We’ve heard countless stories of former NFL players suffering from symptoms related to degenerative brain diseases like chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — many of which, sadly, have been told posthumously — but rarely do we get such a disturbing and heart-wrenching window into the life of someone living with a person who is battling the trauma of repeated blows to the head in football.
That’s what Emily Kelly, wife of former New Orleans Saints player Rob Kelly, gave us with an opinion piece in The New York Times titled, “I’m the wife of a former NFL player. Football destroyed his mind.”
Kelly played four seasons in New Orleans at 200 pounds before nerve damage between his shoulder and neck resulted in his retirement at the age of 28 in 2002. Emily described Rob’s devolvement from a caring husband and father to a man who has had to endure sleep deprivation, little to no appetite, depression, “dramatic mood swings” and now extreme paranoia. His weight dropped to 157 pounds.
“He was losing touch with reality and was increasingly paranoid,” Emily wrote. “The first time he accused me of stealing loose change from his nightstand I was speechless. And when I told him how illogical it would be for me to do such a thing, he looked at me with even more suspicion. But his paranoia didn’t end there. It would leave me with a heaviness in my chest that made me sob without warning.
“He went from being a devoted and loving father and husband to someone who felt like a ghost in our home. For a couple of months one winter he was so depressed and detached, he couldn’t muster up the energy to speak. My questions went unanswered until I simply stopped asking them. The silence was unnerving.”
“After years of little to no sleep, he alternated between sleeping either three hours a night or 20. I’d wake up to find every blind and curtain in the house closed and Rob sitting on the sofa with a blank expression on his face. He no longer felt comfortable driving, refused to leave the house and cut off contact with everyone.
“Specific details about how he wanted his funeral to be, and his demand that he be cremated, were brought up with excruciating frequency. One particularly dark time, he went five days without eating anything; he drank only water and a few swigs of chocolate milk. He was suffering deeply and barely surviving. My love and affection seemed to offer no comfort or solace. I felt helpless.”
Emily is not alone. She is part of a private Facebook group of women connected to NFL players that is 2,400 strong and filled with stories of CTE symptoms. “Many of us, including me, are convinced our husbands suffer from the disease,” Emily added. They can’t be certain until their husbands are dead.
A clinician determined “repeated concussion is very likely to have caused Mr. Kelly’s neuropsychological dysfunction,” and Rob receives lifelong disability benefits as a result of the 2013 Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan, which was enacted after the NFL spent years disregarding connections between football and traumatic brain injuries. The Kellys are also registered as part of the NFL’s billion-dollar concussion settlement with players.
Still, that does nothing to help Emily get the Rob back she once knew. He is only 43 years old.
“But when all those big hits happened and the fans cheered, did they cheer in spite of knowing a man just greatly increased his risk for dementia? Was anyone worried about an ALS diagnosis or a CTE-related suicide at 40 after their favorite player suffered repeated blows to the head on the field?” she concluded. “No, they cheered and they celebrated because they didn’t know. And neither did we.”
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