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Ex-Bear Mike Pyle another NFL great sadly slipping away from dementia

Mike Pyle before training camp 1964.

Mike Pyle before training camp in 1964.

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Updated: March 14, 2014 9:16AM



When is a person no longer a person? Or more pointedly, when is a person no longer the person he was?

When are the memories, the habits, the reasoning — the essence — gone and the human that remains but a familiar shell with a blank slate inside?

Some would say never. Some wonder.

‘‘Yep,’’ says Mike Pyle, the former Bears center.

The big man with the white Hemingway beard is reclining in a lounge chair in his room at the Silverado Memory Care Community in Highland Park. He had been asked if he remembered 1963, the year his Bears team won the world championship, three years before the first Super Bowl.

His eyes are bright, but there is not much that seems connected.

Was that his first year in the NFL?

‘‘Yep,’’ Pyle says.

‘‘Wasn’t it 1961?’’ gently offers longtime friend Joe Priola, a real estate businessman who often comes here to visit .

‘‘Oh, yeah,’’ Pyle, 74, says. ‘‘Yeah.’’

The fact is, the former Pro Bowl center, the anchor of the Bears’ offensive line from 1961 to 1969, has no idea.

Or rather, like with so many facts, he seems to have an idea, and in the time it takes for him to organize the patterns and images into coherent expression, the idea slips away, much as a squirming fish eludes a weak-gripped fisherman’s hand.

Pyle has dementia, the curse of too many old-time football players. He has been told he has chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, the devastating disease that eats away at the brain’s substance, with tau protein flourishing like dead grass in a field of wheat. CTE comes from concussions, from head-banging.

‘‘We went to see Dr. Amen in California back in, oh, 2006,’’ Candy Pyle, Mike’s wife, says. She means Daniel Amen, a psychiatrist who has been labeled both a brain guru and a quack. ‘‘I think he’s a bit of a charlatan, but he did say to Mike, ‘I looked at your brain, and I was horrified!’ ’’

Though looking back, Candy can see that Pyle was obviously showing signs of mental and personality ­decline for a decade, it was last fall when she realized she could no longer take care of her husband. He had stopped talking and he could barely walk or use his hands, perhaps because of the diabetes he had battled for years.

Thus, he went to Silverado, a national chain that has an arrangement with the NFL to treat all former players with at least three years of service — and dementia — free of charge.

‘‘We have treated about 20 NFL players — we have about a dozen right now,’’ Loren Shook, the president and CEO of Silverado Senior Living, says. ‘‘This is under the ‘88 Plan’ with the NFL.’’

The 88 Plan is a brain trauma program named for Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey, whose number was 88. Mackey was in a near vegetative state from CTE by the time he died in 2011.

But the protocol at Silverado is to treat all the people with CTE, Alzheimer’s disease and other brain wasting conditions as if they are yet dignified, soulful human beings. The residents are encouraged to act as they did when whole, to bring photos and mementoes from home with them.

When I got off the elevator on Pyle’s floor I nearly stepped on a little beige dog named Cody zipping past. He and his pal Molly have the run of the place. Pets are welcome at Silverado, up to and including — at many facilities — goldfish, cats, hamsters, miniature horses, and full-sized ponies. Kids, too, are welcome.

The principle is to let patients feel secure, loved, connected. This is, after all, a place from which patients generally do not leave except to go to their final resting spots.

‘‘It is a terminal disease,’’ says Shook of the CTE that afflicts Pyle. ‘‘We have a great relationship with the NFLPA, and we have soft spot for these [NFL] fellows. I think it’s America’s Game. Let’s help them.’’

Help is one thing. But help comes after the damage. And the head damage is scary. There are retired players in their 50s in ­Silverado facilities. And if 50 is the new 40, well, it’s pretty sad.

Pyle was once a vibrant take-charge guy himself. He went to New Trier High School and Yale, and at Yale he was a team captain and member of the senior year secret society Skull and Bones, the elite organization which claims Archibald ­MacLeish, Henry Luce, Amos Alonzo Stagg, and George H.W. Bush as members.

Behind on the wall is a framed photo he brought with him. It shows five filthy, exhausted-looking Bears on a game bench: Pyle, Willie Holman, Doug Buffone, Doug Atkins, and Mike Ditka.

‘‘Mike was a tough guy,’’ recalls Buffone, now a radio analyst for WSCR. ‘‘A smart guy. Called every play for the O-line. He was a good teammate. No, better than good — he was a great teammate.’’

‘‘It’s a shame,’’ Ditka says. ‘‘Mike was a captain, a smart guy. You don’t get into Yale unless you’re smart.’’

Da Coach pauses for a moment. He can be heard sighing. ‘‘Give him my love if you see him.’’

Pyle worked for WGN radio for years and was even the host of ‘‘The Mike Ditka Show’’ back in the day. A gregarious man with a deep booming voice, he had the requisite ego to accept the mantle as head of the NFL Players Association in 1967. But as time went on he seemed to change. Dementia doesn’t always hit like an uppercut; sometimes it creeps in like a constant flurry of lightweight jabs through time.

‘‘Looking back, knowing what I know now, I can see signs of this back twenty years ago, at least,’’ Candy says. ‘‘Now that we know, we can point to a cause. But we’d never heard of CTE. There was nobody to talk to about it. Nothing.’’

That changed in the mid-2000s. But the wives and family of the wounded men still suffer mightily. The tradeoff — mind for glory — doesn’t seem worth it.

‘‘Don’t play football,’’ says Candy, with a weak, cynical laugh. ‘‘I don’t know.’’

George Attallah, spokesman for the NFLPA, knows about Pyle, and he says that’s why the collective-bargaining the players do is so much about head safety now.

‘‘The goal is to eliminate, or at least, reduce risk,’’ Atallah says. ‘‘To find treatment. Getting rid of CTE is something we’re interested in.’’

Nobody knows if that can be done. For now there are near-martyrs for the cause, such as Pyle. Unwitting martyrs, perhaps. But ­martyrs. Because you don’t want this. Nobody could.

‘‘Remember what other sports you played in high school?’’ friend Priola asks.

Pyle looks blankly.

‘‘Did you win the state championship in wrestling?’’

Pyle says nothing. His look says no.

‘‘I think you did. Did you throw the shot and discuss in track?’’

The old center doesn’t think so.

‘‘I think you were state champ in each,’’ Priola says.

‘‘Yeah,’’ says Pyle, his eyes lighting up again.

He’s there. But he’s fading. Fading before our eyes. Way, way too soon.

‘‘I was in denial for so long,’’ Candy says.

Weren’t we all.



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