Ralph Wenzel, who played for the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers and San Diego Chargers from 1966 to 1973, spent his career being largely unnoticed by fans and sportscasters transfixed by touchdown passes and spectacular runs. He toiled in the trenches of the interior line, where his job was keep his team’s quarterback from being sacked by opposing defenders, and to open holes through which a running back could burst through and gain a few more yards toward a first down. It wasn’t until after his playing days were long over that Wenzel’s name made headlines on the sports pages, when he became a different sort of athletic hero.
Wenzel, who died last week in Annapolis, Md., at age 69, was one of the first professional football players to reveal his struggles with dementia caused by repeated blows to the head during his football career. In 2007, he and former teammate John Mackey, who also sustained football-related brain impairment, were the subject of a New York Times article that helped raise public awareness of the plight of players with such injuries. Perhaps the most shockingly powerful part of that story was a photo slideshow that showed the once-robust athlete having his shoes tied for him and being led by the hand by his second wife, Eleanor Perfetto.
Perfetto, a public health expert and a director of the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, Inc., watched Wenzel’s gradual decline, which began in the mid-1990s, two decades after the end of his playing career. As she told a Congressional committee in 2009, her husband “lost his ability to work, drive a car, play golf, read the biographies he loved, cook gourmet meals, and enjoy a glass of wine. He [could] no longer dress, bathe, or feed himself.” But his struggles – and the difficulty, on his modest NFL pension, of financing his care in an assisted-living facility - turned his wife into an activist.
Eventually, though her efforts and those of other family members of former players, the league established a plan to help pay for the care of ex-athletes with dementia. Wenzel’s example also helped prod the NFL into financing research on how to prevent concussions for players at the amateur as well as the professional level. After his death, his wife donated his brain to researchers at the Sports Legacy Institute, an organization at the forefront of that effort.
Photo: The Ralph Wenzel Trust