In early May, Gary Plummer, the former Chargers and 49ers linebacker, drove to see a neurologist in Carlsbad, Calif., to learn just how badly football had screwed up his brain.
Sitting in the office, the 58-year-old steeled himself. A year earlier he had taken the first part of the NFL’s Baseline Assessment Program (BAP) neuropsychological exam. For six hours he answered questions and clicked through problems and puzzles on a computer: letter-number sequencing, matrix reasoning, geography. Some questions reminded him of the SAT. If a train leaves Boston at 10 a.m. . . . Intermittently the doctor would ask him to repeat back a series of nouns—say, hammer, red, Wednesday and policeman. Once, Plummer would have breezed through such an exam. As he was quick to tell people, he got into Cal on academic merit, not because of football. He read dozens of books a year, rotating among classics, nonfiction and mysteries. He had long taken pride in subverting the stereotype of the dumb jock.
But 15 seasons of pro football had taken a toll. In the decade after his retirement, in 1998, Plummer began to notice changes. The headaches that plagued him as a player didn’t abate but instead worsened, lasting hours and sometimes days. “Like a spike being driven behind my right ear,” he says. Loud noises agitated him. So did bright lights. Eventually, he became anxious and depressed. He rarely slept more than an hour or two at a time. He couldn’t concentrate long enough to read, so he began listening to audiobooks. He relied on his wife, Corey, to remember details and manage his schedule.
When, in 2014, he finally saw a clinical psychologist for an assessment of his mental health, Plummer struggled to answer basic questions. “I felt like a f------ moron,” he says. ”The longer the test went on, the stupider I felt.” Afterward the psychologist told Plummer he suffered from major neurocognitive disorder due to repetitive traumatic brain injury. “The early stages of dementia,” says Plummer.
Theoretically, his condition should have worsened in the years since, making his story depressingly similar to so many other former players’. And yet, entering the neurologist’s office this May, Plummer felt cautiously optimistic. Confident, even. He believed his efforts were about to pay off.
Increasingly, research links head trauma to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, in addition to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease in which a protein called tau slowly kills off brain cells. Still, much of the science about head trauma remains frustratingly murky; CTE, for instance, can’t be diagnosed in the living. Even the definitions of “concussion” and “cognitive impairment” change every couple of years. One fact seems exceedingly clear, though: The more hits you take to the head, the more dangerous it is.
Plummer estimates he suffered between 2,000 and 4,000 concussions, if you include the least severe, or Grade One. He knows some will scoff at this number but suggests they do the math, factoring in not only the hundreds of games he played but all the full-contact practices, scrimmages and preseason tussles. From an early age, Plummer—undersized, unexceptional by most physical measures—repeatedly beat the odds. An all-state guard at Mission San Jose High in Fremont, Calif., he received no Division I offers. George Seifert, then a Stanford assistant, was interested until he saw Plummer in person and deemed him “too small to play Pac-10 football.” So Plummer went to community college in Ohlone, Calif., and, two years later, walked on at Berkeley as a 6'2", 220-pound nosetackle. Undrafted by the NFL, he played three seasons with the Oakland Invaders of the USFL. When the league folded, he got a tryout with the Chargers in 1986. By midseason he was their starting linebacker. BEST PLAYER NOBODY EVER REALLY WANTED, read the headline of an L.A. Times profile.
Plummer had grown up lower-middle class. He recalls watching his father, a policeman, descend into agoraphobia. He was determined to live a different life, to turn fear to his advantage. So he used it as fuel in the NFL, believing every game would be his last. He spent nights in his $70,000 home gym, the one with squat racks and hip sleds, running 18 mph on a custom-built treadmill until he threw up. A nutrition science major at Cal, he tracked every bite of food in a computer program, calibrating vitamins and complex carbs. On the field, he played on the brink of madness, trying to win every drill and intimidate every opponent, always willing to “grab a handful of nutsack” at the bottom of the pile if it meant gaining an edge. When a trainer called him over after a collision, raising a hand to ask how many fingers Plummer saw, he would ignore the dizziness or nausea or tingling in his arm. “This many,” he’d bark back, raising a middle digit. There was no time to worry about the consequences. Besides, wasn’t that what the helmet was for—to protect you?
When the first reports detailing the dangers of concussions appeared in the 1990s, Plummer scoffed at them, just as league officials did. (“Concussions are part of the profession, an occupational risk,” Elliot Pellman, Jets team doctor and later league-appointed chair of the NFL’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee, told Sports Illustrated in 1994.) Same for the seminar that Plummer’s agent, Leigh Steinberg, persuaded him to attend. “It was very progressive of Leigh, but of course I didn’t know it at the time,” says Plummer. “As linebackers we were like, ‘This isn’t for us. This is for those p------ on the other side of the ball.’ ”
In retrospect, Plummer is embarrassed by how he acted: “I begrudgingly sat in the meeting, and it was a panel of about eight people that were experts from around the country. They were neuroscientists, academics and surgeons. I’ll never forget when the guy gave the definition of concussions. I’d never heard of a Grade One or Grade Two concussion. A concussion is when you get knocked out, dude, end of story.” Then the doctors told the players that seeing stars counted as a concussion, and that if you experience the sensation you need to think about sitting out a week. “I literally jumped out of my chair and said, ‘As a middle linebacker, if I didn’t have five to 10 of those a game, I didn’t play that week,’ ” Plummer recalls. “I was flabbergasted that he was suggesting that me, a tough guy, would sit out. Are you kidding me?”
Instead, Plummer told the media that “pain is acceptable to me.” He took pride in playing with two six-inch pins in his thumb, on having a knee scoped on a Tuesday and lining up on Sunday. Game days, he took Toradol, a potent anti-inflammatory that temporarily masked the pain. The rest of the week, he ingested Percodan and Indocin until they gave him ulcers, at which point he ramped up to Prednisone, a steroid that can trigger fits of aggressive behavior. During those years Plummer wasn’t always the best husband, or father to his four kids—he realizes that now—but he never slacked as a football player. And back then, that’s what seemed to matter the most.
In the end Plummer played in 243 professional games (48 under Seifert in San Francisco, the ultimate vindication) and earned a Super Bowl ring in the 1994 season. He underwent 15 surgeries during his career, and says he knew better than to take the 49ers’ offer of $200,000 rather than continuing health coverage. Left hip replacement followed, then eight more post-career operations. He had always assumed his body would break down; that was price of playing. What he didn’t expect—what none of his teammates foresaw—was the other toll. Bodies can be repaired; brains can’t.
In retrospect, Plummer’s descent was so gradual he barely noticed it at first. Always a great quote, he got a job as a 49ers radio analyst in 1998. Obsessive about staying in shape, he biked 10,000 miles a year, lifted and played backyard hoops with his two sons. Step by step, though, his world began to fray. In 2005 he and his first wife endured a rough divorce. He experienced bouts of anger and depression. Chronic sleep deprivation. Dark thoughts. Who would miss me if I weren’t here? Would anyone give a s---? In 2011 he married Corey Stein, who works in human resources and was a Chargers cheerleader. Having seen football’s brutality up close, she worried about her husband, and remembers waking up in the middle of the night, finding him gone from bed, at which point, sweating, she feared the worst. The next morning she would beg him to see a therapist.
But each time, Gary waved her off. There was nothing to worry about, he’d say. This stuff was just a phase. It would pass.
And then, says Corey, “Everything changed.”
Plummer was at home on the morning of May 2, 2012, riding a recumbent bike and watching TV, when the news report flashed on the screen: Chargers legend Junior Seau had been found dead in his home of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest.
Plummer and Seau had met at San Diego’s training camp in 1990. The two quickly became workout partners, the veteran linebacker mentoring the rookie. Each had a prodigious work ethic, and they delighted in lighting up opposing running backs, in being the baddest dudes on the field. Seau came over for dinners at Plummer’s house—“Junebug,” his family called him—and the pair volunteered at a local charity, the Bates Street Community Resource Center. Gregarious, handsome and successful, Seau was the kind of guy who had hundreds of best friends. To most, his seemed a charmed life. “Mr. San Diego,” as Plummer puts it. But after retiring in January 2010, Seau began his own descent: a domestic violence accusation, heavy drinking and gambling, a car crash that some thought to be a suicide attempt. Plummer spent less time with his friend; when he did, Seau was surrounded by unfamiliar faces. Says Plummer, “It was like he was a different person.”
Now, as Plummer sat on the bike, tears rolling down his cheeks, he thought back to the last time he had seen Seau, at a charity golf event a couple of weeks earlier. Though smiling and slapping everyone on the back as usual, Seau seemed off. Vacant. Plummer pulled him aside.
“You good, man?” he recalls asking.
“Yeah, I’m good. I’m good,” Seau said, smiling.
“No, dude, what I’m asking you is, are you good?”
Seau had wrapped a thick arm around his friend, looked him in the eye, and assured him he was. Plummer had bought it.
And now this. Plummer felt a stir of emotions: guilt, fear, despair, anger. Within minutes of the news breaking, old friends and teammates began to call. As a player, Plummer had been the guy who had your back, who gave it to you straight. “An awesome teammate,” says Ken Norton Jr., the former San Francisco linebacker. “He made everyone around him better.” Now, these men looked to Plummer for consolation, for perspective. “Bro, is this going to happen to us?” asked Steve Young, the ex-Niners quarterback. Plummer tried to explain away the tragedy. Junior had so much else going on. The suicide wasn’t about football. And, at the time, this seemed plausible; it wasn’t until nine months later that doctors would discover Seau suffered from advanced CTE, causing parts of his brain to waste away and triggering a potential range of symptoms, from aggression to emotional instability to memory loss.
The reporters called next. As always, Plummer was candid. He cried on air and, in an era when it was rare, spoke about the prevalence of depression among former players, acknowledging Seau’s struggles and his own. When Corey returned from work she found her husband still on the phone, pacing, doing one interview after another: San Francisco, San Diego, Boston. She knew the questions would never stop, and that Gary would keep answering them. She worried that he was ignoring the warning signs in his own life, that his path was too similar to Seau’s. Eventually, she walked over and yanked the phone out of his hand. No more interviews today, she said. Then, carrying two beers, she led him to their backyard to sit in silence.
The next morning she booked him a same-day therapist appointment; not to be assessed, but just to talk. “You’re going,” she told him. “I just can’t have you be next.”
This time he didn’t fight it.
It was hard at first. In 2012, public awareness about the danger of concussions remained relatively limited. It would be another year until League of Denial came out (a book in which Plummer appears, recounting the meeting with Steinberg), and three more until the movie Concussion.
Like many former players at the time, Plummer felt “almost guilty about complaining.” They were wealthy athletes. Who were they to whine? “I can’t tell you how many phone calls I got from relatives and friends asking the same thing after Junior died: ‘What the f---? That guy had the world by the balls. What did he kill himself for?’ ” Plummer says. “I knew exactly what Junior was thinking: ‘I don’t want to hurt anyone. I just don’t want this foreign brain. This isn’t me.’ ”
Plummer understood he needed to do something, but what? He continued therapy, if reluctantly. He tried yoga after hearing it eased anxiety. But squatting alongside fit women who effortlessly bent their bodies, he felt embarrassed and clumsy. Meditation proved equally frustrating. He couldn’t still his thoughts for five seconds, let alone a minute. “I don’t know who all of it was more for at that point,” he says. “Getting Corey off my back or because I knew what was good for me.”
His efforts were scattershot. He googled “brain help” and “getting over anxiety.” He downloaded the Babbel app after reading that learning a language can help create new synaptic connections, only to give up after a few weeks. He bought a guitar that plugged into his computer, hoping to learn to play, but found his fingers—broken and dislocated so many times—fumbled at the task.
The previous year, while doing radio work for the Pac-12 network, he’d blanked out on the air—for three to seven seconds, he’s told. Now, at Corey’s urging, he stopped working to focus on his health. Fortunately he had the financial resources to do so. Forever fearing his next season would be his last, Plummer had spent his NFL summers working in landscaping and construction with his brother, eventually learning enough to buy apartment buildings and condos and oversee their renovations. (As a player he earned about $7.5 million over his career.)
Meanwhile, a class-action lawsuit against the NFL, filed by former players and family members, was proceeding. The sides settled in 2013, with the league providing $765 million to retired players shown to be suffering cognitive or neural impairment. (In April 2016 the amount was revised to $1 billion.) As the news spread, Plummer spoke to dozens of former teammates. Many felt deceived by a league that promoted violence without worrying about the repercussions. Others were confused by the settlement’s bewildering red tape, which could be navigated with the help of 300 FAQs. What are we supposed to do? Who are we supposed to call?
In December 2014, at the urging of his lawyer, John Lorentz, Plummer saw a clinical psychologist for a preemptive assessment and received that first, chilling diagnosis: major neurocognitive disorder. Plummer was scared but also relieved; he wasn’t imagining things.
He began having the inevitable discussions with Corey. What happens when this progresses? Was she prepared to care for him? She had already gone part-time at her job in order to be around more. Plummer had increasing anxiety around social situations, plans and travel. Corey took to doing his packing and managing his schedule, only telling him about an event in the days just before and only making commitments that could be broken.
At the same time Plummer built up his regimen. He stuck with the yoga, encouraged when his headache disappeared for a few minutes during savasana, the final resting pose. He listened to The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama and tried to embrace the concepts it espouses, including that happiness is determined by one’s state of mind, not external factors. He tailored his diet and workout schedule for brain health. After Young told him about music therapy, and how it provided stress relief, Plummer read up on it, learning how soldiers with PTSD had found succor through classical music. He listened to Mozart, Bach and the Swiss harpist Andreas Vollenweider, eventually installing Sonos speakers throughout his property. At the urging of his therapist, he says he tried to “stop competing at everything and work on just being”—but damn, was that hard. “It’s not like a light switch,” Plummer says. “I’d been a tough guy for 38 years. When you’re done playing, you don’t suddenly go back to who you were when you were seven.”