The 1960’s and 1970’s football heroes are now old and aging. Some have passed away and a few have taken their own lives. Football in the 1960’s and 70’s allowed players to return to the game with concussions due to the lack of awareness of the long-term effects of multiple concussive injuries. It’s time that we take a look at these players and see how they’ve fared as they age. Three players from the Boston Patriots: John “Bull” Bramlett, Bill Lenkaitis and Dennis Wirgowski, through their personal stories offer us insight into athletes living with the effects of multiple concussions. Of these three former players Lenkaitis and Wirgowski have proven to have CTE. Bramlett probably also had CTE, however his wife did not donate his brain for study after his death.
Several other former Patriot players have been diagnosed with CTE. Aaron Hernandez most recently, Junior Seau, Mosi Tatupu and Kevin Turner also played for the Patriots. These men or their relatives are part of the group of 5,000 retired football players involved in a class action lawsuit against the NFL. Other retired players from the 1970’s like Jon Morris, a former team captain and a member of the Patriots Hall of Fame, awaits the findings of baseline examinations. Morris played 11 seasons with the Patriots and snapped the ball to at least two quarterbacks, Jim Plunkett and Joe Kapp, who suffer from neurological disorders. Marty Schottenheimer, now 74 and a coach with an outstanding history, reports that he is struggling with Alzheimer’s. Bill Johnson, who played defensive back with Schottenheimer, lives with Alzheimer’s and has pledged his brain for research.
The heroes of 1960’s and 70’s played football in a time when salaries were low and players relied on off-season work to make ends meet. Little was known about concussion and players were coached to lead with their heads. Concussion awareness in that era was low allowing players to be returned to the game often after a violent collision.Billy Johnson suffered a subdural hematoma attempting to take down Larry Csonka, a Dolphin’s running back in 1970. Johnson has no memory of the game but he participated in the next practice and played in the next game. He contemplates committing suicide as he lives with cognitive deficits and memory loss. John “Bull” Bramlett was known as “The Meanest Man in Football” joined the Patriots in 1969, He helped the team develop a reputation and earned much recognition for his ferocity of the field. He died at 73 from the complications of Alzheimer’s. Bill Lenkaitis, studied dentistry in the off-seasons, joining the Patriots in 1971 he earned a spot on the Patriots All-Decade team. By his late 60’s he lost interest in his dental practice and according to his wife he was showing the signs associated with CTE. Lenkaitis died in 2016 from Glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer, but the toll of concussions was showing long before that. Dennis Wirgowski, played football in high school and college and excelled in other sports, he joined the Patriots in 1970 and was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles in 1973. As he aged he lost the athleticism that had marked his life and following an orthopedic injury was confined to a wheelchair.He spoke with his football friends about his increasing depression and began to collect articles about former football players who committed suicide. On January 25, 2014 he killed himself with a borrowed shotgun.
Many of these heroes of football are now out of sight as they live with disability or have died. It is important that we understand how multiple concussions changed their lives as we look for ways to increase concussion awareness and build greater safety into the game. Aaron, at 27, may be the youngest NFL player to be diagnosed with CTE. His life ended in prison with suicide while serving a sentence for murdering his friend. While Hernandez is not a hero from the 1960’s and 70’s, he is a reminder that CTE changes people.