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When the memories fade: Willie Wood's battle after football

Dave Owens sits down with former NFL star Willie Wood, who now suffers from memory loss.
Willie Wood Sr., a D.C. sports legend and former NFL star, is now believed to suffer from the brain disease CTE.

WASHINGTON (WUSA9) -- It's a crisp fall Saturday in Northwest, D.C. as my cameraman and I enter the assisted living facility to meet and hopefully speak with a D.C. sports legend.  Certain things in life you just have to experience first before you can truly understand them.  This was one of those things. 

Willie Wood Sr. has good days and bad days, and it didn't take long before it became clear what kind of day this was for the 78-year old District native. 

"Do you remember going to my games in high school?" says his son Willie Jr. speaking to his father.  

His father looks back at him with a vacant stare.  "What high school did you go to?" says his father. 

The exchange is excruciatingly real for the Wood family, and it's painful for me to watch. 

"I endure all of the suffering and the pain he goes through from the front line," says Wood Jr. 

Willie Wood Sr. is 78 and these days needs help getting around.  The pictures on the wall in his room at the assisted living facility where he resides, however,  tell the tale of a different time.  There are pictures of him as a vibrant patriarch, as well as those that depict an athletic legend. 

When Wood Sr. left the District and arrived at Coalinga Community College in California, times were different.  It was the late 1950's and African-Americans were not welcome in certain parts of his college town. 

"My father would tell the story of the main street in the town, it was actually called main street and he wasn't allowed in the restaurants or hotels or the stores," says Wood Jr. 

His father, however, was undeterred and led Coalinga to a national championship.

"The town held a parade for my father on that same street," said Wood Jr. smiling.

His father was also the first African-American quarterback to start at USC but when he graduated from Southern Cal, the NFL wasn't ready for a black quarterback, thus no team drafted him.

"He wrote a letter to every NFL team and only one answered him," said former teammate Tom Brown. 

"Vince Lombardi." 

Under the legendary coach, Wood was recast as a safety and he would transform from signal caller to Super Bowl star to Hall of Famer.

"What a ferocious tackler he was," said Brown. 

"He didn't wrap his arms around people, he came in and dove at your legs and flipped you over a couple of times."

That style came with a price.  Wood Jr. says his father, who sustained more than a dozen concussions during his career.  After retiring from football Wood Sr.  began showing signs of memory loss, and one day while driving along a stretch of H Street here in Northeast D.C. his deteriorating condition overwhelmed him.

"We get a knock on the door and it's from the Metropolitan Police Department," says Wood Jr. 

"MPD knocks on your door and you know your heart sinks, turns out my father had become disoriented and the police found him just sitting in his car."

Wood Jr. says doctors believe his father has a form of chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE, the same degenerative brain disease that struck former players like Mike Webster and Junior Seau.

"He remembers every lyric from every do-wop song that comes on the radio," says Wood Jr.  "But he struggles to remember what he had for lunch." 

On the day of our visit, Wood Sr.  couldn't recall anything about his days with the Green Bay Packers, his interception in Super Bowl I, or his induction into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1989.  

"Every football player knows when you first start playing you're basically signing a contract with the devil," says Wood Jr. 

It's a contract so many players are willing to sign.  I asked Wood Jr. whether his father would do it all over again knowing the effects the brutality of football can dole out.  He answered quickly and swiftly. 

"Tomorrow, he'd do it again tomorrow." 

Wood Sr. is due to receive compensation as part of the NFL's concussion settlement with former players.  Watching him struggle was difficult, although there was one brief glimmer of his dynamic personality. 

"You were a great football player you know that," I asked Wood Sr. 

"I think so," he responded. 

Laughter filled the room after his response.  Wood's family would love to bottle up funny moments like that and keep them forever.  But his son is a realist and knows there probably aren't many more moments like that left.

"It's really scary and you want to be like a kid and say nope this isn't happening," said Wood Jr. 

"But it's real and unfortunately for us now it's really real."

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