“He really didn’t want to be around people,” said his widow, Liz Cross. “The only person he wanted to be with was me. When he was with me, he really didn’t want to be with me. He just wanted me to be there.”
Stage 4 is the most advanced stage of CTE, and shows the type of damage that often causes cognitive and behavioral problems in those exposed to repetitive head trauma. He struggled physically with his balance and was paranoid.
“Toward the end,” Cross said, “he saw things that weren’t there.”
Cross said her husband, who was diagnosed with mild cognitive dementia in 2018, often sat in a chair and grimaced from headaches that wouldn’t go away. He refused any kind of medicine because it did not help the pain. He stopped going to church. Once a student of the game, NFL games were mostly background noise because he didn’t know who was playing.
“He was afraid someone would ask him a question,” Cross said, “and he wouldn’t know the answer.”
Of course, Irv Cross was not alone in misery among his former NFL brethren. According to its latest report, the BU CTE Center said it has diagnosed 345 former NFL players with CTE out of 376 former players studied, a rate of 91.7%. The disease can only be diagnosed after death.
“He was the nicest, kindest, most helpful and wonderful man I’ve ever met,” Cross said. “But that wasn’t who he was at the end. And that wasn’t who he was. It was the disease that did it.”
In fact, Liz Cross said she and her husband were “both in denial” about the cause of his health breakdown until about five years before his death.
“For someone who had been so active and so able to do everything, and an athlete, who didn’t have the balance, didn’t have the strength, couldn’t do any of the things he had done before, it was embarrassing,” she said. “He was pretty much in a constant state of depression.”
One of 15 children from Hammond, Indiana, Cross starred in football and track and field at Northwestern. He was drafted in the seventh round by Philadelphia in 1961, was traded to the Los Angeles Rams in 1966 and returned to the Eagles in 1969 as a player-coach for his final season.
The two-time Pro Bowl cornerback had 22 interceptions, 14 fumble recoveries, eight forced fumbles and a pair of defensive touchdowns. He also averaged 27.9 yards on kickoff returns and returned punts.
Chris Nowinski, the founder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, said he met Cross in 2018 and “it was very clear” that the former Eagle was suffering.
“It’s important to highlight cases like Irv Cross because he was able to live a long and successful life where CTE didn’t affect him dramatically,” he said. “But at the end it was a fight.”
Cross joined CBS in 1971, becoming the first Black Network sports show anchor. He left the network in 1994, and later served as athletic director at Idaho State and Macalester College in Minnesota. In 2009, he received the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award. He had been married to Liz for 34 years when he died.
Cross said her husband has never regretted his football career.
“He would have done it again in a heartbeat,” she said. “But he didn’t think children should play football.”
As for diagnosed concussions, Cross said her husband told her he suffered several during his playing career but didn’t keep count. He suffered so many head injuries in his rookie season that his Eagles teammates nicknamed him “Paper Head.”
Irv told his wife that after a blow to his head that nearly caused him to swallow his tongue, doctors said that if he had another concussion, “he would die.”
“And then he stopped playing? No, said the 76-year-old widow. “They made him a stronger helmet.”
Liz Cross said she wanted to remember the joy their young grandson brought Irv during his final years and not dwell on how she had to watch the man she loved slip away.
“He was just a wonderful man,” she said, “and this disease changed his life.” ___ AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL