Willie Daniel and Don Edwards were as close as friends can be. As younger men, they worked out to prepare for football together. In middle age, they golfed together, lunched together and sat on the same pew every Sunday morning in church. They loved one another.

Edwards remembers when Daniel began to have memory issues, and he particularly remembers one day at lunch when Daniel looked him in the eyes and said this: “Don, I just can’t remember anything. Nothing.”

Rick Cleveland Credit: Melanie Thortis

Near the end, when Daniel, in a Starkville nursing home, could no longer walk or talk, Edwards shaved him, helped feed him and would push Daniel’s wheelchair outside, so his friend could take in some sunshine.

Twice a day, for Daniel’s last five years, Edwards visited his friend and tried his best to make him smile.

“Willie’d have done the same for me,” Edwards says. “I loved him like a brother, and he loved me.”

Willie Daniel, who died in June of 2015, played high school football in Macon, college football at Mississippi State and then for nine years, beginning in 1961, in the NFL with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Los Angeles Rams. He was a fast, hard-hitting defensive back. He made his living colliding with big, strong, hard, fast people.

At the time of Daniel’s death, his wife, the former Ruth Nash, donated his brain to the CTE Center at Boston University to be part of a study of former NFL players. Last week, The New York Times published a report of that study. Of the brains of 111 NFL players, 110 showed significant evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a disease caused by repeated blows to the head that results in myriad problems, including memory loss, confusion, depression and dementia. Those disorders often arise years after the blows to the head have ceased.

There are four stages of CTE. As is the case with fellow Mississippians Bobby Crespino and Doug Cunningham, Daniel died with stage four CTE, the worst of all.

“As a pro, he had eight concussions he knew of,” Edwards says of his friend.

“It’s hard to know an exact number, really,” Ruth Daniel says, “They really didn’t keep up with it back then. Instead of calling it a concussion, they said he got his bell rung. The trainer would hold up his fingers and if you could tell him how many, you went back in.”

Ruth Daniel remembers a game in Miami when Willie collided with an opponent and both were out cold. Ruth was summoned from the stands, and by the time she reached the locker room, Willie still was unconscious. She rode with him in the ambulance to the hospital and was outside an exam room when he finally awakened.

“A nurse came out of the room laughing and I took that as a good sign,” Ruth Daniel says. “I asked her what was going on and she said that while they were cutting his uniform off of him, he opened his eyes and said, ‘Hey, that feels real good.’

“That was Willie,” Ruth Daniel continues, “He was a funny, fun-loving man before the problems started. He was a great guy, so full of life. Everybody loved Willie. It was just so, so sad to see him deteriorate like that.”

There was another time in Cleveland when Willie, covering a pass receiver, ran head-first into the goal post (which was then located on the goal line) and crumpled to the ground. He didn’t miss a play, but when he did stagger to his feet he went to the wrong huddle. The Browns shoved him toward the Steelers huddle across the line of scrimmage.

Ruth and Willie Daniel, from 2009 Credit: Daniel family

Willie Daniel also had both his knees replaced, both his shoulders replaced and one of his hips replaced. All were replaceable. His brain was not.

Ruth Daniel remembers a time when Willie, in his later years, was visiting with son Kent, one of their three children. Willie broke down crying and when asked why, he replied, “I can’t remember a thing about when Kent was a little boy.”

The CTE Center at Boston University has no stronger supporter than Ruth Daniel, who calls the work doctors are doing there “critically important.”

“People think they are against football,” she says. “I really think they are trying to save football. They are all football fans.”

So is Ruth Daniel. So is Don Edwards. But both say they watch the game differently than they once did. They turn away from the big collisions. They don’t cheer so hard for the big hits.

When they’ve seen what they’ve seen, loved a man as they loved Willie Daniel, how could they?

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.