MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — One of the biggest stories in sports today has nothing to do with the ability of the players on the field.
Concussions have sidelined stars like Justin Morneau and Sidney Crosby. Doctors are worried about long-term damage that sports hits can cause. When former Wild player Derek Boogaard died last year at 28, his family learned he had a degenerative brain condition caused by repeated blows to the head.
It’s a story very familiar to a former Minnesota Vikings star who’s now dealing with dementia at the age of 59. Fred McNeill played linebacker for the Vikings in two Super Bowls. Ultimately, the violent game that pro football is has taken its toll on McNeill.
It’s remarkable to see this once-powerful man getting help from his children and friends. Matt Blair is one of those very close friends. WCCO-TV’s Mark Rosen traveled with Blair to catch up with McNeill and see how the battle is going.
What they saw was an upbeat man using two interesting methods to fight his disease.
It’s been 38 years since Blair and McNeill first met, Fred as the Vikings No. 1 draft choice out of UCLA, Blair the second round pick from Iowa State.
Blair and McNeill were inseparable on and off the field in the mid-1970s, two-thirds of a linebacking corps with a Vikings defense which ruled supreme.
Just up the road at the famous Rose Bowl in Pasadena, the Vikings made their last Super Bowl appearance in 1977. It was the shining moment of McNeill’s career.
Counting his high school, college and NFL days, Fred played the game more than 20 years. That’s more than 20 years of violent head-on collisions the sport demands. Hits that have taken an obvious toll on McNeill.
“We’ve got to do something. We’ve got to do something. This is something that’s having an impact on kids in high school, players in college, players in the NFL,” McNeill said.
McNeill started law school during his last year with the Vikings, eventually graduating at the top of his class from the William Mitchell College of Law in St.Paul.
He became a partner in a local law firm, but in 1996 was let go because his work was declining. They relocated to California, going into private practice, but his pattern of strange behavior continued and his career was spiraling out of control.
So to was his marriage to Tia, who seperated from Fred, but remains very much in his life to this day.
“There would be some bouts of anger, just over the simplest things,” Tia said. “I was like where is this coming from, this is not Fred.”
Through her own research and discussions with doctors specializing in head trauma, Tia connected the dots between his football concussions and Fred’s diagnosis of early onset dementia.
“I’ve learned more about head trauma than I ever thought I would. You’re dealt a hand and you just deal with the hand you’re dealt. That’s kind of where we are,” Tia said.
Fred’s youngest son, 24-year old Gavin, is wise beyond his years. He’s the creative director of a blossoming business called “Just Be Cool,” teaching school kids to be tolerant of each other, promoting concerts with a positive message, all while living and taking care of his father. He also has the help of his older brother, Fred Jr.
Singing Karoake twice a week is part of Fred’s therapy, anything to slow down the progression of this disease. So is keeping active, but it makes you wonder what could have been.
Even a simple game of horse with his best friend brings out the lawyer Fred had always aspired to become.
“He was never carried off the football field with a concussion hit. But if you get those hits over and over, and you’re making tackles, it may be one hit but you continue on playing,” Blair said.
For the past six months every Tuesday and Thursday, Fred drives an hour to Orange County to undergo advanced hyperbaric treatment.
He has his own room, where pure oxygen in a pressurized chamber they say helps heal the entire body. Other athletes with concussion type symptoms are patients, along with kids with everything from autism to ADHD.
“Our main goal is to have them back to what they were before they started playing football or somewhere close to that,” said Dan Fredrickson, the president of Advanced Hyperbarics.
Fred continues to attack life his way. He said he’s hopeful of becoming a volunteer football coach. Fred is not bitter at the game he loved to play so much, but unfortunately will continue to battle the consequences of it.