The first sign of trouble for Mary Lee Kocourek was that her husband, Dave, was forgetting things and sleeping more than usual. Dave, a four-time Pro Bowl tight end in the 1960s with the Chargers, Dolphins and Raiders, was her high school sweetheart. For years he'd arranged his shoes by color and function, but around 1999 he began to seem disorganized. He frequently misplaced his wallet or his AFL championship ring. She took him to a doctor in 2002, and Dave, then 64, was given a diagnosis of early dementia.
In 2005, Dave took the couple's dachshund, Tootsie Roll, for a walk near their house on Marco Island, Fla., only to end up at a police station looking for his other dog—although the couple did not have one. In a three-day period in 2010, police twice had to be called in to help search for Dave. (Once, Mary Lee says, they prepared to dispatch search-and-rescue boats into the Gulf of Mexico.) The first time, he turned up, with Tootsie Roll, in the lobby of a Marriott two miles from their house; the next time, in a church parking lot.
Mary Lee became even more vigilant after she walked in on Dave preparing to brush his teeth with a razor. "When you see a man that was so big and so strong and so nice and gentle, and he doesn't know the difference between a toothbrush and a razor ..., " Mary Lee says, crying. "He could have cut his mouth wide-open. After [he] got progressively worse, I had to watch everything he did. I couldn't let him take a shower or do any of the things you need to do every morning without me being there. I couldn't chance it."
Mary Lee, a real estate broker, began taking Dave to work with her. The office managers assigned him a desk while Mary Lee worked on her listings. At home she relished his nap times. "This is terrible to say, but it was sort of a help that he did sleep, because then I could do other things around the house," she says.
By 2008 Mary Lee, exhausted by the round-the-clock care, persuaded her husband to attend thrice-weekly adult-day-care sessions by telling him that the program administrator, a family friend, needed his help. The day care helped, but in August 2010 Mary Lee needed back surgery, which would entail a lengthy recovery during which she wouldn't be able to care for Dave. That meant putting him in a nursing home.
The heartbreaking decision to place a loved one in institutional care is not limited to NFL families, of course. But the process is often made even more difficult by the simple fact that traits that are considered a virtue in professional football players—towering size, hulking frames—are liabilities to nursing homes and the companies that insure them. The wife of one former player struggled to find a facility with a bed big enough to fit her husband, a former offensive lineman.
The NFL does help defray the $76,000 per year it costs Mary Lee to keep Dave in a nursing home, but she still feels the financial strain. Her husband never earned more than $35,000 in a season. She bristles at message-board postings and call-in radio chatter suggesting that plaintiffs in the concussion litigation are motivated by greed rather than need. "They should have told us something about repeated head injuries," Mary Lee says between tears. "I've lost the love of my life. These are supposed to be our golden years, but they certainly are not. I've gone into a deep depression, and I'm on medication. I had to put my husband in a home.... I just flipped."
Much of Mary Lee's social circle has vanished. "When you're not a couple, you're not included in many things," she says. Even if she wanted to take Dave to a restaurant, she couldn't because he wears adult diapers. Trying to go to a doctor's appointment is often complicated by Dave's refusal to get in the car. "Sometimes I have to get some people in the street to help me," she says.
Their time together is mostly limited to Mary Lee's nightly stops at the nursing home for a happy hour of apple juice and chips with her husband. She does her best to talk to him, but sometimes he speaks only gibberish, indecipherable even to the woman who's been married to him for 54 years. He doesn't know the day of the week, the month or the president—though he has been heard singing his alma mater's fight song, On, Wisconsin!
"I'm lonely, and I'm sure it's lonely for him, too," Mary Lee says. "I just wouldn't want anyone else to go through this."