Families recall horrors of dementia in former Steelers
The numbers shocked many — debilitating brain injuries diagnosed in 110 of 111 former NFL players — but not Eleanor Perfetto, widow of former Steelers player Ralph Wenzel.
Perfetto watched her husband, a former offensive lineman who played seven seasons for the Steelers and San Diego Chargers, succumb to the throes of dementia. He didn't recognize her at times, took violent falls and, by the time of his death in 2012, struggled to feed and bathe himself.
“Yes, the number is an attention grabber,” Perfetto, 58, of Annapolis, Md., told the Tribune-Review regarding the brain injury figures. “It's confirming that we have been seeing the tip of the iceberg. But it's nothing new. How much more confirmation of this do we need?”
Last week, findings in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) revealed that examinations of nearly 90 percent of the brains of 202 deceased football players showed varying degrees of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Of those, 111 brains came from former NFL players, and 110 of those brains contained CTE, a degenerative condition associated with repeated head injuries.
“It's inevitable that number will get bigger as this picks up more attention,” said Perfetto, who has a doctorate degree in public health. “One thing we know for certain is people who get hit in the head a lot typically end up with this disease.”
While the NFL has slowly begun to acknowledge a link between brain trauma and brain disease, Perfetto isn't satisfied.
“I feel like their response is always the same,” she said. “They'll put out a statement and some public relations. But there's very little action behind it. Nobody wants to come forward and have an honest conversation.”
In 2009, Perfetto testified before a House Judiciary Committee hearing on head injuries about her husband's deterioration.
Wenzel played in the NFL from 1966 to 1972 and subsequently coached at San Diego City College, the University of Rhode Island and North Carolina Central University.
During the testimony, Perfetto talked about Wenzel's initial diagnosis in 1999 of mild cognitive impairment and how that evolved into dementia. He began to forget things — once he showed up at a construction site to help a friend fully dressed, but with no shoes or socks.
Symptoms worsened to the point where he began living in a home for dementia patients in 2006.
Perfetto became vocal about the hazards of playing football. She confronted NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell outside a 2008 meeting with retired players when he did not allow her to attend on behalf of her husband.
She finds no entertainment in the game itself and never watches on television. Still, she doesn't believe the league will falter any time soon.
“The only thing that will make a change is if people stop buying tickets,” Perfetto said. “I don't see that happening.”
Matt Morrall, son of former NFL quarterback Earl Morrall, doesn't harbor ill will toward the league. His father's brain, along with Wenzel's, was among the 110 diagnosed by experts at the Boston University School of Medicine in the JAMA study.
Matt Morrall, 60, grew up around football and played at the University of Florida. His dad played 21 years in the league, including a season with the Steelers in 1957-58.
Watching his father's final years suffering from CTE deterioration was awful. He said his dad's weight dropped from about 240 pounds to about 158. He had trouble swallowing and talking. He died in April 2014 at age 79.
Still, Morrall, who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., harbors no bitterness.
“My opinion is that CTE is a problem, and the NFL is being diligent in finding ways to address head injuries,” he said. “It's going to take them a while. Obviously, they have some concerns because this has a long-term effect on football.”
More than 12,000 retired football players have registered to receive payouts from a $1 billion settlement with the NFL in a class-action concussion-related lawsuit.
As part of the settlement, the NFL admitted no fault. Lawyers continue to wrangle over how the money will be distributed and divided.
“Nobody has seen one penny,” said Pittsburgh attorney Jason Luckasevic, who represents former players and families of deceased players. “There's a big tug of war to determine who has what and how serious the injuries are or were.”
Perfetto, who was part of the lawsuit and settlement, agreed.
“People think I have received millions, and I haven't gotten anything,” she said. “I doubt that I will ever see a dime.”
Luckasevic scoffed at the NFL's response to the JAMA findings.
The league issued a statement that read, “As noted by the authors, there are still many unanswered questions relating to the cause, incidence and prevalence of long-term effects of head trauma such as CTE. The NFL is committed to supporting scientific research into CTE and advancing progress in the prevention and treatment of head injuries.”
To Luckasevic, it didn't sound like acknowledgment.
“If they fully agree to a link between football and the increased risk of neuro-degenerative brain diseases, they are putting their game at risk for the future,” he said.
Additionally, National Institutes of Health will reportedly let its partnership with the NFL expire in August after the league previously pledged $30 million to help research the connection between football and brain disease.
According to ESPN, the NIH decided not to renew the agreement “following a bitter dispute in 2015 in which the NFL backed out of a major study that had been awarded to a researcher who had been critical of the league.”
“The NFL's agreement with (the funding arm of the NIH) ends Aug. 31, 2017, and there are no current research plans for the funds remaining from the original $30 million NFL commitment,” the NIH said in a statement, per ESPN.
Dr. Ronald Hamilton has several suggestions. He is a neuropathologist and associate professor of pathology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. His character was portrayed in the 2015 movie “Concussion,” starring Will Smith.
Hamilton believes installing a device in football helmets to measure force of impact for games and practice could establish a baseline for repetitive head trauma.
“I expect that different positions will have markedly different patterns of repetitive head injury,” he said. “For example, a center will have many, many low impact hits. A safety may have fewer episodes, but due to the nature of the position, he is more likely to suffer a concussion.”
The science, Hamilton said, is key.
“Both the NFL and the NCAA need to step up and participate in scientific data collection, but I am afraid that the medicolegal ramifications make them hesitant,” he said. “We now have a very good start on this disease, which, unlike Alzheimer's disease, is entirely preventable by avoiding repetitive head trauma. CTE is a disease you have to work very hard to get.”
Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter at @Bencschmitt.