Miami Dolphins

Football’s toll: At least eight members of 1972 Dolphins affected by cognitive impairment

Nick Buoniconti, 85, is one of a number of the ’72 Dolphins team that have experienced similar acuity issues in recent years.
Nick Buoniconti, 85, is one of a number of the ’72 Dolphins team that have experienced similar acuity issues in recent years. HERALD STAFF

They called him Captain Crunch, and the name was fitting. Mike Kolen packed a punch.

Now, 45 years after the Dolphins’ No-Name Defense ran through the 1972 season undefeated, Kolen and his perfect teammates are tied together again. But instead of celebration, there’s heartache.

South Florida’s most legendary team has become a cautionary tale, a poignant symbol of the concussion saga that threatens the future of America’s favorite sport.

“Within the last month or so, I’ve been diagnosed with the initial stages of Alzheimer’s,” Kolen, a starting linebacker on Miami’s two Super Bowl-winning teams, told the Miami Herald.

And was football the cause?

“I think that’s about the only way I’d have cognitive issues,” replied Kolen, 69, who has no family history of dementia.

Kolen’s story is not unique for Miami’s most historic team.

Earlier this week, Sports Illustrated detailed how Kolen’s better-known 1972 teammates Nick Buoniconti and Jim Kiick have both deteriorated mentally in the past few years.

After quarterback Earl Morrall’s death in 2014, an autopsy revealed he had Stage 4 chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease more commonly known as CTE that researchers have linked to football.

Bill Stanfill, the Dolphins’ first sack king, suffered from dementia and Parkinson’s disease when he died last fall at age 69.

Three others from that famed roster — cornerback Lloyd Mumphord, defensive back Tim Foley and running back Hubert Ginn — have quietly dealt with cognitive impairment in recent years, teammates tell the Herald.

That makes at least eight members of a roster of roughly 50 men who have experienced loss of acuity. And that figure includes only those who keep in regular contact with the organization; several do not.

Roughly a quarter of the ’72 team has passed away, including five from cancer. Manny Fernandez, a defensive lineman who was the star of Super Bowl VII, has had eight surgeries on his back alone. Center Jim Langer, 68, said his “legs are bad and my knees are shot” after six operations.

READ MORE: Fins at 50: The top 50 players and moments of the Miami Dolphins’ first 50 years

And while age, of course, shares the blame, football has played an oversized role.

“[It’s] a little of both; I don’t think it’s all one or the other,” said safety Dick Anderson, a three-time All-Pro and member of the franchise’s all-time team.

Anderson and Hall of Famer Larry Little don’t have cognitive issues, but both acknowledge they’ve been become a bit forgetful in recent years.

“It’s sad to see guys like Earl, Bill, Nick and Jim,” said Little, 71. “I feel bad for my teammates. I don’t feel scared, but it’s concerning. I have to ask myself, will I be in that condition a few years from now?”

The possibility is real. The statistics are daunting.

Up to five million Americans suffer from dementia, a number expected to triple by 2050 as the elderly population doubles in size. About 9 percent of Americans over age 65 have dementia, according to a November 2016 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association-Internal Medicine. For the Dolphins, the rate could be double that of the general population if you consider the possibility that more than eight players from the 1972 roster have or had dementia.

NFL players are three times more likely to die because of a neurodegenerative disease than the general population, and four times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. That’s according to a study published in Neurology in 2012.

Even the NFL acknowledges that there is a link between football-related head trauma and neurological diseases like CTE after denying any such connection for years.

The league has agreed to pay $1 billion for the medical expenses of some 20,000 ex-players after many sued the NFL earlier this decade. The litigants alleged that the league was “aware of the evidence and the risks associated with repetitive traumatic brain injuries virtually at the inception, but deliberately ignored and actively concealed the information from the [players] and all others who participated in organized football at all levels.”

CTE is caused by repeated concussions and sub-concussive hits and has claimed the lives of some of the sport’s brightest stars, including Hall of Famer and former Dolphins linebacker Junior Seau. The symptoms include confusion, impulsive behavior, irritability, aggression, short-term memory loss and speech and language difficulties.

That language is from the Mayo Clinic, and it describes the current state of Buoniconti and Kiick. Both described, in emotional detail, their steep drop-off in physical and mental health to Sports Illustrated.

A star linebacker-turned-attorney and executive, Buoniconti has deteriorated rapidly, suffering falls, memory loss, confusion and he often has trouble putting on his own shirt.

Kiick, a tough and productive running back, “has holes in his brain,” Dr. David B. Ross, medical director of the Comprehensive Neurobehavioral Institute in Plantation, told SI. State inspectors determined Kiick’s filthy apartment was unlivable — and that Kiick was in no condition to care for himself.

Their stories dismayed Miami sports fans, many of whom grew up idolizing these stars, and their former teammates.

Fernandez, who lives in Georgia, had heard rumors that Buoniconti wasn’t doing great, but had no clue that doctors believed his old teammate probably has CTE. (A definitive diagnosis of the disease isn’t possible until after death, when an autopsy is performed.)

Tests have revealed that Buoniconti’s brain has atrophied on its the right side, SI reported, and doctors believe it is because of abnormal amounts of tau proteins, which is often caused by head trauma, kills brain cells and is associated with CTE. The condition is irreversible.

“There but for the grace of God go I,” said Fernandez, who doesn’t remember the end of Super Bowl VII, which capped the Dolphins’ 17-0 season, because of blow he took to the head.

Fernandez estimates he sustained “dozens” of concussions during his playing career. And yet, his mind is strong.

The rest of his body? It depends on the day. He still lifts weights and uses the elliptical, but admits he feels pain “everywhere” after 19 football-related surgeries. Along with chronic back issues, Fernandez has neuropathy in both feet, and spent two months in the hospital a few years back because of it.

Fernandez expected to have physical issues after playing 103 regular season games in the NFL. As for the mental challenges his teammates and countless other ex-jocks face? That was never a consideration.

“We had no idea that this could cause what it’s causing,” he added. “CTE? That’s scary stuff. That, we didn’t even know about until three years ago or so. Alzheimer’s? We never heard the word Alzheimer’s in the ’60s or ’70s.”

He added: “How the hell would we know? Nobody knew. We were talking 50 years ago, 45 years ago.”

Ginn, a backup running back on the 1972 team who ran for 521 yards and three touchdowns in nine NFL season, surely had no clue.

Earlier this year, Little attended Ginn’s 70th birthday party in Savannah, Georgia. The change in Ginn was noticeable, and shocking.

“He had a caregiver with him,” Little said. “He was all right physically but mentally he has really deteriorated.”

At the party, Little called out to Ginn by his nickname: Bulldog Dupree. Ginn recognized his old friend, and they embraced.

“That made me feel better,” Little added. “Later, he had the microphone in his hand but he was holding it down by his leg and I told him to hold it up to his mouth. I said, ‘Don’t forget now. Do what I say. I’m still your captain!’ We had a good laugh. After it was over, he forgot to say goodbye.”

The Herald placed multiple calls to Ginn’s cell phone in an effort to reach him for comment, but each time the call went straight to voice mail and his inbox was full.

Foley, a one-time titan of industry, has proven equally unreachable — even for his friends. All recent numbers one former teammate had for him have been disconnected.

Foley, 69, is a multimillionaire, but he didn’t get rich from football. Contracts simply weren’t that big then. No, his real money came as an owner of an Amway distributorship in Tavares.

But within the past decade, Foley’s mind began to fade. Fernandez last saw him at a ’72 team reunion a few years back. Foley, a two-time Super Bowl champion who played 11 NFL seasons, all with the Dolphins, had an assistant who took care of him that weekend.

Not every member of the ’72 team is ailing, of course.

For every Foley, there’s standout receiver Paul Warfield, who’s a picture of health.

Warfield, 74, played 14 NFL seasons and escaped with nothing but a couple of broken bones.

“Just kind of old-folks pains and so forth, but not major pains,” Warfield said from his home near Palm Springs, California. “I was very fortunate in my career to not have a major injury to a knee or hip.”

Running back Mercury Morris feels great, too, and credits his enduring strength to exercise and a magic potion he drinks regularly: coconut oil.

But Warfield and Morris know they’re the lucky ones, and that hurts their heart.

“I feel for Nick because inside of him, there’s a Nick Buoniconti who knows who he is,” Morris said. “And he knows he just can’t be that Nick Buoniconti now.”

And for some of Morris’ worse-off friends, illness has not only ravaged their bodies and minds, but also their bank accounts.

Kiick, a former investigator for Broward County’s public defender’s office, was nearly broke after his illness made working untenable. Though the NFL has assistance programs for ex-players in his condition, both he and Buoniconti have been frustrated by an endless maze of bureaucracy.

Morris blasted the league’s Mackey 88 Plan, which provides up to $130,000 a year to vested ex-NFL players with dementia, ALS or Parkinson’s, as little more than an NFL write-off. (Morris is also steamed that players who were in the league before 1993 get shorted in the pension plan, and penned a lengthy complaint to the Justice and Labor departments on the matter.)

As for the concussion settlement?

Buoniconti told SI it’s “a joke.”

But for as much anger as these players have for the NFL, not one interviewed by the Herald said a bad word about the Dolphins.

In fact, the organization helped Kiick and Buoniconti cut through the red tape and get the money the league owed them.

“The Miami Dolphins have always been extremely generous in providing assistance to their players when they’re down on their luck,” said Nat Moore, a former wide receiver who runs the Dolphins’ alumni relations department.

The organization long ago established an alumni assistance fund that gives a hand to those in need. The team will float bridge loans to those awaiting their checks from the NFL, or give money to former players who are in a tight spot.

Not long ago, the team helped one retired Dolphin buy a car and paid for six month’s worth of gas so he could get to and from work.

Furthermore, the organization’s charitable foundation gives $25,000 annually to Doug Betters, a defensive end who has been paralyzed from the waist down since a catastrophic skiing accident in 1998.

There’s one thing the 1972 teammate agree upon: If they knew then what they know now, they still would have played.

“I would do it all over again,” said Little, who does crossword puzzles daily to “keep my brain fresh.”

“I could not have had a better profession at that age than playing in the NFL. I loved the game and I loved playing the game. No regrets.”

“Old people get old, they limp, they hobble, they wobble. It was my decision to play a violent game. I’m not a victim. The players from the Perfect Season, we’re all going to be dying like flies soon. It’s called the life cycle,” said Hall of Famer Langer, who made $26,000 in 1972 and now lives in the Minneapolis area after a career in banking. “I was under no illusions that football was good for my body. I have trouble walking today. Do I blame anybody but myself? Hell, no. … Anybody who played in the NFL is going to feel it at our age. You can’t be in a continuous car crash for three hours per week and not feel it when you get older.”

If anyone should have second thoughts, it’s Captain Crunch.

Kolen had experienced only slight memory loss when doctors shocked him with the news he has Alzheimer’s.

In hindsight, however, the signs were there. As a player, he suffered four or five concussions; one at Auburn and the rest in the pros.

He’s found himself in rooms with no recollection of why he walked in them.

Yet his spirits were high when discussing a disease that has no known cure. He hopes to slow the effects with lifestyle choices like regular exercise and eight hours of sleep.

Kolen said he has applied for his share of the NFL settlement but is unsure if he’ll ever see a dime from it.

He knows that football very well could be the cause of his diagnosis but doesn’t hold the game responsible.

“I don’t blame football,” Kolen said. “Football’s a great sport. It’s taught me so many values in life. ... I consider it a privilege to play football, especially for Auburn and the Miami Dolphins. I wouldn’t give anything for that. It was such a terrific opportunity.

“I have no regrets whatsoever.”

Adam H. Beasley: 305-376-3565, @AdamHBeasley

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