Ron Cook: Former Pitt star Dorsett battles brain disease


The words came slowly, haltingly. It was as if a very old man were speaking. At times, he was hard to understand. It was heartbreaking to hear, especially if you know the man, know what he was.

“I’m in a battle, obviously,” Tony Dorsett said.

This was during an interview this week with Sportsradio 1310 The Ticket in Dallas. Dorsett, a star tailback at Hopewell High School, a Heisman Trophy winner at Pitt and a Hall of Famer and Super Bowl champion with the Dallas Cowboys, has symptoms of CTE — chronic traumatic encephalopathy — a progressive degenerative brain disease that he believes is linked to his playing days. He talked of getting in his car and forgetting where he was going or how to get there. He has mood swings. He has periods of paranoia and depression.

“Some days are good. Some days are bad,” Dorsett said. “I signed up for this when, I guess, I started playing football so many years ago.

“But, obviously, not knowing that the end was going to be like this.”

Dorsett, 60, isn’t alone. Hundreds of former NFL players are struggling with a variety of brain disorders, including dementia. Some have committed suicide, the most recent and most notable Junior Seau in May 2012. Seau was elected two weeks ago to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

This also isn’t the first time the Pittsburgh area has been touched by the horror of CTE. The tragic case of former Steelers Hall of Famer Mike Webster brought more attention to football-related brain injuries than any case before Seau’s. Former Steelers guard Terry Long committed suicide in 2005 at 45 by drinking anti-freeze. Former Steelers tackle Justin Strzelczyk was killed in 2004 at 36 in a high-speed crash while trying to avoid police. Former Pitt star and Steelers No. 1 draft pick Paul Martha, 72, has been fighting dementia since his mid-60s.

But, somehow, it feels a little worse with Dorsett. Like Martha, he wasn’t one of the big guys, banging heads on every play. He was among the game’s all-time greats, achieving extraordinary fame, fortune and glory.

It makes you wonder if it all was worth it, doesn’t it?

Dorsett stopped short of saying he wouldn’t do it all over again if given the chance. “I love the game. The game was good to me.” But Dorsett wouldn’t be human if he didn’t have at least a few regrets as he struggles with everyday life. “It’s just unfortunate that I’m going through what I’m going through,” he said.

Dorsett said he would allow his son to play football in today’s climate with one stipulation — that he would pay closer attention to his son’s injuries than he did to his own injuries. “When I was playing, my whole mentality was that if I could walk, I’d play.”

Dorsett said he is happy the NFL is trying to make its game safer by trying to eliminate helmet-to-helmet hits and brutal hits to defenseless players. Don’t give the league too much credit for altruism; its No. 1 concern with head injuries is to stay on the right side of future litigation. But there is a need to protect players from themselves.

“Sometimes, I look at some of the rules now and I’m like, ’C’mon, man! This is football,’” Dorsett said, echoing many players who believe the NFL is sissifying its brand. “But the deal is it’s in the best interest of the players of today. There’s no question about it.”

Pro football always will be a violent sport. Fans, many of whom live vicariously through the players, will demand it. The players willingly will provide the big hits in exchange for their big paychecks even if they realize the long-term risks to their health. They think they are indestructible, that the head injuries will happen to the other guys, not to them. They don’t care about their health when they are 50 or 60. That’s 20 or 30 years down the road, a lifetime to them. Many believe in a higher power, that if they are to struggle later in life, it will be God’s will.

Hines Ward often said he would play with multiple concussions for the good of the team, his personal risks be damned. James Harrison said he gladly will deal with long-term pain to be able to provide a good life for his children. How many other players are like Ward and Harrison? Or like Chicago Bears safety Chris Conte? Last season, Conte said, after having two concussions, “I’d rather have the experience of playing football and, who knows, die 10, 15 years earlier than not be able to play in the NFL and live a long life.”

It’s fair to think Dorsett once had similar thoughts. He was young and invincible when he ran through the Beaver Falls defense in 1972, when he ran for 303 yards against Notre Dame in 1975, when he had a 99-yard touchdown run against the Minnesota Vikings in the 1982 season. But now? Now that he knows how the end of his life is going to be?

“I’m hoping we can reverse this thing somehow,” Dorsett said, sounding anything but young and invincible.

Ron Cook is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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