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As the top draft pick for the San Francisco 49ers in 1968, the 6’5” four-time Pro Bowl star Forrest Blue was a giant in the game. But by the time he died last July after four decades as a Sacramento businessman, he’d been reduced to a shell of his former self. After a career of impressive statistics, the one that counted the most was the stat that nobody wanted to discuss—the concussions he sustained on his path to glory. As the national debate on head injuries heats up, new scientific results about the damage to Blue’s brain reveal both a troubling trend in sports (from pro football to hockey and even girls’ soccer) and a poignant explanation for the fractured relationship with his onetime biggest fans—his daughters.

By Tim Swanson

 

A penny for the Old Guy …
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw …
Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us—if at all—not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men

From T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men”

 

I



Forrest Blue in 1973, which was one of  the four years he  was named to the  NFL Pro BowlIt’s a bright Sunday morning in early October, and Brittney and Brandi Blue, daughters of 1970s NFL standout Forrest Blue, are sitting in a West Sacramento coffee shop, sharing memories of their father, who passed away on July 16, 2011 at the age of 65 in an assisted living facility in Carmichael, after years of struggling with depression, memory loss, disorientation, hallucinations, and, in the end, full-blown dementia.

Much to the consternation of the stone-faced regulars quietly nursing their steaming mugs, the place is cluttered with parents and rowdy kids who, from their dress, appear to be either going to or returning from church. By contrast, the Blue sisters exhibit a very different energy—brittle exhaustion masked by wan smiles, and the weary resignation that only comes with prolonged bereavement. 

Forty-Niner fans more familiar with the dynasty that Bill Walsh built with Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott and Jerry Rice in the 1980s might draw a blank when they hear the name Forrest Blue. But those with stouter memories know that Blue, whom The New York Times called “one of the NFL’s best centers [of his time]” days after his death, was far more than just a footnote in the franchise’s history books. Selected in the first round of the 1968 draft by the 49ers (15th overall), Blue would become a four-time Pro Bowl center and part of an almost impenetrable offensive line that protected veteran quarterback John Brodie and helped the club dominate the NFC West for years.

Like their father, who, in the prime of his athletic career, clocked in at an imposing 6 foot 5 inches and 260 pounds, both Blue’s daughters stand tall. Brandi, a former teacher who now works for the Department of Personnel Administration, has light brown hair streaked blond like her father, who wore it stylishly shaggy in the ’70s to accompany his bushy mustache. Brittney, a broad-shouldered triathlete who works at Pride Industries in Roseville, a nonprofit that employs and provides job assistance for people with disabilities, has darker hair, although the resemblance to her father is instantly recognizable in her proud, even features.

Neither Brittney, 39, nor Brandi, 41, can claim strong memories of their father on the field during his 11-year career with the NFL, which included seven years for the San Francisco 49ers and then four years with the Baltimore Colts. They say they were simply too young to recall anything about those hard-hitting days when he sacrificed his body for the love of the game, once taking a blow to the face so severe that it crushed his ocular bone.

Instead, the memories of their father’s heyday feel like yellowed Polaroids stuck in the frame of a vanity mirror in a child’s bedroom. One of Brandi’s strongest recollections is sitting in her dad’s lap as he drove around in a golf cart shaped like a 49ers helmet. Brittney’s most potent memory is a cheer her father taught her to say that incorporated his 49ers jersey number: “75, 75, yay, daddy!”

They tell other tales about their dad from that era: riding horses, playing softball and soccer in the yard, going to Duran Duran concerts. There were extended gaps when he was away at training camp, “but when he was [home], he was always involved in our lives and just fun,” Brittney says. “He was like that until he ended playing football. And then his personality started to change.”

Those changes are difficult for the Blue sisters to discuss; the depression that first became pronounced in the 1980s, when the man who loved to be the center of attention became strangely silent and reclusive; the ensuing years after their parents’ divorce, when contact with their once-attentive father became limited and then almost nonexistent, as he threw himself into a circle of new, good-time friends, questionable business endeavors and thrill-seeking hobbies like skydiving; and then the final years, after a divorce from his third wife, when his daughters took him in and cared for him full-time because his nightmares had worked their way into the daylight hours, and he became increasingly disorganized, disoriented and confused.

Their father, they say, ultimately became the arsonist of his own reality, his declining mental state evident first in violent dreams that morphed into horrible hallucinations. Once, while sleeping, he annihilated a bed, believing he was being attacked by it. He later became convinced that miniature people wearing tiny breathing apparatuses were living and working in the walls of his home. He talked frequently about an 8-foot African-American man who was following him. He was sure that a Kleenex box was a bugging device, and he would demand that everyone speak in whispers.

It’s the same tragic transformation that families of many other former NFL players have seen: a slow but steady shift in behavior that starts with memory loss and moodiness, and can lead to paranoia, increased risk-taking, violent outbursts, poor impulse control, a propensity for substance abuse, and, ultimately, if they don’t self-destruct in some other manner, complete cognitive breakdown after years of a hollowed-out existence.

In the weeks after his death, Forrest Blue’s Wikipedia page listed his cause of death as “chronic traumatic encephalopathy,” or CTE, a degenerative neurological disorder similar to Alzheimer’s. First identified in “punch-drunk” boxers back in the 1920s, CTE is believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head—essentially, multiple concussions, when the brain slams against the inside of the skull. In some people, the repeated injuries, which can also include asymptomatic subconcussive hits, can cause the start of progressive brain disease that slowly spreads over years, causing deterioration typically seen in much older patients. But CTE’s connection to athletes playing other contact sports has been a relatively recent discovery.

And the issue of CTE isn’t limited exclusively to the NFL. All major professional sports with the potential for head injury—football, boxing, hockey, basketball, baseball, soccer, and even the fast-growing mixed martial arts—are currently examining the issue of concussions and player safety. This new awareness, which is spreading down to college, high school and youth athletes alike, has the potential to completely change the way we look at seemingly safe activities such as heading a soccer ball.

The idea of CTE was not new to the Blue sisters. It had been discussed before, as had other diseases, even though Forrest had no history of mental illness in his family. For years, they had been talking to doctors, trying to figure out what was going on with their father. They had met with reputable general practitioners, neurologists and psychologists, and explored the possibility of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Lewy Body Dementia, as well as B-12 vitamin deficiencies, but no one had been able to give them a definitive answer. 

“It’s really hard to pinpoint,” Brandi says.

However, while the circumstance and his symptoms certainly sounded in line with those ascribed to CTE, Wikipedia’s determination was premature. The disease can only be diagnosed posthumously by examining brain tissue on a cellular level. 

Nevertheless, CTE was certainly on Forrest’s mind before he passed away. He had kept folders with article clippings about the long-term effects of repeated head trauma on football players, and it had been his wish that his brain be examined for it after his death.

How many concussions might Forrest have sustained in his career? No one can say with any certainty.  He knew he had taken a few “dings,” as they called it back in the day, collisions with rhinoceros-sized defensive linemen that had rung his bell, made him see stars, black out temporarily and forget what had happened in the play. However, as was the smash-mouth culture of the era, he shrugged it off like his teammates and returned to action, fearful like every other player of losing his spot if he was injured. “No one makes the club from the tub,” the old saying goes.

So on that October morning, Forrest’s brain, which had been removed from his body back in July, packed in plastic bags filled with ice and sent East with a medical courier service, was resting thousands of miles away at the Bedford VA hospital in Massachusetts, which works with the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University School of Medicine, ready for examination, along with the brains of several other recently deceased professional athletes, including Hall of Famers Joe “The Jet” Perry and John Henry Johnson, from the 49ers famed “Million Dollar Backfield,” whose numbers have been commemorated on SF helmets this season.