Former Viking great struggles with memory loss after years of hard hits

A new study shows an alarming rate of degenerative brain disease among American football players, especially those who played in the NFL.

The study, published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, looked at the brains of 202 deceased football players. Out of the 111 former professional players tested, only one did not test positive for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a progressive neurodegeneration associated with repetitive head trauma.

“You have to realize this is one study,” said Dr. Uzma Samadani who herself is nationally renowned for her research into sports related brain injury.

Samadani warns that the results of this study have never been replicated. She also points out that there is bias in the sample, as most the brains are of players who played in the 1990s or earlier.

“Most people now know that when you get a concussion you don’t go back in. And ten years ago, nobody knew that,” she said.

Former Minnesota Viking Matt Blair played during that time period—where concussions didn’t stop him from getting back in the game.

“I got hit, and I got hit-- but then again I hit so many people myself,” said Blair.

Blair started losing his memory three to four years ago. Because CTE can only be diagnosed post-mortem, it is impossible to know whether he has it, but his doctors say he has frontal lobe damage, likely from all those hits he took on the field. 

“Each day that I’m living, she’s taking care of me,” he says of his wife Marybeth. “I just can’t remember a lot of things that she tells me to do. And most of the time, when she tells me when to do things I try and write things down.”

Blair’s friend and fellow Viking’s linebacker, Fred McNeill, died in 2015. An autopsy revealed he had CTE.

“He was my best friend,” said Blair. “I just don’t know what he went through.”

Samadani says while the study emphasizes the dangers of repeat concussions, she doesn’t want the study to scare parents. She says the benefits of playing sports far outweigh the risks.

“The problem with this study is a lot of people are going to panic, and a lot of parents are going to pull their kids out of sports,” she said. “I let my son play football because I understand the risks of the game and I also trust my son’s coach, his trainer and I trust my son.”

If you ask Blair whether he would do it all again, the answer is complicated. He cherishes his memories with the Vikings. It is a huge part of his identity. But simply put, he said, “No, I don’t think I would.”