California Forum

Dan Morain: Former San Francisco 49ers' first-round draft pick suffered long descent into dementia

Dan Morain
Dan Morain

Anne Blue is happily remarried and recently retired, splitting her time between a Land Park townhouse so she can be near her daughters, and a lakefront house in Alabama, where she met her first true love, the big man on the Auburn University campus.

She was a cheerleader and he was a 6-foot-6 offensive lineman named Forrest Blue. They called him Tree. In 1968, he was the San Francisco 49ers' first-round draft pick, and he played all the games in each of his first six seasons. He would have played in every game in the seventh season, except that a defensive player kicked him in the face.

Anne Blue sat at her kitchen table in Land Park 38 years later and cried as if it were yesterday that she saw him collapse and stay down for the longest time. She remembered fighting to hide the horror she felt upon seeing Forrest in the hospital. The force of the foot had crushed his face.

"I think back to how many times he broke his nose," she said. The doctor would tell him to rest, but he'd remove the packing from his nostrils and head to practice. He didn't want to take the chance of losing his position.

Forrest Blue died July 16, 2011, in a nursing home in Carmichael. He was 65 and suffered a long descent into dementia, brought about by the regular hits to his head that are part of the game.

His exploits live in the scrapbooks kept by the Blues' grown daughters, Brandi and Brittney. There are football cards, and publicity shots of a rugged-looking guy with shaggy hair and a thick mustache, No. 75. News clippings chart him from high school in Tampa, Fla., to Auburn, to San Francisco and to Baltimore, where he played his final four years.

A recent article isn't part of the scrapbook. But the Blues know it well. It was published two weeks ago in the medical journal Brain. Boston University researchers found a type of brain injury known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy in 50 former football players, including 33 who played in the National Football League.

It is the most extensive study so far of a football-related injury and should end remaining doubts that hits to a young man's head can wreck his final years.

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy can be diagnosed only after death by studying its victims' brains. Blue had asked that his brain be donated to the researchers and was among the football players determined to have had CTE, a condition that in the past was associated with "punch-drunk" boxers.

Altogether, the study documented the condition in 68 people, including boxers, hockey players and military veterans, some of whom saw combat in Iraq or Afghanistan, and had survived the blasts of improvised explosive devices.

Seven died of suicide, and six others talked about suicide. Six died of overdoses. The cause of death for some was failure to thrive associated with end-stage dementia.

Most alarming, nine subjects played football only through college, and six didn't pay football past high school, findings that should give any parent pause.

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy doesn't come about because of concussions alone. Repeated hits to the head over days, weeks and years greatly increase the risk. It's particularly prevalent among linemen and running backs, positions for which collisions are part of the job.

On Nov. 24, 1974, the 49ers shut out the Atlanta Falcons 27-0, cause for great celebration. At the end of the wire service's account of the game, there was this sentence:

"Serious injuries suffered were by San Francisco's Ralph McGill, a concussion causing the defensive back to be taken to a hospital, and center Forrest Blue, a broken nose."

That hardly described it. Surgeons had to reconstruct his face.

A San Francisco Chronicle reporter visited Blue in the hospital and relayed his quote: "The doctors here took one look at me and told me to forget about football. But I'd like to play this week. They treat us like normal people. They don't have to do what we do on Sundays."

He didn't play that next Sunday, but got into one more game that year, his last with the 49ers.

After Blue's playing days ended in 1978, the family settled in the Sacramento area, where he ran a construction business and became increasingly erratic in business and in life. He could get belligerent and aggressive, though never violent toward Anne or his daughters. Anne became the first mayor of Loomis in 1984.

"I thought he was going through a depression from getting out of football," she said, although now she thinks the changes probably were the early signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

Forrest and Anne split in 1986, and he married and divorced twice more, stayed in touch with his daughters intermittently, and worsened. Anne became one of the city of Los Angeles' lobbyists.

In his hard last years, he turned for help to his daughters, Anne, and Anne's husband of the past 14 years, Scott Harvey, a former San Diego city councilman and Schwarzenegger appointee who became good friends with Forrest.

Blue would tell his daughters about what he called "bad dreams." More likely, he had been hallucinating. He later confided that he saw fairies and wondered if they saw them too. At night, he'd use dresser drawers to barricade his bedroom. He thought a Kleenex box was a listening device.

As he got worse, the family started reading about football-related head injury and began to understand. The NFL initially denied any link, but it since has pivoted and helps fund the Boston University research.

Unable to care for himself, Blue moved into Brandi's home. There, he attacked and wrecked a treadmill, thinking it was an intruder. He worried villains lurked inside the walls. As he spiraled down, his family moved him to the nursing home, paying for it with an NFL fund established to defray costs of care of former players suffering from dementia.

In January, six months after he died, Dr. Ann McKee, the neuropathologist who led the Boston University study, signed a diagnosis in which she described the state of Blue's brain. He had Lewy body disease, an aggressive form of dementia, and chronic traumatic encephalopathy. It was Stage III-IV of four stages, marked by memory loss, depression, explosivity and difficulty concentrating.

Len Rohde, one of Blue's teammates, has no doubt that football-related head injury is real: "You don't know where reality is. It's a feeling of," he paused, "you don't quite understand why the answers aren't there."

Rohde is not sure he would have played if he had known then what he knows now. Others would, like Frank Nunley, who was best friends with Blue in their playing days and remained in touch until the end.

"He was huge. He was 6-foot-6. He was fast and strong," Nunley said. As he neared death, "half of him was in there." Nunley thinks he too has CTE.

There have been many wake-up calls. Parents, fans, players and the wealthy team owners and television network executives should be wide-awake by now.

"It is going to be a tough answer for football," McKee told me. "I personally think we are going to have to make some unpopular changes and eliminate some of the contacts in order to make it a safer sport."

The league has changed some rules to reduce hits to the head. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a recent speech that his goal is to make "a safer game for all who play at every level."

The NFL supported legislation last year by then-California Assemblywoman Mary Hayashi requiring that high school athletes receive written medical clearance to play after leaving a game because of a head injury. The league is duplicating the measure in states across the country.

This year, Hayashi pushed a bill requiring head injury training for high school coaches. That's only a partial solution, given the researchers' finding that people who stopped playing football in high school developed CTE.

The ultimate answer, or lack of one, will come down to money, the millions that players earn, the $9 billion that the NFL brings in each year, and the cost of liability. Lawsuits brought by former players against the NFL and Riddell, the main manufacturer of football helmets, are pending in federal court in Philadelphia.

Much of the legal fight takes place in California, where former players, including ones who didn't play for California teams, avail themselves of the state's comparatively generous workers' compensation system.

No high school kid or college player who has the size, speed and talent will give up the dream of playing professional football. No young man of 22 would turn down the millions of dollars and the adulation that goes with being a star. When you're that age, 65 seems so old, and you are invincible, like a tree.