after what he went through.
Little did he know how bad things were about to get.
“I was playing the rest of my six years in extreme pain,” Majkowski says. “I was just miserable. It wasn’t the same. I worked so hard trying to get it back but it just wasn’t the same.”
“It took a lot of fun out of playing because I was miserable for six years.”
Majkowski won’t utter a bad word about Infante but, the truth is, Infante’s “flush” formation also doomed him. Infante ran one of the first spread offenses in the NFL. With four receivers and one back, the quarterback had multiple options in the passing game. But there was one problem: The pass protection was extremely flawed. Play to play, Majkowski was exposed to cruel and unusual punishment.
In ’91, Infante benched him. In ’92, Ron Wolf and Mike Holmgren took over. And in Week 3 of that season, the Bengals’ Tim Krumrie essentially shoved Majkowski’s left ankle into an incinerator. In came No. 4 and the NFL was never the same again.
Majkowski headed to Indy in ’93. His head was pile-driven into the turf by Wooden in ’94.
Majkowski spent two more seasons in Detroit, even starting in a 28-18 loss to Favre’s Packers the year Green Bay won the Super Bowl in ’96.
And he was done.
He played 10 seasons on 10 one-year contracts.
Even as a mobile QB for his era, even though he played only one full season, Majkowski was sacked 180 times.
Now, each of those photos on his phone has a horror story attached to it. Before having the plates put into his ankle, the doctor actually botched his attempt at a fusion. In trying to fuse the ankle without being too invasive, in 2006, Majkowski says the doctor essentially stuck “two gutter nails” across the ankle. It didn’t work. It “was painful as hell.” Sure enough, the picture on the screen shows two nails criss-crossing across the joint.
To that doctor’s credit, the second surgery in 2007 was a success.
Back issues came next.
Right when the Packers were experiencing their next transition at quarterback — Favre to Rodgers — the guy who started it all was hitting his physical rock bottom. Through 2009 and 2010, Majkowski’s back pain rendered him immobile. There was Favre leading the Vikings to the NFC Championship in 2009. There was Rodgers winning a Super Bowl in 2010. Majkowski? He was confined to his couch all day, all night. Majkowski? He says he “couldn’t move” and couldn’t even get approval for surgery. It was his understanding that all future surgeries would be covered 100 percent by the NFL but, sure enough, here was the NFL giving him the classic runaround.
Majkowski was told by NFL-approved doctors to undergo physical therapy… to get injected… to do this, do that.
He says the league denied him three times.
“It was terrible,” he says. “I lost two years of my kids. I couldn’t do anything.”
Depression was unavoidable and relentless. Majkowski could not find an everyday purpose and — as the years passed — entered “a dark time” in his life. The pain prevented him from being the best husband, the best father he could be. He felt helpless. Further, the real estate company Majkowski owned took a beating when the market crashed and his partner stole money from him.
Bad turned to worse. Daily.
“I went through a depression where I didn’t have any energy,” Majkowski says. “I couldn’t work out. I wasn’t doing much. You’re not used to that.
“Living in pain every day is debilitating. It sucks the personality out of you. That’s what NFL guys suffer from. It’s brutal.”
Considering his back required “heavy meds,” Majkowski naturally became addicted to painkillers. Luckily, he managed to wean off of these by cutting back on his doses through a three-month period. That image of the Colts team doctor giving Majkowski pain meds was the norm then — players got hooked. For many, pills become effective as Tic Tacs. Former No. 2 overall pick, Ryan Leaf, was unbelievably raw in our conversation at Go Long. He’d break into homes to feed his addiction. The key for all ex-players, Majkowski says, is to somehow find a system that works for you. Personally, he can’t wait to get his right hip replaced because, even though he’ll still hurt every morning, Majkowski will at least be technically “fixed.”
This hip’s been lingering for a good four years. That Cortisone injection only lasts three months with the pain always returning tenfold.
What boggles the mind is how heartless the league itself is through a crisis like this. The common refrain amongst retired players is that the NFL will “deny and deny until you die.”
It took Majkowski two years to get one fusion. He had MRIs and X-Rays in-hand. He had doctors themselves declaring — in writing — that he suffered from “degenerative disc disease.” Yet, the wait continued. He was denied twice for neck surgery, and once it was approved? Majkowski says the league called him two days before surgery to say they were only approving the anesthesia part of the surgery and that he’d need to wait three more months.
“More games. More loopholes,” Majkowski says. “It was brutal. Nothing’s ever approved.”
Footage of a WWE-style takedown apparently is not ample proof that the sport itself inflicted such damage.
He had the two neck surgeries during Covid, too, which wasn’t ideal. With a massive brace around his neck for three months, Majkowski couldn’t do anything but lay on his couch and eat. His weight ballooned.
He knew he wasn’t alone, too.
So many retirees are stranded and depressed and burning through their life savings to stay afloat. When the latest collective bargaining agreement was ratified, Majkowski was stunned to discover the NFL had warped the benefits of retirees. This all hardly generated any media coverage but, in July 2020, Majkowski and former NFL running back Aveion Cason filed a lawsuit against the NFL and NFLPA. Representing 400 retired players — and, in turn, their families — Majkowski alleged that the league eliminated benefits that were promised.
In the previous CBA, he explains, if a player was approved for social security disability than he automatically qualified for NFL disability.
That’s how Majkowski himself received both.
Yet in the 2020 CBA, if a player is approved by social security he no longer automatically qualifies for NFL disability. That player must pass a body evaluation conducted by NFL-appointed doctors to get approved… which means many players, of course, will enter that deny-until-you-die maze. And that’s a problem. For a good decade, these ex-players’ entire families have adjusted their lives around the two sources of income.
Many, like Majkowski, barely made much at all in the pros.
The ex-QB receives $2,700 per month from social security. In the new CBA, he says, the NFL can deduct this amount from what they pay retirees.
“All 400 guys,” Majkowski says. “Guys who have already been on it for a decade and have already been promised that this is going to be a lifetime salary for you. And we all met with our financial advisors. We’re all budgeting our lifestyles and our mortgages and our car payments according to what the NFL promised us.
“You can look up old documents. It’s noted that we were promised that. In the new collective bargaining agreement, when those players signed it, they had no idea. It was in tiny letters, one little paragraph, that we are going to take away from the permanently disabled guys what they get from social security. The $2,700 a month. Nobody knew that. So, all the current players just signed. They got great new benefits. They got increased salaries. Everything was good in the new collective bargaining agreement except they’re taking away from the guys that are totally and permanently disabled guys. So that’s why I filed the lawsuit with my attorney and I was the main plaintiff representing these 400 guys.
“They were making it like we wanted a re-vote for the collective bargaining agreement. All we wanted was to be grandfathered in what you promised us 10 years ago — what we were already being paid.”
To keep all 400 players in the same system, Majkowski estimates it’d cost the NFL $12 million a year.
In other words, $330,000 per owner. Relative peanuts to support the players who helped build the sport itself.
U.S. District Court Judge Trevor N. McFadden dismissed the case in May.
“It was disheartening,” Majkowski says. “We really felt like that was something to fight for. Still is. That’s been crushing.”
The deduction was supposed to begin on Jan. 1, 2021 but, due to this lawsuit, the date was pushed to Jan. 1, 2024. The CBA was amended but Cason made it clear he’s not happy. Majkowski shudders to think what’ll happen once the NFL turns this faucet off in 2024.
There are ex-players in far, far, far worse mental and physical condition in dire need of this $35,000 each year.
The blow to their lives will be “devastating,” he says.
These 400 players — the #Forgotten400 on Twitter — do have more time to potentially refile a lawsuit.
“There are guys that are really bad,” Majkowski says. “Their wives are their total caretakers. You take $2,700 a month away from these guys and it’ll be devastating. They’ll lose their homes. Some of them have to hire some babysitters to watch their kids so their wives can work. Or hire a caretaker while their wives are working. You talk about suicide with former players? Wait until they do this. When they start taking money away from guys who are already disabled, watch what happens after that. It’s going to be tragic.”
Vince Workman, the ex-Packers back, has similar fears. He knows the pain from this game truly burdens players 10… 15… 20 years after they retire.
That’s when you truly pay the price.
Game to game in the 90s, you simply numbed it up and pretended like the injuries didn’t exist.
“Back in the day,” Workman says, “it was nothing to go to the doctor and say, ‘Hey, Doc, can you shoot me up? Can I get some pills?’ Guys would do that just so they could continue to play. You have the pressure from the organization or the pressure from somebody behind you. You feel like you have to get out there. You have to play. You do whatever you have to do to stay on the field.
“For one, you have to trust the doctors that they’re going to do what’s right. At the same time, the doctors are employed by the organization. They have their hands tied, too. A lot of times, they have to do what their boss tells them to do, too.”
Yet, this voice is absent in CBA negotiations every decade. Retired players do not have a seat at the table.
The 456-page document in 2020 was passed — quickly — and Majkowski knows the current players didn’t even think about post-NFL life when they signed the dotted line.
They, too, could have their body patched together by gutter nails and fusions and stitches one day.
Shockingly, Majkowski’s lawsuit made practically no noise in the national media, so the NFL and NFLPA faced no public backlash. Like always, Majkowski had terrible timing. The headline came… the headline disappeared… the case disappeared. Majkowski believes the “Race Norming” controversy in the NFL overshadowed what these 400 retirees are battling.
For the quarterback, it was yet another costly tally in the loss column.
Another reason to sink further into depression.
One hour into conversation, Majkowski needs to stand up.
He winces. He tries to straighten out that surgically repaired back and doing so seems akin to those bones and joints surviving 12 rounds with Tyson Fury. As the kitchen clock continues to tick… and tick… and tick… the specter of death sharpens. His former backup in Green Bay (Blair Kiel) died from a heart attack at age 50 in 2012. His coach (Infante) passed in 2015. His GM (Braatz) passed in 2018. Dad’s gone. What if any of those 400 retirees do consider what Majkowski fears most?
One quarterback that Majkowski once dueled with in the ACC, Erik Kramer, pulled the trigger on himself and miraculously lived to tell Go Long about it.
Majkowski has every reason to live in sadness. This is a life that’s been speeding downhill since that epic high in ’89.
Yet, body language tells the real story here.
This entire visit, he is never visibly downtrodden detailing his demise. Rather, Don Majkowski is strikingly upbeat for a quarterback who’s experienced the exact opposite life of the two who followed him in Green Bay. He smiles. He laughs. He’s doing exactly what he did when Nunn and Krumrie and Wooden drilled him into the ground.
He’s lifting himself up off the canvas.
That’s the camera shot too often left on the cutting room floor in the annals of pro football.
After every hit, Majkowski gets back up.
He always does.
The NFL often gives retirees zero choice but to figure life out on their own once ejecting them into mainstream society. As Ryan Leaf eloquently put, Roger Goodell gives you a bear hug when you’re drafted. But when your time’s up? When you’re finished with his sport? The commish essentially says, “Don’t let the door hit you on the ass on the way out.”
There’s no curing the physical pain.
Retirees can, however, improve their mental health so that’s what Majkowski did. He can pinpoint precisely when his life started to take a turn for the better: 2018. This was when he started to see a psychiatrist. Releasing all emotions — through therapy — has been life-changing. He’ll never get his body back but The Majik Man realized he could take back control of his mind, his happiness, his future years while that clock ticks.
It just took humility.
So much humility.
“Having to admit it,” Majkowski says. “I was a former player. All the guys, we’re too tough to cry about our problems. We’re going to suck it up and bury it deep. You suck it up. You play through it. And for years I did that — years. It just finally caught up. I had to get help. Extreme depression. I’m not embarrassed to say I’m on anti-depressants now. It helps. Mental health is out in the open. There’s no shame in it.”
Every Friday AM, Majkowski also meets with a Christian Men’s Group in Atlanta. A group that consists of people from all walks of life: pro baseball players, doctors, attorneys, psychologists. These sessions are also therapeutic in allowing grown men to express their inner-most feelings. Addictions. Psychological issues. Marriage issues. Child issues. Celebrities who seem to have it all — ultra-, ultra-, ultra-successful dudes — share their darkness with each other.
Everything is on the table. Majkowski calls this a “life support group.”
He’s been a part of this for 15 years but takes it more seriously now than ever.
“We talk about everything,” Majkowski says. “The darkest of dark things.”
His own religious journey has played a major part in getting back on track, too. As an NFL player, Majkowski used to make fun of teammates gathering for prayer groups. “There goes the ‘God Squad,” he’d say. He wishes he knew then what he knows now. He says finding a personal relationship with Jesus Christ has been “monumental.”
It’s another way to unburden himself.
“You can’t do it on your own like I used to try,” Majkowski says. “The toughest thing is opening up and expressing your feelings and what’s really going on. It’s not easy for a lot of men to do. It took me a long time.”
Of course, his entire body is still in extreme pain and that pain inevitably feeds sadness. Two different anti-depressants help. Pain meds, too. But Majkowski admits he needs to be careful not to abuse pills since he has slipped up and he’s seen the toll that it takes on his family. Above all, he’s finding reasons to wake up in the morning. He’s focusing on what he can do instead of what he cannot.
He can’t throw a football. He can’t coach. He stopped painting. He even quit playing guitar when the depression was at its worst.
But these last three years? Majkowski has been on the rebound. He’s starting to strum that guitar once again and is finding true purpose in fatherhood. His son, Bo, played collegiate baseball at Clemson and graduated last spring. Dad says Bo is now in the transfer portal and hoping to use his final year of eligibility somewhere to earn a shot at playing professionally.
As early as middle school, Dad said he wanted Bo to play baseball. Not football.
He cherished those 124-mile trips north to Clemson to see Bo play and has taken immense pride in being his “life coach.”
“That was my full-time job,” Majkowski says. “Obviously he’s still going through some tough times that I did. I didn’t set the best example at times, either. It’s a constant battle to always stay on top.”
His daughter was an excellent athlete, too. She’s 25 now.
His wife, “a Milwaukee girl,” has been an angel, he says, for putting up with him for 27 years of marriage. Kelly Majkowski is always on the front lines fighting for her husband.
Don is doing what he can physically. Three months ago, he was 240 pounds. Now, he’s 217. Light lifting and pushups help but, mostly, Majkowski is just trying to eat better. He can’t wait for the hip surgery, too. Majkowski doesn’t think he’s suffering any effects of CTE but admits Kelly may beg to differ.
On permanent disability, Majkowski cannot work so he’s thinking about writing an autobiography.
What he’s spilling here is actually only a fraction of his reality. There’s far more to his depression. Putting all of his experiences and thoughts and rock bottoms down on paper, he knows, will only help his recovery. Majkowski is finally comfortable enough to tell the world.
He can share because he is a man unburdened.
The agony of What Could’ve Been out of that ‘89 season does not eat at him. The rest of the world may view him as the NFL’s “Wally Pipp” but Majkowski never felt that unique. He points to Kurt Warner replacing Trent Green, Steve Young replacing Joe Montana, Tom Brady replacing Drew Bledsoe and says — blankly — that “everybody’s replaceable.” He and Brett Favre have remained close friends these last three decades. Majkowski is thrilled that the quarterback who replaced him ended up being an all-time great.
Teammates daydream of what would’ve happened if Majkowski never trashes his shoulder. Workman, for one, believes the Packers probably never hire Ron Wolf and never trade for Favre because the Majik Man would’ve been the legend reawakening the franchise.
Majkowski? He only looks back with joy.
Here, he stands up and walks back to the living room. Staring at his Dad’s favorite chair, he says again that Dad was unable to speak for a decade. But before Dad died, son was overwhelmed with a sense of comfort. Back in Majkowski’s playing days, Fred Majkowski used to rub his son’s shoulder to put him at ease. And this day — 48 hours before death — Dad rubbed his son’s arm as if to say it was time.
Son has video of this, too. And that is a video clip he’ll treasure forever.
When the kids brought Dad home from hospice, he was heavily medicated. He struggled to breathe. But, somehow, he managed to smile.
The Majkowskis are staying strong. It’s the only option.
As we head out the door, Don playfully yells to his Mom — “Gerri!” — in the back to get the goulash cooking for their guests arriving soon. They’ve always been super close. Majkowski has her name tatted.
Soon, he’ll fly back south to Atlanta. That Cortisone shot will wear off, he’ll be in extreme pain each morning and… he’ll find a way.
He’s the Majik Man, after all.