By Rick Maese
March 12, 2021 at 8:00 a.m. EST
Ann McKee, the renowned neuropathologist from Boston University, had studied hundreds of brains belonging to former football players. But this one was different.
McKee grew up in Appleton, Wis., cheering on Vince Lombardi’s great Green Bay Packers teams of the 1960s. As a young girl, she looked up to Willie Wood, the gregarious, hard-hitting defensive back. And years later, she met the Pro Football Hall of Famer when they appeared before a congressional committee to discuss football safety.
After Wood’s death in February 2020, his brain ended up on McKee’s table, another three-pound puzzle that could help explain the relationship between a bruising sport and cognitive decline.
McKee observed what she says are “all the classic signs” of severe chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, the degenerative brain disease associated with the repeated blows to the head common in football and boxing. There were lesions, an accumulation of tau protein around blood vessels and in crevices, and a brain that was 20 percent smaller than it should have been, McKee said.
She recently informed the family that Wood suffered from Stage 4 CTE, the most severe form of the disease.
“His brain fit all the criteria,” she said.
For Wood’s family, the postmortem diagnosis amounts to a clinical confirmation of what they had experienced for nearly 15 years, as dementia slowly claimed the football great’s memories, his ability to recognize loved ones and his communication skills.
“It is very tragic to sit there and watch it happen, a loved one just becoming a shell of themselves,” son Willie Wood Jr. said. “He was so electric in terms of his charisma and personality. My father was an alpha, and every time he walked into the room, you knew he was there. And that’s not how he left.”
‘Dingers’ and ‘stingers’
Wood was a Washington native who came of age just as Brown v. Board of Education opened doors for the District’s first integrated games. One of the top high school prospects of his era, he went to USC, where he became the first Black quarterback in what’s now called the Pac-12 Conference. He switched to defensive back in the NFL, was an eight-time Pro Bowl selection and helped the Packers win five championships.
“Willie was only 175 pounds,” said Robert Schmidt, Wood’s former college teammate and a longtime family friend, “but was one of the hardest hitters the game has seen.”
Wood went into coaching after his playing career ended. He was retired by the time he began showing signs of decline in his late 60s. He would run an errand and couldn’t find his way home. He would misplace things and get lost in conversations.
“He was afflicted for so long, I guess you kind of get over that initial pain. But the first year or two was incredibly painful,” Willie Jr. said. “We’d do this thing where he would ask if I was Andre. ‘No, no. I’m Willie Jr., your youngest son.’ ‘Okay, is your momma Sheila? How’s she doing?’ ‘Yeah, Sheila was your wife, but she passed away back in ’88.’ ‘Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.’ And then he’d ask about Andre again.”
His decline coincided with the emergence of science around brain trauma in football. Before a connection between the game and CTE was firmly established, Wood and his family had discussions about the possible impact of all the head injuries he suffered during his playing days.
“They didn’t call them concussions back then, of course,” Willie Jr. said. “You know, you got a ‘dinger’ or ‘stinger’ or something like that. He said he could remember at least 12 to 15 different times he had something like that.”
Wood was 72 when he attended the 2009 House Judiciary Committee hearing, where he met McKee.
“He knew clearly that what he was suffering from was a result of the multiple concussions from football,” said Schmidt, who’s also the executive director of the Pro Football Retired Players Association. “He understood that.”
Scientists’ understanding of CTE has evolved rapidly since then. In 2013, McKee and colleagues proposed a scheme for characterizing the severity of CTE, classifying it into four pathological stages. In a study last year, McKee and her team studied 366 brains diagnosed with CTE and found that more than 25 percent had Stage 4. The study confirmed the validity of the staging system, McKee said.
Research has shown a correlation between a player’s age and years spent playing the game and the severity of the disease. Wood started playing when he was 10, eventually spending 12 years in the NFL before retiring in 1971 at 35. He lived to be 83.
“So that is a really long time to play the game,” McKee said. “Once you get into that many years of exposure, no matter how resilient you are, your risk is very high for CTE.”
She pointed to a 2019 study that found the risk of CTE doubles for every 2.6 years of playing football. Those diagnosed with CTE were 10 times more likely to have played the sport for at least 14½ years compared with players without CTE, according to the same study.
Lessons in a diagnosis
As the research emerged, Willie Jr. continued making regular visits to see his father, even after the old player stopped speaking and showed little recognition of his surroundings. Willie Jr. had followed the news about head injuries and football but wasn’t sure what to make of the CTE connection. He had met plenty of people who suffered from dementia and had never touched a football, and he knew others who spent a lifetime playing the game and never declined like his dad.
So he was especially curious to see what researchers would find when they studied his father’s brain. Wood’s family, along with Schmidt, who served as Wood’s personal attorney, agreed to share the brain with researchers at Boston University and the Concussion Legacy Foundation.
“It was very startling,” Wood Jr. said of learning the Stage 4 diagnosis. “There is an extreme price to pay, and it’s not just by the individual. Every single person in my family suffered right along with him.”
Wood lived out his final years in a Washington assisted-living center, helped by his pension and benefits provided by the 88 Plan, a program jointly administered by the NFL and the NFL Players Association aiding former players suffering from ALS, Parkinson’s disease and dementia. His son said Wood’s claim in the NFL concussion settlement has not yet been paid out.
As difficult as the final years were, Willie Jr. said, his father voiced few misgivings about the game. It gave him a chance to touch other people, and his family is hopeful the Stage 4 CTE diagnosis will similarly help others.
“Football provided things in his life that he may not have been able to achieve otherwise,” Willie Jr. said. “From his background, from where he was, from the places that he was able to go, the people that he was able to meet, the lives that he was able to change. More than the glory or the rings, I think some of those things are what he felt was really worth all the pain and suffering.”
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