By Ken Belson, The New York Times
ATHENS, Ga. — In a ranch house not far from the stadium where Bill Stanfill played college football, there is a picture of the hulking defensive lineman from the final seconds of the Super Bowl played at the end of the 1972 season. In the black-and-white photo, Stanfill and a teammate, Vern Den Herder, are tackling Washington Redskins quarterback Billy Kilmer.
The sack was the final play of the game, a thumping exclamation point on the N.F.L.’s only perfect season. The 1972 Dolphins used a bruising running game and a ferocious defense to finish with a 17-0 record, a feat that inspired the N.F.L. to name them the best team in history.
In the lead-up to the N.F.L.’s 54th Super Bowl, on Sunday in Miami Gardens, Fla., the ’72 Dolphins are being feted as heroes. But aging, the toils of life and the brutality of the game have attached a cost to their glory.
A half-dozen members of the team have died from a variety of causes not connected with football, including heart attack and cancer, and another half-dozen or so have reportedly been affected by cognitive impairment. The symptoms in many of those players occurred at a younger age than the general population experiences them, according to a 2011 study from the Annals of Neurology, a publication of the American Neurological Association.
In all, roughly a quarter of the 1972 team’s players are dead, and so far three of them have been found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., the degenerative brain disease associated with repeated head trauma that can only be diagnosed after death.
The first of those was Earl Morrall, the backup quarterback and, at 38, the oldest player on the team. He died in 2014 at 79. Two of his teammates, Stanfill and offensive lineman Bob Kuechenberg, died at 69 and 71 and were also found to have C.T.E., their families said. Nick Buoniconti, the Hall of Fame linebacker who had dementia and died last July at 78, agreed in 2017 to donate his brain to science. His family awaits a diagnosis.
It is impossible to say with certainty that football killed these Dolphins, but the demise of the cornerstones of that team has tainted what has long been considered a perfect season, one that football fans of a certain age view with a sense of awe. In 2020, though, football is more complicated. Research has shown, and the N.F.L. has even acknowledged, a connection between repeated hits to the head and C.T.E., though much about the disease and why some get it and others do not is not known.
Parents see the damage that former N.F.L. stars, like those on the 1972 Dolphins, have endured and wonder what effect the game might have on their children, even as the league continues to try to reassure them that tackle football is safer than it has ever been. With high school participation in 11-man football in decline, the N.F.L. and the sport’s boosters are touting new equipment, better medical treatment and rules changes that remove some of the most dangerous elements.
The families of Stanfill, Kuechenberg and Buoniconti have a jaundiced view of these efforts. They watched these once strong and vibrant men turn bitter and inward and lose their memories and ability to do everyday tasks.
“He told me, ‘Stan, I’ve been hurt my whole life,” Stan Stanfill, Bill’s son, recalled his father saying before he died in 2016. “‘I can deal with the pain. But this losing your mind, I can’t handle that.’”
More Brains. More Waiting.
The brains of these four 1972 Dolphins were studied by researchers at Boston University, which houses the largest brain bank in the country devoted to cases involving C.T.E. The number of donated brains is growing rapidly, according to the people who study them.
The C.T.E. Center at Boston University has now collected 834 donated brains, nearly triple the number it had in 2015. Of those, 596, or about 71 percent, were donated by the families of football players, including 270 who played in the N.F.L. Most of the rest played college football. It takes a minimum of three months for researchers to study and diagnose a diseased brain, but because of the flood of donations, the C.T.E. Center has a backlog of more than 80 cases.
An estimated one-third of N.F.L. players who died in the past several years have donated their brains.
Ann McKee, the neuropathologist who runs the C.T.E. Center, said that 80 percent of the brains she receives are donated by families who believe that their father, brother or husband might have had the disease, and another 15 percent come from coroners who have similar suspicions. More than 100 brains are from people who were 34 years old or younger. About half of these athletes had C.T.E. As donations have soared, the overall percentage of brains from college and pro football players found with C.T.E. has dipped slightly, though it remains high. McKee declined to be more specific.
Skeptics contend that the high percentage of C.T.E. diagnoses is skewed by selection bias: Families often donate a brain because a loved one exhibited some of the symptoms associated with C.T.E. and participated in activities associated with it.
McKee said her center does not screen for cases. “We’re just picking up the phone,” she said. With more people donating brains, she expects a wider variety of cases. “We’re getting all comers now.”
Kevin F. Bieniek, the director of the Biggs Institute Brain Bank Core at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, who has collaborated with McKee, said that Boston University has grown into the center of C.T.E. research because of its affiliation with the Concussion Legacy Foundation. The organization is an advocacy group that promotes C.T.E. research and has tried to raise awareness of the dangers of contact sports, especially football. As a result, some view the Boston University center and its research as enemies of those sports.
“If you’re pounding the pavement to get athletes to donate, then you’re going to have more severe cases,” Bieniek said. “There is criticism to be had, but all their research is very detailed.”
Unanswered questions remain, including why some athletes are prone to develop C.T.E. while others, who played the same position for the same number of years, are not. Also, it’s unclear how prevalent C.T.E. is in people who never played football or other contact sports.
Research by McKee and others, though, has found that the severity of a player’s C.T.E. is related to the number of years that he played football and the number of hits he endured. “Everything is related to the dose,” she said, referring to the number of subconcussive blows to the head that occur in practices and games.
Perfection With a Price
The relationship between the number of head hits and brain damage might help explain why Stanfill, Kuechenberg and Morrall had advanced cases of C.T.E. They played football for decades, starting as youngsters in an era when full-contact practices were the norm, helmets were little more than a hard shell and the fields in many stadiums were synthetic grass on top of concrete.
An offensive lineman like Kuechenberg, who played nearly 200 N.F.L. games over 14 seasons, most likely absorbed thousands of head hits every year during his football life.
Researchers “asked me how many concussions he might have had, and I said, ‘His head was his tool,’” said Alexandra Kuechenberg, his daughter. “Do that math over college and high school.”
Kuechenberg said her father declined rapidly in his final years. He rarely left his home. His memory began to fail. He made poor financial decisions. He drank heavily. He was depressed and contemplated suicide. He kept a journal that she described as maniacal.
After he retired from football, Bill Stanfill became active in business and was the life of every room he entered. Like Kuechenberg, though, he grappled with physical issues, including damaged hips and vertebrae in his neck, which doctors fused to mitigate the pain.
Stanfill’s world started to shrink in his early 60s when he began experiencing short-term memory loss. His hands began to shake. He could still tell a good yarn, like the time he left a hospital bed while being treated for a lacerated spleen to play in an N.F.L. game, then was readmitted after the game was over. But he would repeat these stories, unaware he had just told them.
“He was a very talkative guy, and I saw the sparkle go out of him as the condition took hold,” said Tommy Indence, Bill Stanfill’s sister. “He was more fun than you can think of, and that started to slip away.”
As his body and mind slowed, he gave up hunting and fishing. His walking became unsteady. Dementia was diagnosed when he was about 65, his second son, Jake, said.
“There was some depression, but he was too old-school to admit it,” he said. “He suffered a lot more than the outside world saw.”
Still, he brightened when football was discussed, particularly his days on his college team and with the Dolphins. He remained close with Jake Scott, Manny Fernandez and other teammates. His sons still revel in talking about their father’s exploits, but they want fans to know that there’s a downside, even for members of the N.F.L.’s only perfect team.
“It’s a game we love, but there is a toll to be paid, and I don’t know if you can prevent the ultimate damage that’s going to happen,” Jake Stanfill said. “People need to be made aware of what they’re getting into. We’re just starting to scratch the surface on this.”
Ken Belson covers the N.F.L. He joined the Sports section in 2009 after stints in Metro and Business. From 2001 to 2004, he wrote about Japan in the Tokyo bureau.