Irv Cross was a man of faith and a football fan who could not attend Bible study in his later years or watch NFL games with friends. A devastating brain disease in the former Philadelphia Eagles cornerback caused depression, mood swings and the kind of memory loss that forced him into isolation.
“He really didn’t like being around people,” said his widow, Liz Cross. “The person he wants to be with is me. When he is with me, he really doesn’t want to be with me. He just wanted me to be there.”
Cross, a former NFL quarterback who became the first black man to serve as a full-time sports analyst on national television, is the latest football player to be diagnosed with CTE . Cross, who was 81 when he died on February 28, 2021, suffered from stage 4 dementia, Boston University researchers said Tuesday.
Stage 4 is the most advanced stage of CTE, showing the type of damage that often leads to cognitive and behavioral issues in those exposed to repeated head trauma. He struggled with his balance and became upset.
“In the end, he saw things that weren’t there,” Cross said.
Cross said her husband, who was diagnosed with dementia in 2018, would sit on the couch and suffer from headaches that wouldn’t go away. He refused any kind of medicine because it did not help the pain. He stopped going to church. Once a student of the game, NFL games are mostly background noise because he doesn’t know who is playing.
“He was afraid someone would ask him a question,” Cross said, “and he wouldn’t know the answer.”
Irv Cross, of course, is not alone in his grief among his fellow NFL veterans. According to its latest report, the BU CTE Center said it identified 345 former NFL players with CTE out of 376 former players studied, a rate of 91.7%. The disease can only be diagnosed after death.
“He’s the nicest, kindest, most helpful, kindest person I’ve ever met,” Cross said. “But this is not who he was in the end. And this is not it. It was the disease that did this.”
Dr. Ann McKee, a professor of neurology and pathology at Boston University, said she was not surprised by Irv Cross’ brain stage 4 given his long career in football (the study counted 17 years) and his age. Irv Cross and his family have decided to donate his brain to help raise awareness of the long-term effects of head trauma.
“I think there’s more education about the dangers of football and I think there’s more awareness about concussion management but I still think we’re on the way, the way we need to be,” McKee said. “We need to educate young players that this is a risk they are taking. We need to educate coaches to keep head injuries out of the game. We need to control the players more by monitoring them better. I still think there is an alarmist attitude about CTE. There is a lot of denial.”
In fact, Liz Cross said she and her husband “were in denial” about the cause of his failing health until nearly five years before his death.
“For someone who is so active and can do everything, and a player, he has no consistency, he has no strength, he can’t do any of the things he did in the past, it’s a shame,” he said. facing. “He was pretty much in a constant state of stress.”
One of 15 kids from Hammond, Indiana, Cross starred in football and track and field at Northwestern. Drafted by Philadelphia in the seventh round in 1961, he was traded to the Los Angeles Rams in 1966 and returned to the Eagles in 1969 as a player’s coach for his final season.
The recent two-time Pro Bowl has 22 interceptions, 14 fumble recoveries, eight forced fumbles and two defensive touchdowns. He also averaged 27.9 yards on kickoff returns and punt returns.
Chris Nowinski, founder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, said he met Cross in 2018 and it was “obvious” the former Eagle was suffering.
“It’s important to highlight cases like Irv Cross’ because he was able to live a long and successful life where CTE didn’t seriously damage him,” he said. “But in the end, it’s a struggle.”
Cross joined CBS in 1971, becoming the network’s first Black sports show. He left the network in 1994, and later became the athletic director at Idaho State and Macalester College in Minnesota. In 2009, he received the Pete Rozelle Radio House Pro Fame Award. He was married to Liz for 34 years when he died.
Cross said her husband has never regretted playing football.
“He would do it again in a heartbeat,” she said. “But he didn’t think children should play football.”
As for the diagnosis, Cross said her husband told her that he suffered a lot during his playing career but didn’t count. He suffered so many head injuries during his season that his Eagles teammates nicknamed him “Paper Head.”
Irv told his wife that after the blow that almost caused him to swallow his tongue, the doctors said that if he had another stroke “he would die.”
“So he stopped playing? No,” said the 76-year-old widow. “They put a strong helmet on him.”
Liz Cross said she wants to remember the joy their young grandson brought Irv in his final years and not think about watching the man she loved walk away.
She said: “He is a wonderful man, and this disease has changed his life.”
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