One doctor compared life as a professional football player to being in thousands of car crashes. Fred McNeill lived that life, and now he and his family live with the after effects.
McNeill was a first round draft pick out of UCLA by the Minnesota Vikings. He played in two Super Bowls, with his big moment coming in Super Bowl XI. The linebacker played 12 years for the Vikings, delivering hit after hit, sometimes to the point of concussion.
"[I] came to the sideline and I was dizzy," recalled McNeill.
McNeill retired from football in 1985, went to law school, graduated top of his class and was made partner at a prominent law firm. But in 1996, McNeill was voted out when his work began to decline. It was around the time his memory started failing. A few years later, his legal career crumbled, and soon after, so did his marriage.
"Fred is the nicest person on Earth. He started to exhibit behavior that was not Fred," said his estranged wife, Tia McNeill.
Tia McNeill left her husband in 2007 after years of trying unsuccessfully to get him to see a doctor. In 2009, he was officially diagnosed with dementia at age 57.
"When he first came here, he couldn't tell me who his quarterback was at UCLA or with the Vikings. He couldn't even tell me the name of his coaches. I had to tell him," said Ron Feenberg, Fred McNeill's attorney.
Former Chicago Bear Dave Duerson and former USC star and San Diego Charger Junior Seau both recently committed suicide. Their brain tissue showed chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disease found in athletes with a history of repetitive brain trauma. A few years ago, McNeill had his own suicidal thoughts.
"I was actually feeling depressed. I got closer to doing it," said McNeill.
He said his family and friends were there to help him. Until now, CTE could only be diagnosed through autopsy. But a groundbreaking study, just released at UCLA, has found the abnormal protein in the brain that causes CTE in McNeill and four other former NFL players. It's the first time the protein has been found in players who are still alive.
"We know that NFL players have a four-fold greater risk of dying from Alzheimer's disease," said Gary Small with the UCLA Semel Institute.
McNeill and his family hope the research will pave the way for prevention and advanced treatments.
"If there's anything I can do to help find a cure, let's do it," said McNeill.
Dementia doesn't allow him to remember much in the short term, but McNeill has never forgotten how to perform. Karaoke is his new passion and his therapy.
Dr. Small said the findings from this new brain study are so striking that he wants to publish it to move the field forward. Ultimately, doctors hope they'll be able to identify problems early.