- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Mary Ann Easterling heard her husband, Ray, say it time and time again: No nursing home. Which is why on April 18, the day before he took his own life, Ray, 62, was grilling his primary-care physician about how long it would be before what remained of his mind would wither.
"Three years," the doctor said.
On the car ride home Ray, a member of the Falcons' Gritz Blitz defense that in 1977 set an NFL record for fewest points allowed in a season, turned to Mary Ann and said, "I don't believe what he said."
Mary Ann had decided to take him to the doctor following an episode earlier in the week. Her cellphone had rung while she was at her job as an administrator and teacher at a home-school collaborative near their house in Richmond. She heard Ray's voice on the other end, frantic. He was on his way to the post office but suddenly didn't recognize his surroundings. Trying to keep her voice from registering any emotion, Mary Ann helped him divine his location: He was outside the building they had lived in for a decade, years ago, directly across the street from the post office.
"This was another step along the road," Mary Ann says of the incident. "We had been stepping down like that for three years. In my heart I was sad for him because I knew he [would no longer] feel right about going out by himself."
Mary Ann first noticed Ray's decline in the late 1980s, about a decade after he retired from an eight-season pro career. The normally vibrant, devoted man she'd met at a Thursday-night Bible-study class in 1975, the man who prayed with her every day, had become sullen and depressed, and he began having outbursts of blistering anger. "Little things would set him off," Mary Ann says. "You feel like you've got to walk on eggshells."
By the 1990s Ray, who'd had a successful career in financial services, began making impulsive and risky decisions, a hallmark, some scientists say, of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a deterioration of the brain believed to be linked to repeated blows to the head. He took out a line of credit on their house and invested in a nutrition business. More troubling to Mary Ann, Ray didn't do what he usually did before making a big decision: pray with her. The business failed, and they were forced to sell their home and live in the office across from the post office—the building that Ray later wouldn't be able to recognize.
As the years passed, Mary Ann's fears grew. Ray was combative with co-workers, and by 2008 he could no longer make business presentations without losing his train of thought or button his shirts without Mary Ann's help; the fine motor skills in his hands were all but gone. In the last year of her husband's life, Mary Ann listened to him tell wild stories about people following him as he jogged and complain that she didn't care about him when she left the house for work.
Then while surfing the Internet one evening in 2010, Mary Ann found a report suggesting a link between her husband's symptoms and his football career. Three months later a battery of tests confirmed a diagnosis of early-onset dementia. "Although I was very sad," Mary Ann says, "it was also a huge relief to know that it was something organic that was wrong."