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The Other Half Of the Story
Melissa Segura
September 10, 2012
TOO OFTEN FORGOTTEN IN THE NFL CONCUSSION DEBATE ARE THE WIVES AND GIRLFRIENDS WHO BEAR THE BURDEN OF CARING FOR SUFFERING PLAYERS—AND WATCHING THE MEN THEY LOVE SLOWLY SLIP AWAY
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September 10, 2012

The Other Half Of The Story

TOO OFTEN FORGOTTEN IN THE NFL CONCUSSION DEBATE ARE THE WIVES AND GIRLFRIENDS WHO BEAR THE BURDEN OF CARING FOR SUFFERING PLAYERS—AND WATCHING THE MEN THEY LOVE SLOWLY SLIP AWAY

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THE NOTEBOOK is pink and purple, his favorite colors. His girlfriend picked it up at a Phoenix-area HomeGoods store eight months ago. She shuttles it between their home office and a desk in their kitchen, jotting down things she knows her 53-year-old boyfriend, two-time Super Bowl--winning quarterback Jim McMahon, won't remember.

May 28, 2012 Told JM about golf out in Mississippi for [country musician Steve] Azar. From Azar's heading to Mario's [Lemieux] event.

A few pages later:

On 6/5 told Mac we need to start to get organized for Azar's event and for Mario's. Looked at me like I have five heads. And he said, "I didn't think we were going to Azar's." After a few minutes, he looked at me and said, "Baby, you're right. Sorry. I forgot."

Laurie Navon started the log to help McMahon, who played for the Bears and six other NFL teams between 1982 and '96, recall everything from which charity golf events he was scheduled to attend to why the plumbers were at the door. (Plumber was here. Said we need to change our two toilets.) Many of the other wives and girlfriends who care for retired professional football players—who, according to a 2009 University of Michigan study, may be five times more likely than other men their age to suffer from dementia—can relate to Navon's log. Its details might be unfamiliar, but overall it tells a familiar story. Theirs.

Navon, 46, is part of an unofficial sorority whose members meet at the occasional team reunion dinner or charity golf tournament. They recognize each other by the burdens they share and by the familiar characteristics of their mates: the slow shuffle, the empty stare, the non-sequitur replies to simple questions. Like Junior League members swapping recipes, the women trade tips for managing their partners' memory loss and mood swings.

Over the course of the last year, more than 140 lawsuits have been filed by players and their families against the NFL alleging that the league had concealed information about the dangers of repeated blows to the head. (The suits are in the process of being consolidated into one, which will be heard in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia. In response, the NFL, which has moved to dismiss the suits, said in a statement, "The NFL has long made player safety a priority and continues to do so. Any allegation that the NFL intentionally sought to mislead players has no merit. It stands in contrast to the league's actions to better protect players and advance the science and medical understanding of the management and treatment of concussions.")

The damages the plaintiffs allege include "loss of consortium," a nebulous legal phrase that really means a life tethered to a cellphone for fear of missing a call from a confused partner who is standing outside a house he no longer recognizes; a sense that the couples' golden years have been taken away; and, for some of the women, a daily dose of antidepressants to help them withstand their partners' senseless rage.

These women are not only their partners' caretakers but also their voices and advocates. They led the fight for the NFL 88 Plan, a fund to help families pay for the care of former players with dementia. They have testified before Congress about the dangers of concussions. And they have served as the primary contacts for lawyers representing the former players in their battle with the league.

Three such women are Navon, Mary Lee Kocourek and Mary Ann Easterling. They fell in love with men who played in the NFL in different decades, and they now find themselves bearing the burden of their partners' dementia in different ways. Each of them gave SI a glimpse into her life, revealing harsh realities that too often are part of life after football.

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