Former NFL Players Battle Dementia

Ralph Wenzel played guard in the NFL from 1966 to 1973. For the past 10 years his wife, Eleanor Perfetto, has watched him slip into dementia. Today, at 67, Wenzel can no longer dress, bathe or feed himself. He spends his days in an assisted-living facility in Maryland. Perfetto blames her husband's current state on repeated head injuries from playing pro football. She is the first to file a workers' compensation claim with the NFL for dementia resulting from injuries on the field. Also hear from Brent Boyd, a former offensive lineman for the Minnesota Vikings, who was diagnosed with dementia four years ago, at age 49.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

In a few minutes I'll give you my take on what should have been one of the stories at this weekend's Masters tournament.

But, first, we want to talk about a health story that has recently made it from the sports pages to the front pages. Most of us are familiar with the workers compensation battles that have been waged over asbestos exposure or carpal tunnel syndrome. These cases have led to changes in workplaces across the country. Now one of the latest workers comp claims to be filed could have major implications for a different kind of workplace: the gridiron.

This month Eleanor Perfetto filed a worker's compensation claim with the National Football League. It's on behalf of her husband, retired offensive lineman Ralph Wenzel. Mr. Wenzel's dementia is now so advanced, that he is unable to feed, bathe or clothe himself. His wife believes his current state is the result of the repeated blows he experienced on the field during his eight-season career with the league.

Her claim is backed up by a growing number of researchers. Here is Dr. Robert Cantu, neuroscientist and clinical professor at Boston University testifying before Congress last October.

Dr. ROBERT CANTU (Neuroscientist, Boston University): Over the past several years, there has been growing and convincing evidence that repetitive concussive and sub-concussive blows to the head in NFL players lead to a progressive neuro-generative brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE.

MARTIN: Eleanor Perfetto joins us now in our studios in Washington to talk more about this. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. ELEANOR PERFETTO: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Also with us from Reno, Nevada, is Brent Boyd. From 1980 to 1986, he was an offensive lineman for the Minnesota Vikings. He went on to found the organization Dignity After Football, which advocates on behalf of retired NFL players suffering from memory and cognitive diseases. Brent, thank you so much for joining us as well.

Mr. BRENT BOYD (Founder, Dignity After Football): It's on honor to be on your show, Michel.

MARTIN: And I should mention that we did ask a representative from the NFL to join us. They declined, and we'll have a statement from them on our Web site. But, first, Eleanor, tell us about Ralph Wenzel. He played for the NFL in the late '60s and early '70s. He played for the Steelers, the Chargers and the Cardinals. Brent, this was the same position you played. So, Eleanor, tell us when you started to think that something was wrong.

Ms. PERFETTO: Sure. You know, Michel, Ralph was first diagnosed in 1999 with mild cognitive impairment. And so that was kind of the beginning of the medical component of this for us. But his symptoms were noticeable to me in a more sporadic way, probably beginning around '95 or '96. He was losing things. You know, back in the '90s we used to carry checkbooks and he would lose his all the time. Losing wallets, losing all kinds of things.

He just was very he became very disorganized, very scattered. And the problem was growing. I was seeing more and more of it. The first time that we went to the neurologist's office and had a discussion with the neurologist, he really surprised me because the neurologist asked him when was the first time he ever thought something might be wrong. And he went back as far as 1994. Ralph was a football coach at the Sidwell Friends School here in D.C. And he loved that job and he loved the kids there.

And he told the neurologist a story about how sometimes he would start his practices off with, kids, today we're going to learn X - whatever that might be, a play or whatever - and they would say, well, coach, you taught that to us yesterday. And he'd say, well, if I taught it to you yesterday, tell me exactly what it was I told you. And they would verbatim tell him exactly, and he had no recollection of having taught them that same thing the day before.

MARTIN: And why did you think it was football? And not perhaps just his personality or some other underlying issue.

Ms. PERFETTO: Well, you know, it was the meeting with the neurologist that day and he asked Ralph about concussions. In 1999 there was knowledge about concussions. There wasn't the kind of knowledge there is today about sub-concussive blows to the head, but there was some knowledge about concussions and the doctors said to him: Ralph, have you ever had a concussion playing football? And he said, you played football, so did it ever happened to you? And Ralph said, too many times to even say. I don't even know how many times, yes.

MARTIN: So, Brent, can you tell us a little bit more about what it takes to be an offensive lineman and what happens to your body. This is the same position that you played for six years for the Minnesota Vikings. Just tell us a little bit about what's your day at the office?

Mr. BOYD: Well, first of all I want to say hi to Dr. Perfetto.

Ms. PERFETTO: Hi, Brent.

Mr. BOYD: It's an honor to be on with you. You're one of our heroes - our heroines of the effort. And thank you very much. Offensive linemen, by nature, we - every play, we lead with our head, and there's no way to regulate against it. You got to block and you got to hit with your head first. In addition to that, Ralph and I played in era where we were guinea pigs for the NFL with a new product called Astro Turf, which was, at the time - you know, now they've got a good substitute for grass - field turf. But original Astro Turf was literally concrete or asphalt underneath, no carpet padding and a quarter inch green decorative layer of plastic so the fans thought it was, you know, grass.

So I think I've suffered over 100 concussions, and 80-90 percent of them didn't involve hitting another person at all. It involved after a play you fall down or fall backwards, hit your head first and you're knocked out. But the problem is in the NFL, they never used the word concussion.

MARTIN: What did they say? What did they call it?

Mr. BOYD: You got your bell rung.

MARTIN: They say you got your bell rung.

Mr. BOYD: You got your bell rung. The word concussion never came up in relation to football. And they treated it like you hit your funny bone. You know, it would hurt like heck for a little bit, but it would wear off, and we were told there would be no lasting, lingering effects.

MARTIN: You were told this explicitly?

Mr. BOYD: Yes.

MARTIN: Now, four years ago, you were diagnosed, if you don't mind my sharing this with...

Mr. BOYD: Please do.

MARTIN: ...with the early stages of Alzheimer's and dementia. And you've been -you're using medication. Do you remember when you received that diagnosis and how it made you feel?

Mr. BOYD: Well, I do. I'm only 53 years old right now, so the diagnosis came age 49. And even I knew that was an unusual diagnosis for somebody in their 40s.

MARTIN: What are you looking at? What are you thinking of?

Mr. BOYD: And the worst part was that it took...

MARTIN: I wanted to ask what do you think you're - yeah, what's the worst part?

Mr. BOYD: It took 20 years to get to the point of diagnosis of a concussion. My first concussion was my rookie year in 1980. I retired in '86, '87, and it wasn't till 2000 that somebody sent me to a neurologist. So I spent 20 years -prior to my concussions, I was a real high-motor, self-starting kind of guy. I was straight A's. I graduated with honors from UCLA. I was a high draft choice, hardly an indication of a lazy guy.

But following the concussions, I was very lethargic, and despite my academic success, I had to give up law school and I got to the point where I was like selling beer and insurance. And not that there's anything wrong with those. They're honorable professions, but I couldn't keep those jobs because I would have to pull over on the side of the road and take a nap. I have vertigo. That goes along with my concussions and loss of energy. So I couldn't make the sales calls.

MARTIN: Wow. If you're just...

Mr. BOYD: So, I'm...

MARTIN: Just let me jump in briefly to say, if you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about a recent worker's compensation claim filed with the NFL, and our guests are Eleanor Perfetto. She's the wife of former player Ralph Wenzel. She filed the claim. Also with us is Brent Boyd, a former player himself and the founder of the organization Dignity After Football.

Brent, I just wanted to let you...

Mr. BOYD: .org.

MARTIN: .org. and you've received - well, memory's not that bad then.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You've received more than a thousand letters from retired NFL players on this issue. And it just seems like this issue, Eleanor, is finally getting attention from lawmakers...

Dr. PERFETTO: Yes. Yeah.

MARTIN: ...and from policymakers. I want to mention, we invited, as I said, the NFL to participate in this conversation. They've declined. But they did tell us through a spokesperson that they are working on addressing the issue, and they highlighted a program started in 2007 called the 88 Plan, where they'll pay $88,000 a year for the medical care of any retired NFL player diagnosed with dementia. And Eleanor, does that help? Is that...

Dr. PERFETTO: Yes. My husband Ralph was one of the first recipients of the 88 Plan, and it is a step in the right direction. It is an effort that they put together. At the time, the NFL was denying that there was a relationship between head trauma and the neurological deficits that happened to some of these players. They've changed that now.

When they instituted the 88 Plan, they said it was for all players with dementia, regardless of the cause. It does help. However, it's something that kicks in once someone's been diagnosed and they're pretty severely ill. It's -not all players are eligible. You have to be a vested player in the NFL to be considered for the 88 Plan. So there are still some holes in the system, and that's part of what's bothering me, are the holes in the system because I can tell you that between when my husband became eligible for the 88 Plan in 2007 and when all of this started in 1994, '95, '96, that's a large gap in time, and there are people out there who are now in that gap who need help.

MARTIN: Brent, can I ask you - you know, it's a tough question. But do you think if you knew then what you know now, whether you still would've pursued professional football as a career?

Mr. BOYD: Absolutely not.

MARTIN: Because athletes in extreme sports take all kinds of risks to play. You don't think...

Mr. BOYD: No.

MARTIN: You would not. Mm-hmm.

Mr. BOYD: No. The risks that we were aware of I was willing to take. I knew that my knees would probably get beat up and my shoulders or something. But nobody ever mentioned that we'd lose our character, our personality our, you know, our mind. It totally changes your life. I had knee replacements and bad hips and all that. I can live with that, but it's a totally different thing when it's your mind and you're not able to do, you know, what you set out to dream to do and you're not able to do anything really, except for lay down and sleep most of the day.

MARTIN: Just like tobacco companies are required now to put stickers on their packages advertising the dangers of smoking, do you think that there should be some sort of broad, overall warning that explicitly says this is what you're likely to face if you go down this path? Do you think contracts, for example, should stipulate that? What do you think?

Mr. BOYD: Well, you know, the media calls me the father of this new awareness in the past few years about concussions regarding the younger players. There was discussions before I came along about postmortem or when the players had reached the age and stage of dementia, but nobody was mentioning what happened to players when they suffered concussions. And then they still had their lives and marriages and kids and careers and everything to go on, and they didn't have the tools to cope with it because the concussions stole it from them.

I don't know how you warn against that. I think all parents listening who have kids need to be aware of a fact this isn't just a boy's football problem. Recent studies show - you had Dr. Cantu on earlier, he ran a study that showed any sport, so high school and down, that girl's soccer has a higher incidence of concussions than does boy's high school football. So if you're a parent, boy or a girl, you need to be aware of the dangers of concussions and make an educated decision whether you want your child to play a sport.

MARTIN: Eleanor, I'm going to give you the final word on this conversation, in which I think is probably going to be an ongoing one.

Dr. PERFETTO: Oh, I think so.

MARTIN: What is your final word for us about this? Do you think that - is there any way to make this a safer sport? Should we even try?

Dr. PERFETTO: You know, there's a group up in Boston that's at the Sports Legacy Institute in Boston University, and they've come up with some principals for trying to make the sport safer so that children can play and be safer because, you know, it is a $9 billion industry. I really don't think that it's going to disappear overnight, and there are too many fans out there. So if we can follow those principals to make the sport safer, that's fine. I do encourage mothers and parents to become more knowledgeable about the training that the coach has, the training that the trainers have.

All the parents that are involved should know and understand that there are programs now to assess concussions after a child's been injured and to make decisions about when they get back in a game and when they don't get back in a game. So I think, you know, all of those things can make the sport safer. But I challenge these guys who are out there making millions of dollars who say I'll take the risk. Come spend a day with me and let me show you what the risk really looks like for the last 10 to 20 years of your life.

MARTIN: Eleanor Perfetto...

Mr. BOYD: And Ralph wasn't anywhere close to making a million dollars so.

Dr. PERFETTO: Thanks right.

MARTIN: Eleanor Perfetto...

Mr. BOYD: And people, they think all ex-players are millionaires.

MARTIN: We have to let you go.

Mr. BOYD: No, we pick the single thousands.

MARTIN: We have to let it go for now, Brent. Thank you for this.

Eleanor Perfetto is wife of former NFL offensive lineman Ralph Wenzel. She joined us at our studios in Washington. And Brent Boyd played for the Minnesota Vikings from 1980 to 1986 and founded the organization Dignity After Football. He joined us from NPR member station KUNR in Reno, Nevada.

Thank you both.

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