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They watched their husbands win the Heisman – then lost them to CTE

They watched their husbands win the Heisman – then lost them to CTE

For years, Heisman weekend was a chance to remember their husband’s glory. Now it’s a reminder of a sport’s violent toll.

Samford coach Pat Sullivan, in 2011, is recognized with wife Jean on the 40th anniversary of his winning the 1971 Heisman Trophy, as quarterback at Auburn. (Butch Dill/AP)

Behind the doors of sports’ most exclusive and secretive club is the sight of oil paintings and hardwood, the smell of cigar smoke baked into cushions and walls, the feel of familiar faces and the shuddering reminder of hangovers past.

“’The Heisman flu,’” says Barbara Cassady, whose late husband, Howard “Hopalong” Cassady, was granted lifetime entry into the club in 1955, when the Ohio State halfback was awarded the Heisman Trophy, the annual honor for college football’s most outstanding player. From then on, one weekend every December was a massive reunion with a guest list filled with sports’ upper crust — a high school reunion meets a royal wedding meets Oscar Night.

“We were treated like kings and queens, and everybody would be half-smashed,” Cassady continues. “Then we’d all go home.”

Nobody thought much about what life was like in the months that divided their Decembers. It was just exhilarating to see each other, to welcome a new member and get a break from whatever stresses may be playing out at home, because for a few days, the band was back together in New York and the Blarney Stone stayed open all night.

“All the guys welcome you back and tell old stories,” says Jean Sullivan, whose late husband, Pat, played quarterback at Auburn and joined the club in 1971.

The years passed; change was inevitable. The weekend, once open to men only, expanded to include a women’s luncheon at the opera house, a Broadway play and a hospitality room. Even when ESPN turned the annual presentation into a made-for-TV spectacle, there were dimly lit places to hide and catch up — the bar or breakfast the morning after the ceremony, wives turning up still in their pajamas.

One thing that never changed, though, was that certain topics were taboo. O.J. Simpson, for instance, who won the 1968 Heisman, or Charles White, whose high-profile addiction and mental health issues led to the sale of his 1979 trophy. The weekend was too short to talk about Rashaan Salaam’s suicide or to dwell on the cognitive problems emerging as one more thing many members had in common. If a winner died or mysteriously stopped coming, nobody said anything.

“The players and wives do develop a unique friendship,” 1996 winner Danny Wuerffel says. “But it’s not really built to be someone’s close-knit support group.”

In 2019, not long after her husband died, Barb Cassady went to New York to visit with these friends she had known for decades. She greeted Paul Hornung, who joined the club in 1956, but Hornung looked at her blankly.

“Oh, my God,” Cassady remembers thinking, “he doesn’t know me.”

Still, she didn’t mention it to Hornung’s wife. Because as long as they had known each other, as close as they had become amid all the good times, there were some things you just didn’t talk about.

ON SATURDAY EVENING, at a massive hotel in Manhattan’s Times Square, the 89th Heisman Trophy will be awarded to one of four finalists: Oregon’s Bo Nix, Washington’s Michael Penix Jr., LSU’s Jayden Daniels and Ohio State’s Marvin Harrison Jr. The event is glitzier and more crowded than it used to be, but even as college football evolves (or erodes) on multiple fronts, the Heisman remains one of the sport’s most sacred traditions.

But when past winners line up to welcome a new member, they will do so as one of football’s grim realities breaches their club’s inner sanctum. Four Heisman winners have been diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative and often devastating brain disease linked to repeated hits to the head.

Many of the winners’ wives, often their husbands’ caretakers and support beams, find it increasingly difficult to ignore the changes that afflict their friends — and the challenges their peers have learned to live with or ignore.

Football bonded them. Its violence tore them apart.

“We’ve been together all these years,” says Jerri Spurrier, whose husband, Steve, won the Heisman in 1966. “We have experienced the downfall of these men over the years, and that’s what has hurt the most.”

In the 1980s, back when the club was smaller and the weekend more intimate, winners got whisked around the city by limousine. Judi White-Basch, who married her freshman-year sweetheart, Southern California running back Charles, remembers feeling as if she had joined a royal family. The first year the couple came back, they shared a limo with Simpson and his wife, Nicole, after whom Charles and Judi had named their first daughter.

This is what we’re all about!” Judi recalls Simpson saying that December evening in the mid-1980s. He and White had attended Southern Cal a decade apart, became record-breaking running backs and were feted as superstars who would change the game. “You’re the most prolific Trojan out ever!”

Judi says she noticed that members of the Downtown Athletic Club, which hosted the Heisman for decades, were elderly and White. But because Charles had won football’s most prestigious trophy, it was as if he was one of them. “I was just tagging along,” she says.

The other wives were kind and welcoming, Judi remembers, and she joined them on a group vacation from reality. Because the daily schedule was packed with social events and autograph signings, couples spent hours talking and bonding: Skeeter and Doak Walker, Jane and Jay Berwanger, Jerri and Steve Spurrier.

“We couldn’t wait until the next year to go and see these people again,” Jerri Spurrier says. “You learn to trust and love each other.”

Judi fit in by telling stories about Charles’s appearance on American Gladiators and how he would take their five children for nature walks. He seemed to have a sixth sense for detecting when his wife was exhausted or overwhelmed, letting her sleep in or drawing a bath so she could unwind.

“To a woman,” she would say, “you couldn’t wish for anything better.”

It was enough to get her through the weekend because, especially in this gilded setting, she didn’t want the other wives to know that Charles invited his NFL teammates to their daughter’s birthday party but no-showed it himself. Or that, in 1987, police found him outside a warehouse, high on cocaine and wielding a trash can lid, convinced someone was trying to kill him. Or that sometimes Charles was so volatile that Judi checked herself and the kids into a hotel near Disneyland, waiting for him to turn back into himself.

“Then come back,” she says, “and pretend like nothing ever happened.”

Eventually Charles’s problems became so severe that Judi just stopped making plans. They stopped going to the Heisman ceremony in part because the man in the oil painting — smiling, chiseled, the adonis Judi had known since they were teenagers — was slipping away.

She struggled to explain Charles’s behavior to her best friend, their children, herself. So she stopped trying. Charles was just Charles, Judi told herself, because to win a Heisman Trophy and reach the NFL, you’re just … different. The man from the portrait still showed up most days, and when he didn’t, Judi and the kids agreed that Daddy was just as wonderful as always but that, for some reason, he occasionally went “haywire.”

At least at home, she wouldn’t have to cover for him. If they skipped the December weekend in New York, she wouldn’t have to smile and pretend as if it was an effective — if all-too-brief — escape from the isolation, loneliness and powerlessness she often felt.

“And I’ll add another word: shame,” she says. “I doubled down on trying to make everything perfect. I thought that if I could make the perfect house, if Charles didn’t have to worry about anything, if I take care of the bills, if I did everything — that he would be okay.”

“I loved him with my heart, soul and mind,” she continues. “But I was so ashamed. I had to protect myself, protect our family. And I didn’t want anybody to know.”

IN 1994, AFTER SIMPSON was arrested (and later acquitted) in connection with the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, Judi’s mother and sister begged her to leave Charles. But she couldn’t. Not for another 10 years, anyway.

“I only left when I felt like I couldn’t live anymore,” she says. “My life was ebbing away. I lived with so much uncertainty, so much chaos.”

He would call Judi sometimes, slurring as he demanded that she get him a house or a new Cadillac. He worked for Southern Cal then, first as an assistant coach then as an office worker. He slept in the locker room sometimes; other times he asked players for a few bucks. In 2012, he wrote a letter to the school to announce his immediate resignation.

He sold his Heisman a dozen years earlier. Eventually his Heisman ring, a less famous token of the club’s membership, was gone, too. So was his Rose Bowl watch and another ring commemorating the Trojans’ 1978 national championship. Judi says Charles would later suggest some of the items were stolen, though because he was later diagnosed with early-onset dementia, she cannot be sure what’s true.

Either way, she says, “everything is gone.”

Charles’s condition worsened, and in 2018, Judi and the kids moved him into a memory care facility. With his memories vanishing, he scrawled his kids’ names on a card so he wouldn’t forget. He wore Trojans gear to remind himself of who he used to be. Judi and daughter Tara took turns as his caretaker, and sometimes eldest daughter Nicole, who used to ride on her daddy’s shoulders and sit across from him when they went to Buffy’s on Sundays after church, broke down crying because not only were White’s mementos gone but so was the man who collected them.

“The best father in the world,” Judi says Nicole told her, “and then he just left. There’s no explanation.”

TWO DECADES AGO, a Florida resident went to give a speech, something he had done dozens of times, and just froze. “I don’t know what’s wrong,” Howard Cassady told his wife.

A man in Alabama began experiencing panic attacks, anxiety and paranoia, blanking as he tried to remember friends’ names. “I don’t think my brain is right,” Pat Sullivan told his wife.

Club members kept sojourning to New York for their gathering each December, and the wives ate their lamb chops and drank their cocktails and pretended nothing was wrong. Even amid the discovery and rise of CTE, it didn’t feel right to talk about the fact that Tony Dorsett, who won the 1976 Heisman, said in 2013 that he sometimes drove his daughters somewhere and forgot where he was going.

Nobody asked Roger Staubach, who won the 1963 Heisman, about the long-term effects of the 20 concussions he estimated he suffered. Nor did anyone bring up 1970 winner Jim Plunkett’s declaration six years ago that his “life sucks” because of chronic headaches and unexplained neurological conditions. At the 2017 Heisman ceremony, when Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield hoisted the trophy, nobody asked 1985 winner Bo Jackson whether he was serious months earlier when he told USA Today he would have never played football had he known about the sport’s link to brain injuries.

“We never talked about it. Never,” Barb Cassady says. “Everybody knew Hop was having a rough time. Every Heisman winner knew it. But it was never a topic.”

When Howard Cassady and Pat Sullivan died in 2019, their wives donated the men’s brains to Boston University’s CTE Center. Months later, Jean learned her husband had Stage 3 CTE, or a debilitating amount of scar tissue on their brains. Cassady’s was Stage 4, the disease’s most debilitating and advanced form, and after Hornung died in 2020, he, too, was found to have Stage 4 CTE.

Jean Sullivan went back to New York, and she could avoid the subject no longer. The Heisman Trust discontinued the women’s luncheon, she says, but she nonetheless finds time to ask winners with visible CTE symptoms if they have resources and support.

“When I go back, I see the struggles,” she says. “You recognize memory issues; you recognize anxiety. We know of so many that have these symptoms, but they don’t know where to go or where to get help.”

She wishes the Heisman Trust would direct some of its power toward making sure the winners of its trophy are connected with mental health experts, those trained in cognitive decline, organizations such as the Concussion Legacy Foundation. Jean says her attempts to spearhead such an effort have been disappointing because they have been met with silence.

The Trust’s executive director, Rob Whalen, says Heisman weekend includes no presentation or formal discussion about CTE or football-related brain injuries.

“We hope to God that something gets figured out and there’s an improvement in this area,” Whalen says. “But it’s not really what the Trust is focused on for our charitable giving. … Our missions are youth development and underserved communities, and we don’t know how the two tie together.”

Regardless, Barb Cassady can’t help but study the men each year. She watches their faces as they gather and a new member is announced.

“Am I thinking, ‘That poor guy has CTE?’ You don’t know,” she says. “The quarterbacks, they — well, he gets hit a lot, too. So who knows?”

A moment later, she continues.

“There’s going to be so many more,” she says.

CHARLES WHITE DIED IN JANUARY of esophageal cancer, just 64 years old. Judi was holding her former husband’s hand as he passed. A few months later, she and several of their children joined a video conference with Thor Stein, the Boston University pathologist who studied Charles’s brain. He revealed that Charles had Stage 4 CTE, and if Judi felt closure, daughter Nicole felt relief. Because this proved that her father hadn’t abandoned the family. He had been taken away.

“The Dad that used to be was something so powerful,” Judi says. “This let us forgive.”

Months later, Judi received an invitation to the Concussion Legacy Foundation’s annual gala in Boston. It had been years since she attended an event like this, but early last month, she put on a black, off-the-shoulder pantsuit and drove from her home in New Hampshire to a hotel in downtown Boston. Her 22-year-old granddaughter went with her, and the two of them mingled despite not recognizing most anyone there.

Then up walked Lisa McHale, the foundation’s family relations director. Her own husband, former NFL player Tom McHale, had CTE when he died in 2008. Lisa is often among the first voices to comfort families after they learn a relative had a disease that, she says, “makes our loved ones not terribly lovable.”

Lisa introduced Judi to other football wives. Their husbands had endured similar fates, and of the 1,035 brains of football players examined at Boston University, nearly three-fourths had CTE. In many cases, their wives had dealt with it, covered it up, kept their families together just as Judi had.

“Everybody has got the same story,” she says. “Everybody that I was talking to, they had this same shame and pain, like: ‘All this time, I had to hide. I had to protect. I had to pretend.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m not alone.’ ”

At the end, Lisa McHale shared another contact. There was a woman in Alabama who had even more in common with Judi.

Judi made the call last Friday, only a week before this year’s Heisman ceremony. She paused as he dialed, thinking of what she hoped to say, waiting to hit the call button. She was dialing Jean Sullivan, Pat’s widow, and she wanted to know how Jean felt as she watched the decline of the man she loved. She wanted to talk about being the member of sports’ most exclusive and secretive club, though not the one everyone talks about each December. She and Jean and Barb are charter members of a new community, a fledgling sisterhood of those who had been with a star football player at their peak and nadir, a support group whose membership will surely grow.

“Their special club takes a toll. There was a cost. We didn’t know it, but there always is,” Judi says. “She had the wonderful joy of being with him and loving him through the joy and anticipation of it, the experience of it and also the opposite, still loving and supporting them at their worst.”

Finally ready, she pressed the button and waited.

“I just knew,” Judi says, “I was going to talk to somebody that could understand.”

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