Talent evaluators loved Armond Armstead’s size, strength and speed. At 6-foot-5 and 295 pounds, he could line up outside the guard and hold down the “three-technique” tackle slot on the defensive line. Move him to end and he still was fast enough to scare a quarterback. In an emergency, he even could play nose tackle – he was that versatile.
“He would have been a top-15 player or better,” said Charley Armey, the player personnel director who built the Super Bowl XXXIV champion St. Louis Rams.
Unfortunately for Armstead, who starred at Pleasant Grove High School, Armey offered his assessment in a lawyer’s office in downtown Los Angeles, not in the pre-draft war room for an NFL team. It was part of a deposition earlier this year for a lawsuit set to begin April 6 in Los Angeles. The case will determine the veracity of allegations by Armstead that fraud, concealment and negligence at USC deprived him of his dream of playing football for a living.
Armstead suffered a heart attack in March 2011, just before his senior season at USC, and he blamed it on the school’s repeated prescription the year before of the painkiller Toradol.
Interestingly, Armond Armstead v. USC, et al, is scheduled to begin just weeks before the NFL draft, when Armond’s younger brother, Arik, a defensive lineman at Oregon, is expected to be selected in the first round. Armond Armstead, who has been advising his brother and assisting in workouts in San Diego, was unavailable for comment about the trial, said his Sacramento lawyer, Roger A. Dreyer.
“My client will do his talking on the witness stand,” Dreyer said.
In recent years, Dreyer has won massive verdicts for his clients, including seven-figure bites out of the likes of Ford Motor Co., Entercom Communications and Caltrans. Now he’s taking on the Trojans, and on their home field.
Nobody has mentioned a monetary figure in Armstead’s lawsuit, but a good guess would be about $11.3 million. That’s how much the Kansas City Chiefs paid Dontari Poe, the first defensive lineman taken in the 2012 draft, the same year Armey held Armstead in such high esteem.
Armstead, of course, has to win his case, which will come down to whether a jury agrees Toradol is responsible for the heart attack that derailed his career. If he wins, the jury then must decide if he was as good as Armey, Dreyer’s paid expert, stated.
The lawsuit claims USC medical personnel shot him up 11 times at 60 milligrams a pop to ease the pain in a shoulder he sprained two days before a game against Virginia, the second of his junior season. Armstead’s improved range of motion allowed him to make 43 tackles, including 61/2 for a loss, three sacks, two knocked-down passes, one quarterback hurry and one recovered fumble that season.
Toradol is classified as a “nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug,” along the lines of Advil or Aleve, but one that is injected rather than ingested. The Food and Drug Administration warns Toradol “may cause an increased risk of serious cardiovascular thrombotic events, myocardial infarction, and stroke, which can be fatal.”
Dr. James E. Tibone, USC’s team physician, said Armstead’s heart attack had nothing to do with Toradol. During his deposition, Tibone said he has been injecting it into football players for 15 years without anyone experiencing anything close to a coronary.
Dreyer pressed him about those FDA warnings.
“I don’t agree with them,” Tibone replied.
In court papers, USC’s lawyers suggested Armstead’s heart problem is congenital.
After the heart attack, team doctors didn’t clear Armond to play in what he hoped would be a breakout senior season in 2011. They had good reason. Armstead was on Coumadin, a blood thinner. A gash to the forehead, or anywhere else, and he could have been a goner.
“As long as he’s on that medication, he cannot play contact football,” former USC coach Lane Kiffin said in his deposition, a few months before he got fired early in the 2013 season. “Because if he does and he gets hit a certain way and starts to bleed, he’s going to die.”
After he stopped taking Coumadin, Armstead headed north and became a Canadian Football League All-Star with the Toronto Argonauts. The New England Patriots noticed, and in January 2013, they signed him to a three-year deal with $655,000 guaranteed.
The contract had a condition that Armstead have surgery to repair a hole in his heart before he could play. He recovered in time for offseason workouts in April, but he had surgery to treat an undisclosed infection in July and didn’t play in 2013. The next year, he suffered another heart attack, according to documents filed in his lawsuit, and on July 16, 2014, the Patriots announced his medical retirement. He was just 23.
How good could Armstead have been?
“I do know the tackle he practiced against every day, that he was dominating, is an outstanding player in the National Football League,” Armey said about Armstead having his way against USC teammate Tyron Smith, the ninth pick in the 2011 draft and a two-time All-Pro offensive tackle for the Dallas Cowboys.
Armey earned his expert-witness salary when he identified “alarming” similarities between the abilities of Armstead and J.J. Watt, the two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year with the Houston Texans.
And Kiffin told Dreyer in his deposition it would be fair to compare Armstead to Pro Football Hall of Famer Michael Strahan.
With trial approaching, the word “settlement” has entered the court record. USC’s lawyers on March 5 filed a motion to preclude “evidence of settlement discussions between the parties of or their representatives in this action.”
Dreyer didn’t want to talk about it, and neither did Lou Pappas, the lawyer for the Trojans.
Call The Bee’s Andy Furillo, (916) 321-1141. Follow him on Twitter @andyfurillo.