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Alexander hopes to get compensated for injuries suffered in NFL

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Robert Alexander gained 1,064 yards for WVU during his senior year in 1980 before embarking on an NFL career. Robert Alexander gained 1,064 yards for WVU during his senior year in 1980 before embarking on an NFL career.

Some called it ground-breaking. Others said it wasn't enough.

In August, the National Football League reached a settlement involving more than 4,500 former players in a lawsuit that focused on concussion injuries.

The league is scheduled to pay $765 million that will fund medical exams, concussion-related compensation, medical research for retired NFL players and their families and litigation expenses, according to the court document filed in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia.

It is Robert Alexander's continued hope, as football fans throughout the country count down the remaining weeks until the Super Bowl, that he will also be among those compensated for injuries he suffered in his years of pro football — injuries that make his life a struggle more than three decades later.

Being included

The South Charleston native has a separate case pending, seeking a judgment for workers' compensation in a California court. He hopes to get that result within the next few months, nearly three years after filing.

"My friend Carl Lee asked me if I'd seen (the NFL settlement news) in the paper," Alexander recalled earlier this month. "I hadn't. I asked him if I hadn't already filed, could I still file? So we called his attorney and asked her. 

"She said ‘Absolutely.' I have already been tested, head to toe, up and down and all around. So I still hope to get involved in it."

Alexander was a player with the Los Angeles Rams and San Diego Chargers from 1981 to 1984. He also played with the Los Angeles Express of the United States Football League in 1985.

He was a high school all-American and Parade Magazine National Prep Player of the Year in 1976. Following a nationwide recruiting campaign that took the standout running back to some of college football's storied campuses such as the University of Southern California, Ohio State and Penn State, Alexander chose to sign with West Virginia University.

Following his senior year with the Mountaineers in 1980, Alexander was drafted by the Rams.

Lee, also a South Charleston High School graduate, played at Marshall University from 1979-1982 before an NFL career with the Minnesota Vikings that lasted 11 years and one year with the New Orleans Saints in 1994.

The NFL is challenging Alexander's workers' comp lawsuit.

Not about the money

"I have already been declared 100 percent disabled by doctors," Alexander said. "I'm glad that there's been no settlement offer. I want (to go to trial) so everyone will know what my body has been through."

But it's not about the money.

"Whatever the Lord would give my family in this is fine with me," he said. "When I played I had over eight concussions. My body was beat up, banged up, torn up. 

"And no one ever said to me, ‘Hey, you can get compensated for all of your injuries.' I'm glad that we realized it before they put me in the ground." 

"Right now, it's as tough as it's been my whole life," Alexander said. "All of a sudden, it hits you. I didn't know what in the world was going on with my body."

He said he has a crack between the C4 and C5 bones in his neck, with pain radiating through his shoulder and out to his fingers. 

"I'll be holding a cup and drop it," he said. "I have a sciatic nerve going down both my legs to my toes. I'm losing feeling in my legs. It's terrible. I have all kinds of things going on.

"Sometimes I've been in so much pain that I've just cried. I know why Junior Seau did what he did."

A more chilling statement could not have been uttered by a man who once enjoyed the cheers of tens of thousands of fans as he ran with a football. 

The estate of Seau, a former standout linebacker with the San Diego Chargers, has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the NFL, claiming his 2012 suicide was the result of brain disease caused by the injuries he sustained while playing pro football.

According to an Associated Press report in 2012, more than 3,800 players have sued the NFL because of head injuries.

But football injuries go beyond concussions, as Alexander's many impairments attest.

"And the doctors say that Robert's heart is about twice the size it should be," his wife Becky added. "That's not a good thing."

A family tradition

The Alexanders now have an 11-year-old son who is playing midget league football.

"My dad always told me that ‘There will always be someone out there bigger, faster and stronger than you,'" Alexander recalled. "That made me work harder. I didn't want to be just West Virginia good. I wanted to be the best (in the nation). I trained and worked and sacrificed my body for that."

Alexander said his son is a quarterback and has had a good year.

"I told him that I didn't want him to play this year, but he loves football," Alexander said. "He has seen me in this pain. He helps daddy get up and down the steps.

"So I tell him, ‘Go to high school and get yourself a scholarship. And if you think you're good enough to go to the next level after college, work your butt off and be a No. 1 draft choice and then play two years and quit.'" 

But Alexander noted that today's kids are bigger than they used to be.

"They're taking those brutal hits. And the ones that don't make it to the NFL — who will compensate those guys?" he said. "They should pay college players, for as much money that they make off those guys."

The toll sometimes mounts just as much mentally and emotionally as physically.

"When Robert was released by the Chargers, he was feeling like he was a nobody — that he hadn't accomplished anything," Becky Alexander said. "He didn't want anyone to know who he was and he didn't want to go anywhere. He was very depressed."

She said it's been a struggle to keep his blood pressure, his pain and his depression under control. And it has only been recently that Alexander has begun to reflect on his football career and feel a sense of accomplishment, he admits.

Constant pain

"One doctor has suggested ‘Move south, get a pool and do water aerobics. It would be the best thing for your health,'" Alexander said. "We've been praying about it for about a year now.

"We spent one Christmas in Florida. We were there 14 days, feeling good, moving around. We were both feeling better. But as soon as we packed up and came back home, we started getting sick again. I was really scared and thought I was going to lose my wife."

The hardest transition for Alexander was seeing football as a business.

"When it ended, I wasn't having fun," he said. "It was hard going from the fantasy world of pro football to the reality of the real world.

"It hasn't always been this way, but as far as I'm concerned now, I was a success (on the football field)," Alexander said. "And I thank God that he put my wife in my life when he did, because I'd probably be dead right now."