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Bob Hohler

Big men with broken minds: The largely forgotten faces of the Patriots franchise

Donna Lenkaitis, widow of former Patriots player Bill Lenkaitis, held a game ball of her husband’s at Terri Johnson’s home in Canton.
Donna Lenkaitis, widow of former Patriots player Bill Lenkaitis, held a game ball of her husband’s at Terri Johnson’s home in Canton.Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Outside Memphis, John “Bull’’ Bramlett, a former Patriots linebacker once feared as “the meanest man in football,’’ turned to his wife, Nancy, in their home of 20 years and said, “This is a beautiful house. Who lives here?’’

In East Walpole, Dr. Bill Lenkaitis, once a bruising Patriots lineman who doubled as the National Football League’s only practicing dentist, was slowed by depression and early dementia, struggling to comprehend simple correspondence.

In Kawkawlin, Mich., on the shore of Lake Huron, former Patriots defensive end Dennis Wirgowski, who tackled the likes of O.J. Simpson, shoveled the overnight snow, told his wife, Bethany, that he loved her, and went looking for a gun to turn on himself.

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It was 2014, and the three Patriots, once teammates, were slipping away. Big men with broken minds, they had entertained hundreds of thousands of New Englanders by playing a game they loved before much of America recognized the destructive power of brain injuries in sports.

They had returned to the game year after year, head blow after head blow, gaining little glory and meager rewards to perform with subpar equipment and inadequate medical care.

In death — Bramlett at 73, Lenkaitis at 70, Wirgowski at 66 — they are largely forgotten faces of a Patriots franchise that for all its 21st-century grandeur shares the NFL’s legacy of infirmity: perhaps hundreds of former players suffering — and in many cases dying — from debilitating brain damage.

For almost every ailing player, there has been a family suffering in the shadows, sharing the anguish of a once-vibrant athlete who has been sapped of his faculties. Only in recent years have survivors come to understand why.

Nancy Bramlett sits in the home office of her late husband, John, at their house in Memphis.
Nancy Bramlett sits in the home office of her late husband, John, at their house in Memphis.Andrea Morales for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

Lenkaitis and Wirgowski were afflicted with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, according to previously unreported findings by Boston University researchers. They are the fifth and sixth Patriots to be diagnosed with CTE, an incurable neurological disease that has been linked to the kind of repeated head blows experienced by football players. The others are Aaron Hernandez, Junior Seau, Mosi Tatupu, and Kevin Turner.

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Bramlett, too, may have been diagnosed with CTE, his wife believes, had she not declined to donate his brain for research. CTE can be diagnosed only at autopsy.

Bramlett, Lenkaitis, and Wirgowski are listed among hundreds of retired Patriots — and nearly 5,000 former NFL players in total — who alleged in a class-action lawsuit against the league that they suffered symptoms of brain injuries caused by repetitive, traumatic head impacts in games and practices. An untold number of additional ex-Patriots have privately registered for compensation since the NFL settled the case in January for about $1 billion.

Hernandez’s estate is suing the league as well, alleging that CTE caused him “a chaotic and horrendous experience.’’ Hernandez killed himself in prison in April while serving a life sentence for murdering Odin Lloyd, a semipro football player from Dorchester.

At 27, Hernandez was the youngest NFL player diagnosed with CTE. Most others — there have been more than 110 to date, including the six ex-Patriots — played decades earlier.

“You can’t deny the evidence that a lot of guys are paying a price for playing the game,’’ said Jon Morris, a captain of the early 1970s teams and member of the Patriots Hall of Fame. “These guys are my friends. I have seen the actual damage.’’

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Morris, 75, said he worries about his own brain health. He was scheduled for baseline neurological testing.

Bill Lenkaitis (67) played for the Patriots from 1971-81.
Bill Lenkaitis (67) played for the Patriots from 1971-81.Globe Staff/File 1974

“I’m afraid of what they’re going to find,’’ he said.

In 11 seasons with the Patriots, Morris snapped the ball to more than a dozen of Tom Brady’s predecessors as quarterback, among them Jim Plunkett and Joe Kapp, both of whom also suffer the effects of head injuries.

In August, Plunkett told the San Jose-based Mercury News that he suffers from a neurological disorder, possibly linked to at least 10 football-related concussions.

“My life sucks,’’ said the 69-year-old Plunkett, who is eligible for benefits under the NFL settlement.

Kapp, 79, has said he suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, which has a mortality rate among former NFL players four times higher than in the general population, according to a 2012 study by the Centers for Disease Control. He told the Mercury News he plans to donate his brain for research.

“Every single day I live being forgetful,’’ Kapp told the newspaper. “I’ve got calendars on both of my shoes.’’

One of his former Patriots teammates, linebacker Marty Schottenheimer, went on to become one of the winningest head coaches in NFL history. At 74, Schottenheimer also says he is struggling with Alzheimer’s.

In Canton, Terri Johnson helps care for her husband, Billy, another Patriots teammate of Kapp and Schottenheimer. She recently watched an ESPN report in which Schottenheimer discussed drinking coffee to brace for the cold Pennsylvania mornings, only for his wife, Pat, to interrupt the interview and remind him that they have lived in North Carolina for “a long, long time.’’

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“To remember who Marty was and to see who he has been reduced to, I immediately thought, ‘That’s my husband,’ ” Terri said.

At 74, Billy Johnson, once a hard-hitting defensive back, has lost much of himself to Alzheimer’s. He is participating in a concussion study at BU and has also pledged his brain for research.

Donna Lenkaitis (right) is close with Terri Johnson (left), whose husband Billy is a former Patriots player suffering from Alzheimer’s.
Donna Lenkaitis (right) is close with Terri Johnson (left), whose husband Billy is a former Patriots player suffering from Alzheimer’s.Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

“He’s childlike now,’’ Terri said. “I’ve lost my partner.’’

The former Patriots and their families are casualties of an era when the franchise was chronically hapless and homeless — a period when players relied on offseason jobs to participate in a sport that would cost them pieces of who they were.

The vast majority never earned more than $25,000 a year. Their health care benefits have paled in comparison to those of today’s players, as have their pensions, which often are no greater than their Social Security checks.

“I have a lot of empathy for those players, because they really did love the game,’’ said Upton Bell, the Patriots general manager in 1971 and ’72. “But they were literally playing the most dangerous game in the world.’’

Head injuries at the time were treated as mere nuisances. Players reacted to violent head blows by trying to blink away their blurred vision, shake the ringing from their skulls, and trundle back to their huddles, unless they were flagged by sideline doctors. Even then, they generally returned quickly to action.

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“The doctor would hold up five fingers and ask how many I saw,’’ Morris said. “I would say, ‘Three,’ and he would say, ‘Close enough. Get back in the game.’ That’s pretty much how it went.’’

Advances came too late

The NFL, after years of research documenting the hazards of brain injuries, now requires players who suffer concussions to pass exams by team doctors and independent neurologists before they return to action. Helmet technology has improved, full contact practices are limited, and players are no longer coached to lead with their heads in collisions.

The league has also pointed out that it is spending millions of dollars to support scientific research into CTE and preventing head injuries.

But the advances came too late for players like Daryl Johnson, a defensive back who, with Morris, was a member of the Patriots All-Decade team for the 1960s.

When the Patriots played the Dolphins in Miami in 1970, Johnson tried to take down Miami’s punishing running back Larry Csonka by launching himself directly into Csonka’s path. Johnson remembers nothing about the game after he began hurtling toward Csonka.

“The next thing I remembered was being back at Logan Airport,’’ he said.

Johnson was diagnosed with a subdural hematoma, a blood clot on the brain. He participated in the next practice and played the next game.

“If you didn’t play hurt in those days, you weren’t a man,’’ he said.

Johnson, now 71, suffers from cognitive deficits, including memory loss, and is waiting for a neurological exam for more details on his condition.

Meanwhile, he travels three times weekly from his home in Haverhill to Newburyport to receive dialysis for kidney failure, which he attributes to blunt force blows in football. Each session lasts three hours.

“I’m sitting around waiting for something inside me to say, ‘OK, Daryl, it’s time to commit suicide,’ ’’ Johnson said.

John ”Bull” Bramlett was nicknamed the “Meanest Man in Football.”
John ”Bull” Bramlett was nicknamed the “Meanest Man in Football.”NFL Photos/AP/File 1970

As for Bramlett, who died with Alzheimer’s, the Patriots acquired him in 1969 from the Dolphins in exchange for Nick Buoniconti, then an all-star linebacker who later was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. (Buoniconti, now 76, also suffers from CTE symptoms. “I feel like a child,’’ he told Sports Illustrated in May.)

Bramlett was a risky acquisition for the Patriots. A hard-drinking renegade who grew up in a tough section of Memphis, he had been making trouble since he played football as a kid with his longtime friend Elvis Presley.

A two-sport star at Memphis State, Bramlett was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals and played three years in the minors before his recklessness cost him his baseball career.

According to his 1989 book, “Taming the Bull,’’ Bramlett’s misdeeds as a Cardinal included drinking whiskey during a game, then throwing an eight-pound weight that looked like a baseball at an unsuspecting teammate. The projectile knocked out three of the player’s teeth and rendered him unconscious in a bloody heap.

Bramlett then signed to play football for the Denver Broncos. With his singular ferocity, he finished second to Joe Namath on the 1965 Rookie of the Year ballot and earned Pro Bowl honors, as he did again in 1966.

By the time Bramlett arrived in Boston, his future appeared bright. The Patriots, though, were largely luckless vagabonds, mocked as the Patsies while they averaged barely four wins a season for nearly a decade. They lurched from one temporary home to another — Fenway Park, Boston College, Harvard — before they settled in Foxborough in 1971.

Yet Bramlett thrived. In 1970, Schottenheimer described him to the Globe as “the best outside linebacker in the American Conference, probably the best in all pro football.’’

Bramlett’s teammates voted him their most valuable player, and Patriots trainer Bill Bates told the Globe, “Bull Bramlett plays this game with reckless abandon. The man’s body is a total wreck.’’

Nancy Bramlett held a photo of her late husband, former Patriot John “Bull’ Bramlett.
Nancy Bramlett held a photo of her late husband, former Patriot John “Bull’ Bramlett.Andrea Morales for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

Bramlett underwent knee and elbow surgeries after the season, as well as an appendectomy, and the Patriots might have given him time to recover had he not continued his wild ways.

During training camp at UMass Amherst, Bramlett wrote in his book, “My constant drinking in the bars near camp and the disturbances I caused gave management the excuses they seemed to be looking for to call me on the carpet.’’

He was shipped to the Green Bay Packers, who waived him after he insulted the coach. The Atlanta Falcons then gave him his final opportunity, which quickly resulted in a career-ending knee injury.

At that, Bramlett returned to Tennessee and embraced religious faith. He spent the rest of his days as a Christian evangelist, until he began to slip away.

Nancy Bramlett said her husband first was diagnosed with dementia, then advanced Alzheimer’s. She and their two children watched all but helplessly as the man called Bull weakened, then died, on Oct. 23, 2014.

“It was hard on all of us, but we knew we weren’t alone,’’ Nancy Bramlett said. “Sadly, we have a lot of friends in the NFL who have symptoms of CTE.’’

‘Is this what it feels like?’

Many retired players have pledged to donate their brains for CTE research, including Patriots Andrew Hawkins, Don Hasselbeck, and Ted Johnson. Others, like Lenkaitis, have declined, leaving the decision to survivors.

Lenkaitis’s wife, Donna, said she submitted his brain to help understand how a person so strong and determined could lose both attributes so rapidly. He had resisted her pleas to participate in free mental health screenings.

“He never wanted to know,’’ she said.

Lenkaitis, who joined the Patriots in 1971, succeeded Morris as the team’s center in 1973. He remained a starter until 1981, earning a spot on the Patriots All-Decade team for the 1970s, while impressing teammates and fans with his work ethic.

Dr. Bill Lenkaitis checked an X-ray at his dentist office in Foxborough in 2002.
Dr. Bill Lenkaitis checked an X-ray at his dentist office in Foxborough in 2002.Bill Greene//Globe Staff/File

His most impressive feat: While supporting his wife and the first of their three children, Lenkaitis spent his first six NFL offseasons earning a dental degree from the University of Tennessee. He opened a practice in downtown Foxborough in 1974 and became the team’s dentist, excelling at two demanding careers.

“His dental practice meant everything to him,’’ Donna said.

Then the work became too much for him. He had planned to retire at 72.

“All of a sudden, at 68, he was just not with it,’’ she said. “He would get up some days and say, ‘Cancel my patients.’ ”

When Donna was younger, she experienced depression, she said, and Bill failed to appreciate that medication might help. “Why don’t you just go out and smell the roses?’’ he told her.

Then came his depression, and he said to her, “Is this what it feels like? I’m so sorry.’’

Donna said her husband suffered numerous football concussions and was slowed by CTE symptoms before he was diagnosed in 2015 with glioblastoma, the most aggressive form of brain cancer.

“I think he knew even before the cancer that he didn’t have much longer to live,’’ she said. “It was very hard for all of us to see him just crumbling away.’’

Lenkaitis died Aug. 27, 2016, 45 years after he and his wife first shared dinner at their home with Wirgowski.

Donna Lenkaitis held the card from her husband's funeral.
Donna Lenkaitis held the card from her husband's funeral.Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

“Wirgo,’’ as the Patriots called him, was known by some in his hometown of Bay City, Mich., as “Superman.’’ He was to Bay City what Doug Flutie became to Natick: a larger-than-life athletic star.

For three years, Wirgowski was a Michigan high school state champion in football, basketball, track (high hurdles), and field (shot put). Parade magazine named him captain of its 1965 All-American high school football team, and he was a standout for three years for top-20 teams at Purdue.

But nothing prepared him for his Patriots experience. He was stunned after he arrived in 1970 to find the head coach, Clive Rush, acting erratically; the coach abruptly departed late in the season for health reasons.

Wirgowski’s teammates said Rush stunted his progress by assigning him to play several unfamiliar offensive and defensive line positions, and embarrassed him once by instructing him to switch positions with Morris. Wirgowski had never played center.

“Are you nuts?’’ he asked Rush.

The coach abandoned the plan. But Wirgowski never achieved his potential with the Patriots, despite starting 26 of his 37 games, and he was traded in 1973 to the Philadelphia Eagles.

His football career ended when he was 28 because of injuries and waning enthusiasm for the game. A hard partier himself, Wirgowski then operated a bar in Bay City, where he met Bethany, who played for a softball team the bar sponsored. She was 19; he was 36.

Wirgowski returned to school and earned a teaching degree, but spent most of his life as a warehouse manager for Stevens Worldwide Van Lines. A daily visitor to the YMCA, he remained physically active and was renowned in the community for his outgoing, often gregarious personality.

Dennis Wirgowski (70) was a Patriot from 1970-73.
Dennis Wirgowski (70) was a Patriot from 1970-73.Frank O’Brien/Globe Staff/File 1972

His downward spiral began when he was 64 and broke his leg and hip in a bicycle accident.

“Imagine going from the height of his kind of athleticism to sitting in a wheelchair, hardly able to walk,’’ said Barry Houseal, Wirgowski’s former Purdue teammate and roommate, who spoke to him regularly. “It was painful, stressful, and depressing for him.’’

Wirgowski began clipping news articles about athletes who had taken their own lives, including Seau, who in 2012, at age 43, fatally shot himself.

“I realize now that he was trying to tell me what was going on in his head,’’ Bethany said. “He was too proud to say it.’’

Wirgowski was more forthcoming with his football friends.

“In the last four to six months, he kept saying, ‘Brother, I can’t take this anymore,’ ” Houseal recalled.

On his worst days, Wirgowski became impulsively angry. He once assaulted a motorist he felt had wronged him, prompting a warning from police.

Bethany finally persuaded him to seek psychiatric help. But therapy ended badly, with Wirgowski storming out after he learned that Bethany had informed the doctor, against his wishes, that his behavioral changes could be linked to football head injuries.

As his depression deepened, Wirgowski sought help from his orthopedist.

“I just need a happy pill,’’ he told the doctor.

It was three weeks before he died, when Bethany brought home the prescribed antidepressants. Wirgowski read the label and said, “Did you see all the side effects? I’m not taking these.’’

Bethany, a longtime emergency room nurse, said she was never adequately trained in suicide awareness. She has since campaigned to improve suicide prevention protocols in the hospital and raise awareness in the community, all while she has tried to come to grips with the events of Jan. 25, 2014.

The day broke cold and white at the couple’s home on Huron’s Saginaw Bay, and the first sound Bethany heard was the scrape of her husband’s shovel on the icy driveway.

Wirgowski (70) signed autographs at a Patriots preseason practice in 1973.
Wirgowski (70) signed autographs at a Patriots preseason practice in 1973.Globe Staff/File

When she reached the kitchen, Dennis sat silently, staring out the window.

“He just looked sad,’’ she recalled.

As Bethany made coffee, Dennis gathered her in his arms and told her he loved her.

“I love you, too,’’ she said.

He collected his gym bag and walked out the door.

“I never watched him walk to his car, but that morning I did,’’ Bethany said. “I don’t know why, but there was something in his eyes that wasn’t him.’’

She learned later that Dennis went to the home of a friend, a state trooper. En route, he left a voice message for his brother, Nigel, telling him to care for a sister who was aging and needed their assistance.

“I think I’m going to check out,’’ Dennis said.

Nigel promptly called back.

“I know you’re going through some rough times, but don’t do anything irrational,’’ Nigel said by voice mail.

Dennis returned the call, this time connecting with his brother.

“I’m checking out,’’ he said. “Don’t call back because I won’t answer.’’

Just as Nigel said, “Don’t hang up,’’ Dennis did.

He told the trooper’s wife he wanted to borrow a gun to protect his dogs from coyotes. But the trooper was away, so Dennis next visited Bethany’s uncle.

An animal lover, Dennis had never fired a gun. He asked Bethany’s uncle to loan him a shotgun and teach him how to use it.

When Bethany’s uncle realized Dennis was suicidal, he tried to wrest away the gun. A struggle ensued, and Dennis prevailed. As the uncle called police, Dennis went to the front yard, rammed the stock of the shotgun into a snowbank, knelt, and aimed the barrel at his head.

He left behind no explanation, no final thoughts, and Bethany has since gained little solace from a private Facebook group that comprises scores of NFL wives whose husbands have died or are suffering from symptoms of football head injuries.

“I had to step away because it was just so depressing,’’ she said.

She benefited, though, from the CTE diagnosis. She said it helped her understand that the brain damage Dennis suffered playing football may have prevented him from coping with the fact that he “just wasn’t a Superman anymore.’’


Bob Hohler can be reached at robert.hohler@globe.com.