Former Football Player Willie Wood Has Dementia

Willie Wood was famous for playing safety on the Green Bay Packers. He was a teammate of Paul Hornung on the five time champion. Vince Lombardi coached Packers during the 60’s. He never missed a game in twelve seasons. He made the Pro Bowl eight times. He also intercepted 48 passes and inspired his teammates with his tenacity.

Perhaps the most famous play was in the first Super Bowl. Wood intercepted the wobbly pass that was thrown by the Kansas City Chiefs’ quarterback, Len Dawson, and ended up scoring a touchdown. The Packers defeated the Chiefs 35-10.

Despite how famous the play was, Wood does not recall it, according to an article in the New York Times. He does not even remember being in the first Super Bowl or ever being on an N.F.L. roster.

Today, Wood sits in an assisted living home in a wheelchair. He’s been there for the last nine years. First, he was there for physical debilitation in his neck, hip, and knee. He’s still there today because dementia has taken away many of his cognitive functions.

Symptoms of dementia include forgetfulness, limited social skills, and thinking abilities that interfere with daily functioning.

He wears a Packers hat, which he points to. He knows it has some significance, but he can’t remember specifics.

When asked if he remembers the photographs hanging on his wall, he stares blankly. The photos include his wedding day and the day he was inducted into the pro-football Hall of Fame. Asked if he remembers being inducted into the Hall of Fame, he shakes his head no. When the assisted living coordinator tells him he was the best of the best, he simply raises an eyebrow.

Dawson, at 80, still remembers the play well. He was also inducted into the Hall of Fame. He went on to become an award-winning television and radio broadcaster. He tells the New York Times that Wood is not the only one experiencing problems.

“I’ve got teammates who have some problems like Willie Wood,” he says. “I think maybe from concussions and things like that. It’s, well, it’s a rough game.”

He goes on to say that he feels lucky that the game has treated him well. Dawson and Wood, 79, have led somewhat parallel lives, but one remembers the famous play and the other does not.

Wood retired after the 1971 season as a five-time N.F.L. champion and started coaching for the San Diego Chargers. In 1975, he took a job as head coach of the Philadelphia Bell of the World Football League. He was considered the first African American head coach in the modern football era, but the W.F.L. folded halfway through the season.

Wood ended up assisting for the Toronto Argonauts and then as head coach in 1980. He was the first black coach in the history of the C.F.L.

In 1988, his wife died. The next year he was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Wood retired from his contracting job in 2001, but he still was able to make income on his autograph and making appearances. His body began to deteriorate from the game of football. He required hip, knee, neck, and back surgery. Wood played 176 N.F.L. games and made thousands of tackles since high school. He also had many high speed collisions as a kick returner. He returned 209 kickoffs and punts in the N.F.L. and more in college.

He began to be too unhealthy to make his appearances. He started to lose his memory too. Doctors say that his health problems could be due to football, aging, or both. Many pro-football players have been diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy. This is possible, too. But doctors still rely heavily on postmortem diagnosis.

His caretakers at Sunrise on Connecticut Avenue, where he now stays, say that some days he will sing along to songs and have long conversations. But, other days, he won’t talk at all. Wood receives about $120,000 a year from a fund for former football players with dementia or Alzheimer’s.

I wrote to the Science Staff at the Alzheimer’s Association, and they wrote this into response to my question about the origin of dementia. “The simple answer to your question is that researchers don’t know exactly what causes Alzheimer’s disease or many other forms of dementia,” they wrote. “Genetic abnormalities likely play a role in boosting dementia risk, but certain lifestyle factors (such as repeated head trauma through playing football) may also be involved. An NFL player like Willie Wood has a high risk for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a disorder that may also increase his chances for dementia. But the research on these possible linkages is ongoing.”

One of the biomarkers for CTE is a gene that codes for tau proteins. Tangled tau proteins are a symptom of both CTE and Alzheimer’s disease.


Gordon Johnson

Attorney Gordon Johnson is one of the nations leading brain injury advocates. He is Past-Chair of the TBILG, a national group of more than 150 brain injury advocates. He has spoken at numerous brain injury seminars and is the author of some of the most read brain injury web pages on the internet.

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