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A neuropathologist has examined the brains of 111 NFL players and 110 were found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative disease linked to repeated blows to the head, the New York Times reported Tuesday.
One of those brains belonged to Bobby Crespino, one of Ole Miss’s all-time football greats who played eight years in the NFL with the Cleveland Browns and New York Giants.
“Yes, they found my dad had a classic case of CTE,” said Joseph Crespino, Bobby Crespino’s son, a professor at Emory University in Atlanta.
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a devilish disease that can cause myriad problems, including memory loss, confusion, depression and dementia. Those disorders often arise years after the blows to the head have ceased. Public awareness of C.T.E. was heightened when the movie Concussion came out in 2015.
Bobby Crespino died at 75 four years ago this Saturday following a lengthy illness. Joseph Crespino said he decided to donate his father’s brain to the CTE Center at Boston University because of discussions he had with his father during the final year of Bobby Crespino’s life.
“My dad suffered greatly for many years but particularly in the last year,” Joseph Crespino said. “He loved football dearly, but he was quite certain that a lot of his health problems were due to football injuries. He thought – we thought – this was an important study.”
Nine years ago, this writer spent most of a day with Bobby Crespino, working on a story about the health problems that had beset many aging Mississippians who had played in the NFL. At the time, Bobby Crespino faced numerous neurological problems and walked with the help of a cane. I had to coax him to do the interview. He was a proud gentleman and said he did not want to sound like he felt sorry for himself or was begging for help.
A halfback and wingback at Ole Miss (1958-60) on teams that compiled a 29-3-1 record, Bobby Crespino played both wide receiver and tight end in the pros. His specialty was going across the middle to catch passes. Quite often, he received a violent blow whether he caught the ball or not.
He told me of a game in 1965 when he was playing for the New York Giants against his former team, the Cleveland Browns, at Cleveland. Crespino ran a crossing pattern and just as the football arrived, so did Vince Costello, the Browns’ bruising middle linebacker and a good friend of Crespino’s. Costello hurled himself at Crespino, hitting him, helmet to helmet. It was a violent, full-speed collision that left Crespino unconscious. He said he remembers nothing of the flight back to New York. He spent the night in a New York hospital.
He played the next week.
Today, officials would flag Costello for a 15-yard penalty and he would be ejected from the game. In 1965, there was no such penalty. Too, helmets then did not provide nearly the protection of today’s NFL headgear.
Bobby Crespino was a first-round draft pick of the Cleveland Browns in 1961. He signed for a $6,500 bonus and a $12,500 salary. Today, you could add a comma and three zeroes to the end of both of those numbers. And, today, Crespino’s signing bonus and salary would not begin to pay for any of the surgeries he had later in life.
In 2006, Bobby Crespino applied to the NFL for help with his medical bills. He was turned down.
“I did well after football,” Bobby Crespino told me in 2008. “I’m able to handle my medical bills. The thing is, there are a lot of guys who I played with – a lot of guys before me and a lot of guys after me – who are not. The NFL is a multibillion-dollar business and should do more to help the guys who helped it become that.”
I interviewed the doctor who performed two surgeries on Bobby Crespino’s spine. Neurosurgeon Philip Azordegan said he could not for certain say Crespino’s health problems were 100 percent the result of the football injuries.
“But I can tell you that trauma from football collisions was a contributing factor,” Azordegan said. “Football is a game of extreme collisions, and each one of those violent collisions has to cause some degeneration to cartilage all through the body.”
And to the brain, we now know.
I well remember Bobby Crespino telling me that he loved football and that he would probably do it all again, despite all the pain.
Joseph Crespino said his father changed his mind about that, particularly in the last year of his life. “As his health and his suffering got worse, he told me several times he would not do it again,” Joseph Crespino said.
“You know, since we learned the results of the study, and I learn more about what CTE does to a person’s brain, I look back at how it might have affected Dad,” Joseph Crespino said. “One of the symptoms is a loss of impulse control, what people would call a bad temper.
“My dad was kind gentleman, but he had a temper,” Joseph Crespino continued. “I remember one time when I was a kid and he was playing softball and there was a play at the plate and the umpire called him out. Dad got up and argued so loudly he got thrown out of the game. A few minutes later, he was apologizing to the umpire. It was like he said to himself, ‘What the heck did I just do? What in the world got in to me?’”
Joseph Crespino says he has never forgotten that scene from his childhood and has long wondered just what caused such an eruption from a man he knew to me kind and gentle.
Now, he believes he knows.
Said Joseph Crespino, “I had a wonderful, loving, caring father. I am proud of him for so many reasons, including that his brain is part of this important study.”