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Effort raises over $100K for needy NFL alumni

MILWAUKEE (Feb. 14, 2007) -- About $125,000 has been raised to aid needy, retired National Football League players.

The Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund was launched by Jerry Kramer, star right guard of the Green Bay Packers four decades ago under Vince Lombardi. Kramer auctioned off a replica of his Super Bowl I ring last spring, raising more than $22,000 to help supplement pension and disability benefits for other former players.

Mike Ditka's 1975 NFC Championship ring -- when he was an assistant coach with the Dallas Cowboys -- sold for $12,200, a tennis experience with John McEnroe went for $11,250 and hand-drawn plays by Lombardi sold for $7,101 at an auction that began two weeks ago and ended the night of Feb. 13.

"It's amazing how this initiative has taken off," Kramer said. "The fact that so many fans and so many NFL legends are working together to provide assistance to some of the retired players who helped build the league into what it is today is just wonderful."

Jennifer Smith, the fund's executive director, said that reports about the auction resulted in more donated items and prompted a second phase of the auction, which will run until Feb. 20.

About $100,000 was raised by auctioning about 50 items in the first phase, Smith said. The second phase has started with about the same number, but other items will be added.

Kramer's Web site,, will continue to serve as the portal to the auction, Smith said.

Items being offered during the second phase include a helmet donated by former Packers quarterback Bart Starr, bearing his signature and those of teammates Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor, and a behind-the-scenes trip at NFL Network.

About $25,000 was raised through Feb. 13 in about 225 donations ranging from $2 to $10,000, Smith said.

Ditka and fellow Pro Football Hall of Fame members Willie Davis, Gale Sayers, Harry Carson and Joe DeLamielleure were recently named to the GGAF board of directors, which Smith said will set up policies on how the money will be distributed.

"It is important for everyone to remember who the funds that are raised are going to," Ditka said in a statement. "It's going to the guys who started football, not the guys who are making the money off it."

The Super Bowl ring that Kramer auctioned last May was made for him after his original disappeared in 1981. The original ring showed up last April in an online auction, but was pulled after Kramer learned about it. It eventually was returned to him.

"More than anything else, the fundraising effort has been an opportunity to raise awareness of the problem," Kramer said.

The former Packers guard said he was gratified that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell had addressed the matter when asked about players from the 1950s through the 1970s at his news conference a few days before the Super Bowl.

"There are players that do have issues that need to be addressed. And we are going to need to address that directly with them," Goodell said.

Smith said the group plans to hold an annual auction around the time of the Super Bowl and will accept donations at any time.

Mike Sportelli, 45, a sales representative for a Los Angeles area construction company, made the winning bid for Ditka's ring.

"It's a nice way to start my collection. And it gives me an opportunity to help former players in need," said Sportelli, who also had a winning bid on spending a day with Carson, a former New York Giants linebacker. "These guys took quite a beating back then."

Darrel Wright, 65, of LaQuinta, Calif., who formerly served as the timekeeper for NFL games at the Los Angeles Coliseum, donated $10,000 to the cause.

"These guys loved football and didn't make a lot of money. They provided me with a lot of entertainment," he said.

The Associated Press News Service

Copyright 2007, The Associated Press, All Rights Reserved

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