When it was time to change her husband Greg’s diaper, Deb Ploetz followed a routine. First, she would lead him to the bathroom of their rental house in North Little Rock, Arkansas, where they had moved to in February of 2015—in part to be closer to Deb’s family, and in part because memory care facilities in Texas and Colorado had been too scared of Greg, a 5-foot-11, 205-pound former football player, to let him stay.
Next, Deb’s sister, Jane Schubert, would hold Greg’s hands. Looking into his eyes, she’d recite the Lord’s Prayer. As Jane prayed, Deb would turn on a faucet, take off Greg’s pants, and clean him with a damp washcloth, wiping away urine and feces. “We had to do it as he was walking around,” she says. “He would mostly thrash with his arms. And then when you’d finish, he’d be mad.” Increasingly unable to speak, Greg still could communicate his pain. He would walk to the living room and slap the mini-blinds covering the windows, then shuffle into the kitchen and knock the grill tops off the gas stove. “I had to take the knobs off because I was afraid he would turn the stove on,” Deb Ploetz says.
“I had to hide the tools, too. It was like baby-proofing the house.”
Greg was 66. He and Deb had been married for 37 years, and they had two children together, Beau and Erin. Greg was a college and high school art teacher and football coach, a loving father and talkative brother, and a restless and prolific painter once named the top art student at the University of Texas. But ever since his dementia diagnosis in 2009, his life and mind had withered. He went from constantly misplacing his wallet to losing his job to being flummoxed by puzzles made for toddlers. In the spring, Deb placed him in a Little Rock hospice, and on May 11, 2015, he died of the long term effects of his illness.
Seven months later, Boston University doctors told the family that Greg suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease linked to repetitive head trauma. Characterized by the buildup of a toxic protein called tau in specific areas of the brain, CTE is associated with cognitive
dysfunction and mood and behavior disorders, and only can be definitely diagnosed after death. In 2005, the neuropathologist Bennet Omalu found the disease in the brain of former NFL lineman Mike Webster, a discovery whose repercussions are still unfolding—Congressional hearings on the risks of concussions and head hits, investigative reports into what the NFL knew and when it knew it, ongoing rules changes intended to mitigate the game’s violence, and the settlement of a brain injury lawsuit brought against the league by thousands of former players that eventually could cost the NFL hundreds of millions of dollars.
But Greg Ploetz never played professional football. His career ended at Texas, where he starred as an undersized, overachieving defensive lineman and was a key member of the school’s 1969 national championship team. Nevertheless, Ploetz was diagnosed with the most advanced stage of the disease, and Boston University CTE Center director Ann McKee told Deb that his case was the worst she had seen in a college player to that point. Last summer, McKee and her colleagues reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association that they had found CTE in the brains of 110 of 111 former NFL players—and in 48 of 53 former college players, too. The findings became national news, and in many outlets the story was illustrated with a photograph of Greg’s diseased and atrophied brain.
Football is America’s most popular college sport, reliably drawing millions of television viewers and generating nearly $5 billion in revenue in 2015-16. The game is overseen by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which counts more than 1,200 schools and athletic conferences as members and makes rules that govern everything from practice time to courtside corporate cup branding. The NCAA’s mission, according to the NCAA, is “safeguarding the well-being” of athletes.