Sports

Ailing former Patriots, feeling spurned by the NFL, turn to a clinic with a founder of dubious repute

Larry Burns, director of the Crosby Center, says he formed a nonprofit Crosby Clinic Foundation, but the entity is not listed as registered with the secretary of state of California, where the clinic operates.
David Maung for The Boston Globe
Larry Burns, director of the Crosby Center, says he formed a nonprofit Crosby Clinic Foundation, but the entity is not listed as registered with the secretary of state of California, where the clinic operates.

ESCONDIDO, Calif. — When his brain began to betray him, J.R. Redmond said, he flew into rages over nothing: harmless questions, ambiguous glances, ordinary encounters.

Less than 15 years removed from his indelible star turn in the first Patriots Super Bowl victory, Redmond was homeless, living in a garage, seething about his emotional unmooring, fantasizing about his death. Doctors told him he suffers from the consequences of football head injuries.

When his breakdown came in 2014, Redmond burst out sobbing loudly and uncontrollably at a conference for retired National Football League players, shocking the audience and speakers alike.

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He needed help, and he found it in Larry Burns, an unlikely health care entrepreneur who has created a commercial niche out of football’s concussion crisis by providing medical treatment and legal aid to brain-injured former NFL players who believe the league has turned its back on them.

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Burns, at the Crosby Clinic outside San Diego, has helped retired players gain millions of dollars in benefits through NFL worker’s compensation and disability programs, as well as secure concussion settlement payments even after their claims were denied.

But other than energy and scrappy determination, Burns has few qualifications for this work. His main credentials appear to be of the criminal kind: He’s served prison time for felony fraud and has been charged with or admitted to other instances of fraud, once fleeing the country to avoid prosecution.

And yet, a year after the NFL agreed to an estimated $1 billion settlement to compensate former players suffering from brain damage, many of them feel they have nowhere better to turn.

Scores of players have complained that the league and settlement administrators have unfairly rejected or delayed their requests for help — allegations the NFL and settlement administrators have denied.

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Many of those stymied players have looked to Burns and have praised his clinic’s work, unaware in most cases that he has spent much of his tenure at the clinic fighting lawsuits by former associates who accused him of embezzlement, a former patient who accused him of sexual assault, the family of a patient who tried to kill herself after Burns purportedly misrepresented the clinic as a licensed health center, and others with various grievances. Burns has denied the accusations.

The NFL has tried to investigate him, Burns says, and the NFL Players Association has alerted its members about his criminal past. Yet former players, some in desperation, say the help they’ve gained outweighs concerns about his history.

“This place right here, it helped saved my life,’’ Redmond said in an interview at the clinic.

Burns says he has been unfairly scrutinized by the NFL, which he alleges owes the clinic about $2.3 million in unpaid claims. The NFL denies the allegation, saying an insurer, Cigna, independently administers such claims.

“When you have a situation like mine where you have a few specks on you, they try to play it against you,’’ Burns said during a lengthy interview at his clinic. “They have tried to destroy me.’’

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Burns has developed a reputation for taking some of the most serious cases of brain-injured former NFL players. He also has gained renown among NFL alumni for persuading courts to sentence players convicted of crimes, such as former Patriot Cedric Cobbs, to residential care at the clinic rather than prison.

‘Everybody shuts doors on you. The NFL won’t help you. You can’t afford the insurance you need. You’re stuck on your own, and if you don’t have people who love you . . .’

At 73, Burns said he is fighting for once-elite athletes who can no longer fight for themselves.

“My only motivation is to help these guys in the time I have left,’’ he said, his eyes welling up, in an office decorated in part with Patriots memorabilia.

In all, more than 150 current or former NFL players — many of them struggling with symptoms of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, the incurable brain disease linked to repetitive head blows in sports — have received help there.

Burns said he arranges medical insurance for many players, and he contracts with medical specialists to supplement the care of his staff psychologists.

Four former NFL players said in interviews that Burns and the clinic have provided them vital help they could not find elsewhere. They expressed no concern about Burns’s criminal record.

When Redmond arrived at the clinic in 2014, he said, “I was so low, I had nothing. Rock bottom.’’

He said he returns periodically for residential treatment, and though his condition has improved, he continues to struggle. He said he still impulsively mistakes people as threats, and worries he will harm someone.

Doctors have diagnosed Redmond with numerous conditions, he said, including major depressive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and post-concussive syndrome. He said tests indicate he is “in a perpetual state of hypervigilance.’’

Snapping his fingers, Redmond said, “It takes me that long to go from zero to 100 [emotionally]. I feel it three or four times a day. It’s like a close call with death.’’

Cobbs, who has lived at one of the clinic’s residences for more than 2½ years, said he and Redmond have counseled each other about the cognitive changes they have experienced since they won Super Bowl rings with the Patriots.

Both accused the NFL of abandoning them.

“Everybody shuts doors on you,’’ Redmond said. “The NFL won’t help you. You can’t afford the insurance you need. You’re stuck on your own, and if you don’t have people who love you . . . ’’

The onetime Super Bowl star broke into tears.

Rap sheet that dates to 1983

Burns, born Lawrence F. Burzynski, is 6-foot-3 and broad-shouldered, a formidable figure who told the Globe that he played football at the University of Wisconsin, though he later backed off the claim.

He said his clinic holds several licenses, but state and county health and human service authorities in California said they have a record of only one pending license application, for a social rehabilitation facility.

He says he formed a nonprofit Crosby Clinic Foundation, but the entity is not listed as registered with the secretary of state of California, where the clinic operates.

As the Globe began seeking clarification on those matters and others, Burns said he was stepping down as the clinic’s president and semi-retiring. He then effectively stopped responding to questions.

Federal authorities have alleged that Burns used multiple aliases on his unusual path to the health care field. In 2000, when Cobbs was a promising running back at the University of Arkansas and Redmond was selected by the Patriots out of Arizona State in the third round of the NFL draft (three rounds ahead of Tom Brady), Burns was locked up in federal prison.

According to a US Marshals report, Burns has a federal rap sheet that dates to a 1983 conviction and one-year prison sentence for making false statements in US Housing and Urban Development transactions.

He was convicted in 1990 of felony fraud, according to the report, and was charged in 1995 with 21 counts of fraud and money laundering involving a telemarketing scheme based in Colorado.

After his arraignment on the 1995 charges, Burns fled to Mexico, where, he said, he enjoyed his life on the lam and socialized with the Baja state’s governor.

Three years later, Burns was captured and handed over to border marshals. He pleaded guilty to mail and wire fraud in exchange for prosecutors dropping the remaining charges, including money laundering.

Sentenced to 37 months in prison, Burns became a prodigious jailhouse lawyer, and he has continued his amateur legal work at the clinic, no longer advocating for inmates but for troubled athletes and celebrities.

“If somebody knows about us and comes here, we’re usually able to keep them out of jail,’’ he said.

So it was with Cobbs, whose legal problems began in 2002, on his 21st birthday, when he was charged with driving under the influence of marijuana.

Cobbs was a prospective Heisman Trophy candidate at the time, a former Parade magazine high school All-American from Little Rock who had been named the most valuable player of the 2000 Cotton Bowl.

In all, Cobbs rushed for more than 3,000 yards for Arkansas, but the marijuana case hurt his professional prospects. He dropped to the fourth round of the 2004 NFL draft and was selected 128th overall by the Patriots.

Falling to the fourth round cost Cobbs hundreds of thousands of dollars. He drew a $250,000 signing bonus and worked his rookie year for the NFL’s minimum salary of $230,000.

He recalls feeling rich, however, and believing he would be as successful in the NFL as he had been at every other level of football. He promptly bought a house in Foxborough for more than $500,000.

Then his fortunes turned. After he was sidelined by a leg injury in his first training camp, Cobbs did not play for the Patriots until October, by then having dropped on the depth chart. He appeared in only three games and was left off the postseason roster.

Yet when the Patriots defeated the Philadelphia Eagles in the 2005 title game, Cobbs received a Super Bowl ring — heady stuff for an NFL rookie.

He figured the best was yet to come. Instead, Cobbs suffered another injury in his second training camp and was cut before the opening game. Worse, he said, “All my money was gone.’’

Soon a bank foreclosed on his Foxborough home, his wife divorced him, and he turned to crime.

“I had never been in the streets, but everybody made me out to be a bad guy, and I started believing it, feeding into it,’’ Cobbs said.

Several arrests later, he stood in a federal court in Little Rock in 2016, facing up to four years in prison after pleading guilty to a charge involving a conspiracy to traffic Oxycodone.

Enter Burns. On the recommendation of Eddie “Boo’’ Williams, a former Arkansas teammate who played in the NFL and received treatment at the Crosby Clinic, Cobbs entered the facility in 2015, after accepting Burns’s help in trying to avoid a prison sentence.

Cobbs’s lawyer, Jonathan Lane, told the judge that his client likely suffered from CTE, and Burns wrote a persuasive letter to the court about the help he would continue to need at the clinic.

“I’ve probably had 200 cases at the clinic, and only three have gone to prison,’’ Burns said. “I know how to talk to the judges. It works time after time.’’

The sentence: three years’ probation, if Cobbs continued receiving treatment.

Legal issues

Privacy laws prohibit Burns from identifying patients against their wishes, but some who have sought help at the Crosby Clinic have been identified in public court proceedings. One of them is former Detroit Lions receiver Titus Young.

Young was facing three years in prison for felony assault in 2015 when Burns testified that he suffered from CTE symptoms and was responding well to treatment at the clinic. Young received five years’ probation, including a year in residence at the Crosby Clinic, but the commitment ended badly when he left the facility and severely beat a man.

“Titus went off his medications and his brain went out of control,’’ Burns said.

Young is now behind bars.

As for Cobbs, he has long been free to leave the clinic, but he said he fears winding up like Young. He lives with other patients in a gated, three-bedroom hillside retreat, complete with a chef, an outdoor pool with a rock waterfall, a billiards room, and an animal menagerie: two horses, a llama, and a goat.

The residence has been owned by a bank since Anastasia Kirkeby, Burns’s former partner, lost it in foreclosure in 2016. Kirkeby and her husband, Glenn, have sued Burns in federal and state courts, alleging he “wormed his way’’ into their financial affairs. Their federal suit was dismissed but their state case continues.

The Kirkebys allege that Burns falsely presented himself to them in 2002 as a licensed attorney with years of experience in business development and management.

“Sadly, the Kirkebys did not learn until [later] that Burns was nothing but a con man,’’ they alleged.

Burns painted a different picture, emphatically denying that he ever made false claims.

There is no doubt that the clinic, in this period, ran into some trouble. Court documents show that in 2010, Burns and others involved with the clinic — then called the Athletes, Artists and Entertainers Retreat — settled a lawsuit by the family of a woman who was severely injured trying to kill herself after Burns allegedly ensured she would be safe there. Her suicide note allegedly stated, “Larry Burns lied to me.’’

In 2015, Burns and an entity that controlled the clinic settled a lawsuit by a woman who entered the facility for alcoholism treatment and alleged that Burns sexually assaulted her.

Burns denied any wrongdoing in each case.

In recent years, Burns said, at least 10 former Patriots have sought treatment at the clinic. None have stayed longer than Cobbs, who says he arrived “with no clothes on my back’’ after he lost everything to bankruptcy in 2007.

Despite his pleas to the bankruptcy trustee, he said, his “most valuable possession’’ — his Super Bowl ring — was auctioned off for $55,000.

Cobbs, 37, has been diagnosed with mild dementia and is due to receive $900,000 under the NFL’s concussion settlement, though he already has burned through much of the money, borrowing against the promised settlement to pay for a car, medical expenses, and providing for his five children.

Now, as he awaits his settlement check, Cobbs said he struggles with an array of emotional problems, from acute anxiety and depression to paranoia and impulsive rage, conditions that researchers say are not uncommon among victims of traumatic brain injuries.

“I have so much rage deep inside that every time I think about it, I cry,’’ Cobbs said, suddenly sobbing. “I loved football, and then the NFL threw me away to die.’’

A few steps from his room at the retreat is a barbecue pit where brain-injured NFL players gather and share their experiences. One topic arises regularly: suicide.

Many former NFL players with CTE have taken their lives, including former Patriots Aaron Hernandez, Junior Seau, and Dennis Wirgowski.

Redmond, 40, said he has long been haunted by nightmares about driving off a road, as Seau once did before he shot himself to death. The nightmares place Redmond at his own funeral.

“I’ve had the dream hundreds of times,’’ he said. “I always wake up before I look at the casket, and I know it’s me in the casket. I think, is this it? Is it time to check out?’’

Redmond played only three seasons in New England, but he forged his legacy with two special performances during the 2002 playoff run. First, he made three receptions in overtime to help set up the winning field goal when the Patriots defeated the Oakland Raiders, 16-13, in the epic divisional round “Snow Bowl’’ game.

Fifteen days later, in the Super Bowl against the heavily favored St. Louis Rams, Redmond had three more crucial receptions from Tom Brady on New England’s final drive to help set up Adam Vinatieri’s decisive field goal in a 20-17 victory, New England’s first championship.

Redmond savors the memories, even as he struggles to function in everyday life.

Burns, meanwhile, said he was working with new partners — he declined to identify them — to purchase a nearby hotel that would increase the number of residential patients the clinic serves from 18 to more than 50. He said he plans to call the building “The Locker Room.’’

Bob Hohler can be reached at robert.hohler@globe.com.