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Court rules Steelers must pay Okobi workers comp | TribLIVE.com
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Court rules Steelers must pay Okobi workers comp

The Pittsburgh Steelers must pay former center Chukky Okobi $779 a week in workers compensation, plus more than $22,000 in other fees, for injuries that prevent him from playing pro football, a Pennsylvania court panel ruled Wednesday.

The Commonwealth Court decision upholds earlier rulings by a workers compensation judge and the state Workers Compensation Appeals Board that granted Okobi total disability benefits. The judges rejected the Steelers’ claim that the team wasn’t allowed to fully state its case against awarding Okobi compensation.

In ruling in Okobi’s favor, the state judges cited football-related back, neck and arm injuries the Pittsburgh-area man claims short-circuited his pro career.

Okobi played for the Steelers from 2001 until 2007, when he was released by the team. He then did brief stints with the Arizona Cardinals and the Houston Texans in 2007 and 2008, respectively.

In the Commonwealth Court opinion on the case, Judge Anne E. Covey rejected a claim by Pittsburgh Steelers Sports Inc. that the team was denied a full opportunity to contest workers comp claims Okobi filed in 2009. Covey found the team missed numerous filing deadlines set and then reset by the workers compensation judge, and so cannot now claim that it wasn’t given an adequate chance to state its case.

The workers comp judge also awarded Okobi unspecified medical expenses, $5,516 in costs and $17,832 in attorney fees after concluding the Steelers challenge to his comp claims was “unreasonable,” court records show.

The Steelers appealed to Commonwealth Court after the compensation appeals board ruled in Okobi’s favor in December 2013. The team can still ask the state Supreme Court to hear an appeal of the Commonwealth Court decision.

Covey in her opinion cited Okobi’s claims that the low back pain that contributed to ushering him off the field became progressively worse during his career with the Steelers. “Every single day I was bending over and thrusting at full force, bending over, extending and flexing my back in full force constantly over and over and over again for six consecutive years in Pittsburgh,” she quoted Okobi as testifying.

Over time, his back became “unstable,” Okobi claimed, and he had to ease off from the weight-training routine that had enabled him to combat opponents who weighed from 260 to 390 pounds.

He said his neck injury occurred while running play drills in training camp in July 2006. He had surgery for a herniated disc, but the pain never went away and his neck strength didn’t come back, he said.

Then, during the August 2007 pre-season Hall of Fame game against the New Orleans Saints, an opponent ran helmet-first into his left elbow, causing a severe injury to his triceps muscle, Okobi said.

He testified at one point that trying to play pro football with such injuries is “like operating with duct tape on a couple of weak links…I don’t have the confidence to put my body out there in the way (I) would need to to play football at that level.”

Covey also cited testimony from a doctor who testified for Okobi in the comp case. That physician said Okobi would be at “significant risk of more serious and potentially debilitating injuries” if he tried to keep playing pro ball, the judge wrote.

She noted that Okobi played only four games as a back-up center for the Cardinals, and that he never actually took the field for the Texans.

Okobi said he has tried to make a post-sports career by investing in car washes and a bed and breakfast that wasn’t turning out to be profitable.

The ruling in favor of Okobi comes nine months after the state Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of the Commonwealth Court’s denial of worker’s comp for another former Steeler, Ainsley T. Battles.

Battles, a one-time defensive back and special teams member, sought benefits for a torn hamstring that he suffered in the first game of the 2004-05 season that he said effectively ended his playing days.

In that case, the compensation appeals board and Commonwealth Court both upheld the Steelers’ challenge to Battles’ comp claim.

Matt Miller is a staff writer at PennLive.com.


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