My Grandfather was a wonderful storyteller, which was ideal for him having graduated from Northwestern University with a history degree. He was one of those grandfathers who was from what Tom Brokaw coined the greatest generation, the generation who came of age during the great depression and fought, or in his case trained to fight, in WW II. Growing up, what that meant to me was that on cross-country car rides, we’d stop at a grocery store for lunch instead of McDonald’s. It also meant that he’d pull the car over at any historical marker we happened to come across along the way.
Eyes would roll but I’d get out of the car and before I knew it I was one of Morgan’s hand-picked cavalry galloping fiercely into Kentucky on a summer night in 1863. By the time he was through, I could smell the sweat of the horses and taste the metal of the loose gunpowder that escaped from muskets all around. It wouldn’t dawn on me until later that I was learning as he spoke.
Football, For the Love of the Game
Family lore has it that my Grandfather had an exceptionally high IQ. Had you met him in the last seven years of his life you would never have known that. You see, my Grandfather had played football since he was a boy. He starred as a running back at his High School in Fond du Lac WI, which still holds memories of his triumphs in the revered championship cases strewn along the school halls. He went on to letter in football as a linebacker for the Wildcats at Northwestern University in 1944.
In those days, players wore leather helmets. I remember him saying that compared to the heavily padded players in more modern days, “We didn’t hit as hard because it hurt.” Nevertheless, the hits they did take were just as lethal under the skimpy padding that parlayed them as they went down.
We first began to notice that there was something wrong with his memory when he was in his late 60’s. He would repeat the same questions or seem confused in situations where he hadn’t before. Looking back, his deterioration matched the four stages of progression that have been outlined as characteristics of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE . From mild loss of concentration to short-term memory loss, cognitive impairment to finally the full spectrum of dementia.
To his family and caretakers, the worst stage was when he was aware of what was happening to him and would become frustrated and disillusioned of his own loss of self. By the time that my Grandmother could no longer physically care for him, all recognition of that life was gone. He became a calm, often happy and singing patient at a nursing home. We were told that staff vied to take care of him, because unlike aggressive patients with dementia, he was placid and mild-mannered, mentally and physically having had returned to the state of a small child.
Memories of James Meulendyke, Before CTE
As the second-oldest of the twenty grandchildren that James Meulendyke left behind, upon his death in 2010, it was hard for me to watch my strong, kind and mentally astute Grandfather suffer under the effects of CTE. The man whom I had known was forever an athlete, organizing kickball and whiffle ball games with family and friends. My sisters and I would hop on bikes and accompany him to a coffee shop where he’d talk politics with his friends on the East Lansing Planning Commission while we’d lick frosting from doughnuts in the corner. I distinctly recall one day when canoeing on a river in MI, our portage spot was overgrown with poison ivy. Rather than risk having any of us get the itching rash, he carried six of us, one by one, up a steep bank to where it was safe.
My younger cousins don’t have these memories. They recall the confused vulnerable man and became accustomed to seeing him being pushed around in a wheelchair. He was never able to take them to Shakespeare in the Park or walk through galleries at the Met while explaining how historical periods influenced movements in art. They never heard him discuss why Chesapeake by James Mitchener was one of his favorite books or laugh until their belly hurt while watching him act out in a game of charades.
It was probably the hardest on my Grandmother who cared for him, day in and day out, for as long as she could. His illness proceeded the breakthrough medical discoveries and media attention on the link between football and CTE. Even today, the media focuses on high profile athletes who played in the NFL. Whereas great strides have been made in the last seven years from lawsuits to support groups and commendable research, my Grandmother would have benefited from some of that support.
From the greatest generation to a generation left behind in the discovery of impacts of football injuries and CTE, I am sure that there are many untold stories like his. It’s up to all of us to spread awareness and support research that will be beneficial to future generations of athletes. Donate now to the Boston University Research CTE Center. If you and your family are experiencing the effects of a loved one with CTE these Facebook groups offer community and support: https://www.facebook.com/groups/CTE.TRAUMA/
Please share and spread awareness of brain injuries in athletes and the link to CTE.