(Photos courtesy of San Diego Chargers)
Talk of Fame Network
by Ron Borges
Walt Sweeney reached greatness in both the AFL and NFL the hard way. He battled himself as well as his opponents.
A two-time AFL All-Star and a seven-time NFL Pro Bowl selection, Sweeney played guard with incredible consistency and distinction for 11 years (1963-1975) with the San Diego Chargers and his final two with the Washington Redskins’ “Over The Hill Gang,” coached by George Allen. And he played despite battling alcohol and drug addiction, demons both self-imposed and handed to him by the teams for whom he starred.
According to a book he wrote three years ago (“Off Guard”), he was so high on speed in his first NFL appearance that his heart raced for hours after the game. So began what appears to be a Hall-of-Fame career and a life-long battle with addiction that he finally beat late in life after years of counseling and rehab.
Sweeney claimed fear is what fueled a career so successful that he was named to Syracuse University’s all-century team, the AFL’s all-time team and the Chargers’ 50th anniversary team. Fear of failure and fear for his quarterback’s safety.
In his book, Sweeney outlined his two-fisted drinking days in college and pro football, claiming one reason he was drawn to Syracuse was head coach Ben Schwartzwalder. The other was “because the drinking age in New York was 18.”
The No. 2 overall pick of the 1963 AFL draft, he would go on to become a nine-time All-Star. He played in 181 consecutive games before missing the final one with the knee injury that ended his career.
Throughout, he was also an alcoholic and, eventually, a drug addict. He abused both team-provided pain killers and steroids, as well as recreational drugs even in the years long after his retirement when he worked as a drug counselor in San Diego and a spokesman for Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign.
“I could talk a good game,” he once said, “but I couldn’t do it myself.”
Not until late in his life, which ended after a brief battle with pancreatic cancer at the age of 71 two years ago, did Sweeney win his fight with addiction. But long before that he established himself as one of the greatest offensive linemen never to be enshrined in Canton.
Hall-of-Fame defensive tackle Merlin Olsen once said, “If I had to play against Sweeney every day, I’d rather sell used cars.” Tom Keating, arguably the best defensive lineman in the Oakland Raiders’ early years and a star on their first Super Bowl team in 1967, claimed: “There is no better guard in pro football.”
Imagine what he might have been had he not gotten caught up in the 1970s’ drug culture that led to a number of fines levied on Chargers’ players, including Sweeney, for drug use. Later, Dr. Arnold Mandell, who was associated with the Chargers in those days, wrote “The Nightmare Season,” which highlighted rampant drug abuse on the Chargers in 1973. It was the NFL’s first drug scandal but far from its last.
Years after retirement, a broke-and-broken Sweeney sued the NFL and the administrators of the Bert Bell-Pete Rozelle Retirement Plan. He claimed that, instead of his minimum monthly disability payment of $1,827 for non-football disabilities, he should have been paid $12,670 a month, which was then the benefit for being totally disabled due to football-related injuries.
Sweeney contended he was “unemployable and totally and permanently disabled” and that his drug addiction was fostered by rampant drug abuse sanctioned by pro football — an addiction that led not only to addiction but to cognitive and physical damage as well. Ultimately, he would have four knee replacements and a hip replacement, leaving him four inches shorter than he had been as a player.
Sweeney claimed amphetamines were passed out before games and depressants afterward to allow players to come down slowly from those highs. He also asserted players were fined if they refused to use steroids and that abuse of prescription pain killers was rampant.
“My drug addiction is directly related to the game,” he wrote in his memoir. “It was the San Diego Chargers’ trainers and doctors who gave pregame amphetamines to rev me up, postgame sedatives to bring me down, pain killers as ‘needed’ and steroids, said to be vitamins, for better health. I considered taking drugs as normal for game-day preparation as putting on my game face.”
The NFL countered that those were personal choices and thus the league was not liable for his addiction or problems related to it. Filing those charges did not make him a popular figure in NFL circles.
Sweeney was eventually awarded $1.8 million by U.S. District Court Judge Rudi M. Brewster in 1997 but the decision was overturned on appeal, with the appeals court claiming his disabilities could not be definitely traced to his years in pro football. Sweeney then faded back into addiction and the anonymity of an often aimless, post-career life that included two divorces, bankruptcy, many lost jobs, repeated rehab stints and, finally, sobriety late in life.
In his book, he wrote of his road to sobriety: “I wish it was some sort of spiritual awakening but the fact of the matter is that I just got tired of fighting it.”
“If a guy breaks his back in the NFL, they’ll pay him,” Sweeney once told the Los Angeles Times. “That didn’t happen to me. Instead, those guys broke my mind. The NFL fed me full of drugs for years and years and years. Basically, I feel it’s ruined my life.”
Walt Sweeney’s Hall-of-Fame chances were very likely ruined by the same thing. He’s been eligible since 1981, but his name has never been brought forward. For all his problems and their causes, if you asked his contemporaries about Walt Sweeney, you’d learn that there were Hall of Famers who’d rather sell used cars for a living than face someone on those Sunday afternoons.
Maybe he should be with them in Canton.