NFL widow gives voice to "quiet hero" Ralph Wenzel

Eleanor Perfetto and her husband, former NFL player Ralph Wenzel, in 1997. Courtesy: Eleanor Perfetto

(CBS News) Long after his NFL career ended in 1973, Ralph Wenzel stayed close to the game he loved. As an assistant high school football coach at Sidwell Friends in Washington, D.C., he left a mark as a hands-on teacher, leading the school's only undefeated team in 1993.

"He would go out there and run drills with us," says Doug Thornell, who played on the '93 squad. "He wasn't the kind of guy who was sitting on the sidelines in a director's chair. He looked like he was in fantastic shape."

But while Wenzel, who played guard for the Steelers and Chargers for seven seasons, was still physically fit in his early 50s, his brain was another story. In the mid-90s, he began losing things and having sporadic mental lapses. Eventually the 6'2", 225-pound former athlete was unable to walk, write or feed himself. By 2006, he was living in a home for dementia patients near Annapolis, Md.

Ralph Wenzel, when he played for the Pittsburgh Steelers, in Sept. 1970.
AP Photo

Last month, after a two-decade decline, Wenzel died from complications of dementia, according to his wife, Eleanor Perfetto. He was 69.

Though Wenzel was not a household name to most NFL fans, Perfetto made sure his name wasn't forgotten by lawmakers and NFL officials reluctant to acknowledge football's lingering effects on the brain. The self-proclaimed "pushy broad" continues to be a leading voice for retired NFL players and other athletes suffering from brain diseases.

Perfetto, who has a Ph.D. in public health, said it wasn't until 1999 that she and her husband traced his health problems to his football career. That's when a neurologist asked Wenzel to estimate how many concussions he had suffered during his playing days. His answer: "More than I could probably count."

"Those blows to the head, when it's a large guy and heavy speed, they can do damage - even if it's not diagnosed as concussion," Perfetto said last week. "The brain's not having a chance to heal itself."

When Wenzel was forced into assisted living, the NFL was silent on the issue of brain disease. Perfetto was not. In 2008, she confronted NFL commissioner Roger Goodell after she was barred from a meeting about late-life care for retired players.

In 2009, she gave passionate testimony about her husband's deterioration before a House Judiciary Committee hearing on head injuries. Calling herself a "pushy broad," Perfetto took the league to task.

"The NFL must stop its denial of the relationship between brain trauma and brain disease. The evidence is there," she told the panel. "The denial is disrespectful of the players and families who are suffering and it endangers current players and children who are at risk for injury."

In 2010, Perfetto was the first to file a workers' compensation claim with the NFL, arguing the injuries Wenzel suffered on the field led to his dementia. Since, hundreds of players have followed suit with similar claims. According to The Associated Press, more than 2,400 retired players are now plaintiffs in concussion-related suits against the NFL. They say the league concealed the links between football-related head trauma and permanent brain injuries.

Perfetto's lawsuit and the spate of others are still pending. The NFL has consistently denied it deliberately hid injury risks.

Perfetto's efforts have resonated in part because her doctorate gives her more credibility on health care issues. Furthermore, as a senior director at Pfizer, she is gainfully employed with excellent health insurance unlikely to be viewed as an NFL wife looking to cash in.

"I'm not looking for money," she said. "I'm looking for change."

Change has come slowly. Prior to her 2009 testimony on Capitol Hill, the league rejected any link between repeated head blows on the field and brain injury. Soon after, the NFL finally acknowledged that cognitive problems experienced by retired players such as Wenzel could be attributed to football.

Today, as the NFL prepares to fight the recent wave of lawsuits, the league has made concussion awareness a centerpiece of player safety - in pro locker rooms and Pee Wee football. Later this month, the nation's youth football governing body will hold health clinics at four NFL team facilities to teach preventive safety measures for young athletes. In 2010, the NFL donated $1 million to Boston University for the study of brain injuries.

Wenzel's brain is among more than 100 that have been donated to the BU brain bank. There it will be tested for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease found in athletes with a history of repetitive brain trauma.

The center's co-director, Dr. Ann McKee, will analyze Wenzel's brain tissue to determine whether the former NFL lineman did indeed suffer from CTE. McKee, who has analyzed dozens of athletes' brains, said that those diagnosed with CTE often endure similar declines: emotional problems and memory loss in the early stages and then more significant cognitive issues as the disease progresses.

Currently, CTE can only be detected post-mortem by staining tau protein deposits in brain tissue - a complex, several-month process that McKee compared to developing a photograph. The doctor is optimistic that further research will allow doctors to detect - and treat - the disease before an athlete dies.

McKee said while the NFL has shown "positive movement" with regard to concussion awareness, "We have a long way to go." One area that needs more attention, she said, is subconcussions, which cause the same traumatic injury without the symptoms. She said the average lineman endures up to 1,200 subconcussive hits over the course of a season.

Having studied the brains of athletes ranging from teenagers to a 98-year-old, McKee noted that CTE doesn't discriminate by age. A seminal case for her came in 2010, when 21-year-old Penn football player Owen Thomas committed suicide. An analysis of Thomas' brain tissue showed that the star defensive end, who had never been diagnosed with a concussion, had CTE.

Said McKee: "I was taken aback that this could affect even our young athletes."

It was young athletes who ultimately inspired Wenzel's post-NFL life. Perfetto said that although her husband was too mentally incapacitated to understand how influential his case had been in raising awareness of brain trauma in football, he would have been gratified.

"I think he would be satisfied that some good could come out of this and I know even early on, one of his concerns was about young people in sports," Perfetto said. "It was all about the kids."

In turn, Wenzel's "kids" - like former player Doug Thornell - made sure they looked after their mentor until the end. Thornell, who went on to play football at Cornell and is now a political strategist in D.C., joined forces with former high school teammates Andrew Goldsmith and Greg Zumas to set up a trust for Wenzel. The goal was to ensure their beloved coach got the care he needed - and the attention he deserved.

"He was just one of those quiet heroes, who went about his business and tried to contribute to other people's lives. He taught kids the right way to do things," Thornell said. "Even in his later years, when he wasn't doing that well... He and his wife should be applauded for what I think was a gutsy move to be so public in this."

As for Perfetto, she said she has no intention of laying low after her husband's death. She is a board member at the Sports Legacy Institute, which seeks to study and treat brain trauma in sports, and she continues to be a leading voice for retired NFL players suffering from brain disease.

While Perfetto awaits the results of Wenzel's brain analysis, she is also waiting for the official vindication her husband never got while he was alive.

"I would really like to see a judge conclude this is a sports-related injury. It's been several years and could be a couple more," she said. "I'm going to stick with it as long as I have to."

  • Stephen Smith

    Stephen Smith is a senior editor for CBSNews.com

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