Greg Ploetz hasn’t played a football game in more than 40 years, but the scar still shows. An undersized All-Southwest Conference defensive tackle at Texas, he earned it. A “warrior,” one teammate called him. Now, at 65, Ploetz couldn’t so much as handle the crowd noise at the Big Shootout. Conversation confuses him. Walking is sometimes terrifying. In his tortured mind these days, a crack in the floor looms like a leap across a deep, dark crevasse.
Ploetz — pronounced Plets — suffers from what neurologists call “mixed dementia,” the probable result of head trauma from his days as a 5-11, 205-pound lineman at Sherman High and Texas. Doctors can’t tell his wife, Deb, if he’s a victim of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, the progressive degenerative brain disease linked with multiple concussions, harrowing news reports and a lawsuit against the NFL.
They won’t know for sure until after he’s dead. A year, maybe two.
If there’s any difference between Ploetz and the more than 4,000 plaintiffs in the NFL suit, it’s that he never played pro football. His last game was the ’72 Cotton Bowl, against Penn State.
Other than occasional financial assistance from former Texas teammates, no help is coming to the Ploetzes, as it may yet for the NFL plaintiffs. Texas isn’t liable. Neither is the NCAA. No union push by Northwestern can help them at this point, either.
At least 60 former college players with similar stories have filed lawsuits against the NCAA without success. Even if they’d cashed in, Deb wouldn’t have been a party to it.
“Greg chose to play football,” she says, “so I don’t really hold people liable for the choice he made.”
Talk to players of Ploetz’s generation, and this is the answer you get: I’d do it all over again.
Ploetz was no different until he realized just how different he is.
“Five years ago, he never wanted to recognize that football did this to him,” Deb says.
“The last two years, he stopped watching.”
Now he waits.
Ploetz is too young to die like this, for something he did in his youth, for honor he brought his school, his family, his memory. He didn’t understand the risk. No one of his generation did. If he played today, he’d have the benefit of concussion protocols and better health care. He could make an informed decision.
He might even be able to put it into words.
What do you do then with men like Greg Ploetz? Write it off as bad luck? Dismiss it as the Ploetzes’ problem? Call it a cautionary tale and leave it at that? Easy enough to do with these men, I suppose, until you hear one of their stories.
Ploetz chose football, not this: An artist, teacher and gentle soul kicked out of two memory care facilities and an adult day care center because of aggressive behavior. Darrell Royal once said he could depend on the size of Ploetz’s fight. Whatever else has been stripped from him, the fight remains.
The worst part is, before language and reason left him, he could see it coming.
“Deb, please help me,” he begged his wife. “I don’t want to live like this.”
A tackling machine
Mike Dean has been inducted into the Cotton Bowl Hall of Fame and Longhorn Hall of Honor, but when Texas’ coaches came to Sherman his senior year, they were looking for Greg Ploetz.
Only 5-11 and 195 pounds in high school, thick in the neck and chest, son of a World War II fighter pilot, Ploetz was a “warrior,” Dean says. That mentality enabled him to start between Bill Atessis and Leo Brooks in Texas’ 1969 defensive line despite a hairline fracture in one ankle and the build of a short, squat safety.
“It’s a good feeling to have 257 pounds on one side of you,” Ploetz told The Dallas Morning News in the fall of ’69, “and 244 on the other.”
Ploetz more than held his own, particularly against the run. “He was a tackling machine,” says Dean, who started at offensive guard. “He’d run right through people.”
He was a classic ’60s paradox. A high school classmate, Dan Witt, called him quiet, wry, drawn to “artistic, iconoclastic, radical people and elements.” Julius Whittier, who in 1970 became the first black scholarship player at Texas, counted him among a handful of friends on the football team. Everyone liked Ploetz.
Probably didn’t hurt that he played so well. Ploetz was especially effective in the Big Shootout, recording six tackles in the win over Arkansas. It was nearly his last hurrah.
He sat out the ’70 season because he was academically ineligible, a byproduct of his girlfriend getting pregnant and the baby coming early.
“They didn’t know if he was going to make it,” Ploetz told Terry Frei in Horns, Hogs and Nixon Coming, “so I called Fred Bomar.”
Father Bomar baptized Chris Ploetz in the hospital. He was accompanied by Freddie Steinmark. The little Texas safety had already lost a leg to cancer and would die in 1971. Frei wrote that Ploetz couldn’t talk about his son, who survived the ordeal; the baptism; or Steinmark, Chris’ godfather, without choking up.
The summer of ’71, Ploetz was back in Austin, working his way through school, when Texas coaches recruited him again. He asked to sleep on it. That fall, he was All-SWC.
Other than the ankle injury, nothing on Ploetz’s chart hints at any problems to come. Deb says that, in high school, he once wandered to the wrong sideline. Teammates steered him to the huddle and his place in the line.
“He did that all the time,” Dean says.
“We all did that.”
The first time Deb noticed something wrong with Greg, he was trying to figure out his cellphone. This was a man who helped build his own house in Weatherford. Did the plumbing and electrical himself.
Couldn’t figure out a cellphone.
“What’s the matter with you?” she asked.
“How do I make it go?”
“Hit the green button.”
Every time he started over, he couldn’t remember the part about the green button.
That was 10 years ago. He was 55.
They’d met in 1977 at a Texas-Arkansas party. She was from Arkansas. Sat on the Razorback side in ’69, in fact. He’d come with a date but called her the next week. Five months later, they were married.
“He was the most brilliant teacher I’ve ever known,” she says. “He did such a wonderful job getting his point across.
“I burned out in 3 1/2 years. He taught for 40.”
He taught in high schools and colleges in Arkansas and Texas. His last job was at Aledo. In February 2009, school officials called him in and said parents were complaining. His students didn’t understand their grades.
“Something’s wrong with my husband,” Deb told them.
A Fort Worth doctor ruled dementia as a result of head trauma. Another at UT-Southwestern suggested head trauma and Alzheimer’s, though there’s no family history of the latter, Deb says.
He’d leave the keys in the ignition, the headlights on. Burned up seven car batteries in one year. He’d lose his wallet. If she told him to pull, he’d push. He became agitated, restless, inattentive.
“I’d have to hold his head and make him look at me,” she says. “He could not keep up with conversations.”
Friends stopped coming around as much. They didn’t know what to say.
Maybe they were thinking: Will this happen to me?
Who could say? Ploetz was never knocked out, but that’s not a prerequisite for concussions. Studies indicate linemen are particularly susceptible, enduring a thousand head blows each year in practice and games.
Why do some players develop dementia and others don’t?
Why don’t all smokers get cancer?
The answers that Deb’s long been seeking will come soon enough. When she called Texas’ T Association director, David McWilliams, who was on Royal’s staff in Greg’s last season, he directed her to Kevin Guskiewicz’s groundbreaking concussion work at North Carolina. She talked to Lisa McHale at the Sports Legacy Institute. The institute partners with The Center for the Study of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University. In 2009, the center confirmed McHale’s husband, Tom, who died of a drug overdose at 45, as the sixth confirmed case of CTE in former NFL players.
Deb plans to donate her husband’s brain to the center. It won’t be long now.
Trying to cope
When Mike Looney’s documentary, The Big Shootout, ran at the Dallas International Film Festival last year, Deb took her husband to see it. Dean even bought him a beer. But when she and Greg had dinner this year with former Texas teammate Billy Dale, the difference was stunning.
“He was there physically,” Dale says, “but not mentally.”
Dale founded the Longhorn Support Group nine years ago to help families of former lettermen. Made up of 250 players, the group has raised more than $100,000. Some has gone to the Ploetzes.
Otherwise, Deb gets by on medical insurance and money from an inheritance. In 2010, she had Greg paint a couple of football scenes. She hopes to help finance his care selling the prints.
The facility outside Denver costs $6,000 a month. She’d live with him, but it’d mean another $6,000. She stays with their son, Beau, and sees her husband twice a day, administering his medical marijuana on each visit.
She buys it in candy form. His favorite looks like a Tootsie Roll.
“It’s just going to keep him calm,” she says, “until he dies.”
She’s not really asking for anything else. Only to tell Greg’s story and hope it helps others.
Whatever becomes of the Ploetzes, let me leave you with this scene: Deb takes Greg to see Beau. Neither says a word. Beau wisely gives his father space. Dad roams the yard a while, puttering, then walks over to his son. Remembering something, perhaps, he pats him. From the car, Deb watches and cries.
These are moments that somehow sustain her in a long goodbye. She takes comfort where she can. Seeing recognition in his eyes. Feeling his strong embrace.
Hearing him whisper, “I love you,” as she puts him to bed at night.
It is his only sentence.
Reproduced with permission from The Dallas Morning News.
Follow Kevin Sherrington on Twitter @KSherringtonDMN @SportsDayDFW