Ralph Wenzel, a former National Football League lineman whose early-onset dementia helped draw attention to recent debates about the safety of football, died on Monday in Annapolis, Md. He was 69.
The cause was complications of dementia, said his wife, Eleanor Perfetto.
A guard for the Pittsburgh Steelers and the San Diego Chargers from 1966 to 1973, and later a successful teacher and coach, Wenzel began having significant memory lapses and other cognitive problems in 1995 at the age of 52. Those symptoms worsened to the point that he could no longer work, communicate or feed himself; he began living in a home for dementia patients in 2006 at 63.
At reunions, Perfetto, who has a Ph.D. in public health, had met other retired NFL players experiencing similar problems. When a debate over football’s long-term impact on brain function began making national news soon after Wenzel was institutionalized, Perfetto forcefully held out her husband as an example of football’s costs to both its players and the families left caring for them.
The NFL consistently countered that the dementia experienced by a rising number of former players could not be attributed to football.
In a New York Times profile in March 2007, Perfetto said that in more lucid times Wenzel had assessed his total number of on-field concussions as “more than I can count.” During one game, he was knocked unconscious for five or 10 seconds, stumbled to the wrong huddle, took a few plays off and then returned to the game.
Perfetto allowed subsequent profiles of Wenzel in the news media to raise public awareness of football’s risks. She confronted NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell outside a 2008 meeting with retired players when he did not allow her to attend on Wenzel’s behalf. Most notably, she described his case before a House Judiciary Committee hearing on football head injuries in October 2009.
“The NFL must stop its denial of the relationship between brain trauma and brain disease,” Perfetto testified, urging the league to become the “proactive leader that it should be” and adding that she would have brought Wenzel to the hearing had his health allowed it.
“The denial is disrespectful of the players and the families that are suffering,” she said, “and it endangers current players and children.”
Without citing Wenzel specifically, the league soon acknowledged that the dementia exhibited by retirees like him could be football-related. The league began not only revising its policies and safety rules pertaining to head injuries, but also advocating for similar changes that have improved safety at the youth level.
Perfetto said this week that she had told Wenzel about the impact of his case, “but by that time he couldn’t understand.”
Boston University will test his brain tissue for chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disease caused by repetitive head trauma that is linked to symptoms resembling early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
Besides his wife, Wenzel is survived by his son, Matthew; his daughter, Amy Wenzel McCoy; his parents, Richard and Leslie Wenzel; his brother, Alan; and four grandchildren. His first marriage, to Gretchen Wenzel, ended in divorce.