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Getting the ring can be easier than keeping it
By BRUCE LOWITT
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 26, 2001
It looks grand or gaudy depending on your taste. It is, along with the Vince Lombardi Trophy, emblematic of greatness in the NFL, even if only for a year. It is ruffles and flourishes, dispelling anonymity, even if only for a moment.
And sometimes a Super Bowl ring can be a last line of defense between poverty and homelessness. Even then, it's not infallible.
For every Roger Staubach, every Jerry Rice, every player who has reached the top of the mountain and remained there, or at least maintained his equilibrium during the descent, there is a player whose fortune and celebrity have vanished.
Steelers running back Rocky Bleier sold his four Super Bowl rings for $40,000 in 1996 in a bankruptcy-and-divorce procedure and was allowed to "lease" them for $1,368 a month over three years to get them back; Cowboys linebacker Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson had his Super Bowl XII ring seized to pay back taxes. Giants wide receiver Bob Johnson pawned his Super Bowl XXI ring in Nashville for $500 and never retrieved it. Raiders defensive back Skip Thomas pawned his Super Bowl XI ring in a futile attempt to save his house from being sold by creditors.
That Oakland team's rings are the most coveted, selling for $20,000 and up.
Part of the allure is the character of those Raiders, resident felons of the NFL. Part is that a decade after Vince Lombardi designed the first Super Bowl ring for his champion Packers, an unpretentious little thing with one simple diamond, Raiders owner Al Davis designed a gargantuan, jewel-encrusted ring for his players -- and the teams' anything-you-can-do game took off from there. The NFL contributes $5,000 toward the cost of each ring; owners routinely add thousands more.
The stars of past Super Bowl teams are less likely to wear their rings. They are instantly recognizable even in retirement. It is the second-stringer, the special-teamer who will wear -- brandish might be more accurate -- his, looking for one more moment of adulation and the chance to recount his long-gone greatness.
But sometimes fame is traded for fortune, often of the most temporary kind.
Don Budd opened Central Pawn in Kansas City, Kan., 14 years ago. Two years later, a former NFL player came in and hocked his Super Bowl ring.
"It was hard for me to believe that someone could reach that pinnacle ... and be willing to give up the one object that says, "I was the best,' " Budd said.
Now, about 10 players show up at the pawnshop each season, ring in hand.
"The thing to remember," Budd said, "is that these guys are no different from any other human being. You can compare them to the guy who just lost his job and needs 20 bucks. A lot of players go into college making zero, or maybe a few thousand a year. They come out of college making a million, a few million the first year. They live that lifestyle for the years they can play, then it's all taken away from them and they're back to zero." Budd is one of a very small coterie of Super Bowl ring collectors and dealers. You literally can count them on one hand.
Scott Welkowsky is another. He has been at it for 20 years and owns a sports memorabilia store in suburban San Diego. He has about eight rings ranging in value from $3,500 to $20,000 and more.
"Sometimes a starter gets a higher quality diamond," Welkowsky said. "A player who was signed late ... might get one that's just gold-plated."
Welkowsky said former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo typically had more than one made for himself. "One year, a dozen, all with diamonds, all with his name."
Last year, 39 bids were made on the Internet for former Bears defensive lineman William "Refrigerator" Perry's ring -- one of them, anyway. It sold for $27,472.72. (Perry wore No. 72.) "I lost that back in '87, '88," Perry said. "There's maybe four or five duplicates of it. ... I don't get attached to things like that. If I had it, someone else is going to sell it or someone's going to fight over it."
Welkowsky said most sellers "are victims of what I call the triple Ds -- death, divorce or drugs. "Some guys are gamblers or made bad investments," he said. "Some, though, might not be into flashy jewelry. Some, if they're lucky enough to be on three or four Super Bowl winners, might give one to a best friend or a brother and that's the one who gets on hard times."
About 12 years ago, he said, he flew to Oakland to meet with the wife of a Raider who had been convicted of rape.
"She was so furious, she was selling everything of his, including his 1976 Super Bowl ring."
Johnson's ring made its way to a memorabilia dealer at the Super Bowl XXVIII NFL Experience in Atlanta, where New York City lawyer Alan Joseph bought it for $10,000. What is its worth now?
"Not for sale," Joseph said.
Joseph found Johnson -- a factory worker in Tennessee -- and had him sign additional Giants Super Bowl memorabilia. Asked what he would do if Johnson raised $10,000 to buy back the ring, Joseph said, "It would be a tough decision, but I don't think I have to worry about it."
Thomas starred in Super Bowl XI, but was injured. He didn't rehabilitate it, arrived at training camp out of shape and within three years was out of football.
"Too young and too reckless," Thomas said on HBO's Real Sports. "I didn't think it would ever come to an end."
He went from a $110,000 salary to a low-paying job as a jailer, was injured in a fight with an inmate, ran out of money before the first disability check showed up and, trying to save his house, pawned his ring.
"It took me a week to even get there," Thomas said. "I didn't want to do it."
The $800 came too late.
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