Doug Thornell played football at Sidwell Friends in the mid-1990s and went on to play college football at Cornell. He loves the game and believes it helped make him the man he is today.
But the political consultant at SKD Knickerbocker is torn these days. After all, the game that made Thornell also destroyed the man who coached him at Sidwell.
Ralph Wenzel, who played guard for the Pittsburgh Steelers and San Diego Chargers from 1966 to 1973, died in Annapolis on June 18 at the age of 69 from complications of dementia. Wenzel began experiencing symptoms in 1995, and by 2006 he was in a home for dementia patients.
After he retired, Wenzel coached at the high school and college level and spent several years in the mid-1990s coaching the defense at Sidwell Friends in the District, where he was an influential teacher for players like Thornell.
"I watch an NFL game today and cringe at the hits," Thornell said. "I am kind of torn. I think the league could do a lot more for former players and could have done a lot more. But I'm not fully sure where I fall. The game is fantastic, and what you gain as a person is fantastic."
Thornell, D.C. lawyer Andrew Goldsmith and Greg Zumas, all of whom played for Wenzel, started a trust to help with Wenzel's expenses and a website to let people know what he meant to his players.
"He was one of those quiet heroes who meant so much to those he coached," Thornell said. "The end of his life was sad, but I think like so many other moments in his life, he made a huge impact. I don't know if the former players would have gotten the help they needed if Dr. Perfetto and others didn't step up."
Dr. Perfetto is Eleanor, Ralph Wenzel's widow, a pioneer in the fight to force the NFL to do more to help players damaged on the field.
She has a Ph.D in public health and used her husband's health problems to call attention to the plight of other players suffering. She testified about the connection between head trauma and football at a 2009 congressional hearing.
"Those hearings were the tipping point," she said. "It changed the NFL public statements and approach to what was going on. I'm not completely satisfied, but progress has been made. I still think the NFL could do a better job for past players, those who will become ill. And inevitably they will."
Ralph Wenzel's story was one of the first revealed about football and concussions, and along with that of Sylvia Mackey and her late husband, John, it was among the most influential.
"It was a horrible and painful thing, but he will have made a difference," Perfetto said.