Ex-Packer McCoy, wife knew his time was short
At first, she thought he was just absent-minded. When they went to the grocery store, he'd always have a list, even if it was for three or four items.
After they were married, she realized it was serious, but it took Janet Dinsmore McCoy a year to get husband Mike to see a doctor, where they learned that at age 52 he had dementia.
Mike C. McCoy, a former Green Bay Packers defensive back, died Feb. 20 in Thornton, Colo., the result of complications of the degenerative brain disease. He was 62.
"He kind of lost his common sense. His decision-making skills went away," McCoy's wife said.
McCoy was not diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a progressive degenerative disease found in people who have had severe blows to the head, because no autopsy was performed. Janet McCoy said her husband began filling out the paperwork required to be checked, but in the end decided against it.
Boston University researchers found evidence of CTE in 90 of 94 former NFL players studied, including Lew Carpenter, a Vince Lombardi-era Packers running back and later a coach, and Hall of Famers Junior Seau and Ken Stabler.
CTE — which can lead to depression, lack of impulse control and dementia — can be detected reliably only in postmortem examinations. Football is not the only sport in which concussions are an issue, but as the most popular American sport, it is in the spotlight.
McCoy played eight seasons in Green Bay, from 1976-83. He was drafted in the third round out of Colorado with the 72nd overall pick. He had 97 starts in 110 games and intercepted 13 passes, including four in 1977. He also recovered five fumbles and averaged 22 yards as a kickoff returner. McCoy went to the playoffs once, with the 1982 Packers team in the strike-shortened season.
Janet Dinsmore knew Mike McCoy for years before they started dating. Four years later they were married. And a year after that, a doctor told Janet they would have 10 years together, which proved prescient. Three and a half years ago, McCoy moved to an assisted-living facility.
"That was probably the hardest part," Janet McCoy said. "It was a tough decision. We cried."
McCoy was fortunate in that he continued to recognize friends and loved ones.
"He remembered everybody," said friend and former teammate Willie Buchanon, now a real estate broker in San Diego. "He was always positive about his whole situation. He knew things were changing in his body and his mind. He just kept his sense of humor."
McCoy was not one to tell football stories unprompted and told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2015 that his proudest moment was saving a man from drowning in Shawano Lake in 1980. When McCoy walked away from football, he walked away, he told his wife.
"After we got married and he moved his stuff into my house, that's when I found all of the articles and the pictures and plaques," she said. "I said 'Dude, you were good. I didn't know you were good.' That's when he'd tell me stories."
McCoy walked away from football, but not from his Wisconsin friends or his football friends, several of whom spoke at his memorial service.
"I will miss him," Buchanon said. "I could talk to him every time and he'd cheer me up."
And sometimes they'd do the same for him. Buchanon and McCoy talked during Super Bowl week and McCoy was cheery, but a couple of weeks later sounded a little down, Buchanon said. Buchanon arranged a conference call with McCoy and another of their friends to cheer him up.
Janet McCoy said the women working at the assisted-living center loved his attitude and his sense of humor, which is what attracted her as well.
"They would even talk to him about their dating problems," she said.
Word of McCoy's condition spread across the network of former NFL players, and the Gridiron Greats organization contacted them.
"Through word of mouth, they found out my husband had dementia and immediately called me and asked what they could do for me," McCoy's wife said. "At the time, I didn’t need any financial assistance. The fact that they reached out to me made all the difference."
Gridiron Greats was founded by retired Packers guard Jerry Kramer with the proceeds from the sale of a replica Super Bowl ring. The board of directors includes Mike Ditka, Gale Sayers, Marv Levy, Kyle Turley and Matt Birk.
Retired players can receive temporary assistance for medical costs as well as some of the basic necessities of life, including but not limited to food, housing, transportation, clothing and other basic needs, the organization's website says. In addition to financial support, Gridiron Greats assists with the coordination and resourcing of other types of assistance that may be available through a variety of agencies and social services. Efforts are also made to secure pro bono medical care, medications and other needs specific to the player.
The NFL has a spotty record on the issue. It was slow to accept — or admit to — the effects of concussions. A lot was made recently of the fact an NFL official explicitly acknowledged a link between football and CTE for the first time, though that seems largely a legal distinction. The league already had changed rules and enacted new medical protocols that clearly acknowledged the need to treat concussions and blows to the head with greater care.
But no NFL official had gone on the record as saying football plays a role in CTE or other lasting effects caused by concussions before Jeff Miller's statements during a congressional committee round table March 14. Miller is the NFL's senior vice president for health and safety.
Miller told the committee that the issue's entire scope needs to be addressed.
"You asked the question whether I thought there was a link," he said. "Certainly, based on Dr. (Ann) McKee's research, there's a link, because she's found CTE in a number of retired football players. I think that the broader point, and the one that your question gets to, is what that necessarily means and where do we go from here with that information?"
Knowing more about concussions doesn't necessarily mean young men will abandon football, Given a second chance, McCoy would have played the game again.
"He said he would have (still played football). He said that as a kid, that’s what he dreamed of," Janet McCoy said.
Buchanon isn't surprised.
"That's all of us athletes. I still would play football," Buchanon said. "The big issue was they were not telling us what the issue was. They were giving us smelling salts and telling us to get back into the game. Even if they had told me ... I would have been protective about not tackling with my head."
Buchanon is critical of the NFL for taking so long to acknowledge the issue, but at the same time, he's worried that recent rule changes are taking the aggressiveness out of football.
Just as McCoy had no regrets about playing football, his wife doesn't regret marrying him.
"I loved him. It didn't matter," she said. "The neurologist said I'd have about 10 years with him. Ten years goes by so fast."
USA TODAY and The Associated Press contributed.
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