Image: Tom Sullivan
AP
Philadelphia Eagles football player Tom Sullivan in the locker room at Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium, after a game against the New York Giants, on Nov. 27, 1973. A federal judge ruled Sullivan's second wife should get his $2,700-a-month spousal benefit because the marriage was never properly dissolved.
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updated 11/11/2010 6:51:09 PM ET 2010-11-11T23:51:09

A Pennsylvania woman should get the NFL pension of former Philadelphia Eagle running back Tom Sullivan because he never divorced her before marrying again, a federal judge has ruled.

Barbara Sullivan of Summerville, S.C., who has two daughters from her 16-year marriage to Sullivan, is no longer entitled to the $2,700-a-month spousal benefit, the judge said. He found that marriage void under South Carolina's bigamy law.

The NFL must now send the pension payments to Lavona Hill, of Folcroft, whose 1979 marriage to Sullivan was never dissolved when they went their separate ways in 1983.

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"In our society, if marriage is going to mean anything, you have to have a beginning point and an end point," said Hill's lawyer, David B. Sherman. "You can't have a bigamy relationship."

The Delaware County Daily Times first reported Thursday on the ruling, which was released earlier this month.

Sullivan was married three times, U.S. District Judge Berle M. Schiller concluded. He had been married and divorced before he wed Hill in Baltimore on March 15, 1979. Hill didn't know about his first marriage, and Barbara Sullivan, whom he married in 1986, didn't know about the second.

"When they first told me that he had been married before, I went berserk," Barbara Sullivan, 57, told The Associated Press. "I don't believe there was a marriage."

She questioned his signature on the Maryland marriage license and asked why neither family nor close friends knew about it.

Both she and his parents did know about his brief first marriage during college, she said.

Sullivan, 52, died in 2002 following a car crash in Florida.

Originally from Jacksonville, Fla., he was the second black football player at the University of Miami.

In his seven-year NFL career, he rushed for 3,142 yards and scored 17 TDs. He played for the Eagles from 1972 to 1977 and ranks ninth on the franchise's all-time rushing list, just ahead of Donovan McNabb. Sullivan suffered a career-ending knee injury the next season playing for the Cleveland Browns.

He was making $65,000 a year that last season, and later earned far less as a machinist and Kmart security specialist, Barbara Sullivan said.

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Hill, in testimony at an October bench trial in Philadelphia, said Sullivan had drug and alcohol problems that were factors in their split. But Barbara Sullivan said that was not the case when she met her future husband at work in 1981.

Despite her doubts about Hill's claim, she said she cannot afford to appeal the ruling. Her NFL payments stopped last year amid the lawsuit, and her $30,000-a-year job doesn't cover the mortgage and the cost of raising two daughters — one in college — and a grandson.

In settlement talks, Hill turned down an offer to split the benefits, she said.

"She's a very greedy person," Barbara Sullivan said.

"From all his football injuries, when he passed ... he had a hip replacement, a right knee replacement, he had arthritis all over his body," she said. "I would have to help him out of bed. ... Where was she at in all of this?"

Hill did not return several messages left Thursday at her apartment in Folcroft, near Philadelphia.

According to her lawyer, Hill never sought a divorce because she had no plans to remarry. She received no support from Sullivan and had no contact with him after the mid-1980s, Sherman said. She has one son, and has worked odd jobs over the years, he said.

The son learned of the former player's death from news reports, prompting Hill to seek Social Security benefits. That office suggested she inquire about a league pension, which she did in late 2006. The league had long been sending the checks to Barbara Sullivan, listed by Sullivan as his spouse.

The NFL pension plan ultimately asked the court to determine the proper beneficiary.

At trial, Barbara Sullivan's lawyer asked the judge to assume that her husband had tried to locate Hill to seek a divorce. But there was no such evidence, according to Schiller, who noted that Hill could have easily been found living with her family near Philadelphia.

Hill, who had sued the pension fund, may now sue Barbara Sullivan for repayment of the $193,000 in benefits she received over the years, Sherman said.

"She can try to get it," Barbara Sullivan said. "Everything is gone. I don't have nothing."

She is unsure if her daughters, ages 18 and 21, can still seek dependent benefits from the NFL.

Both the judge and Sherman empathized with her. But Sherman believes the case proves that spouses, particularly wealthy ones, cannot simply abandon families and start anew.

"You can't have people worried about whether they're married or not," he said.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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