In February of 2007, I heard that the league was soliciting applications for a fund to help former players who had been diagnosed with dementia and Alzheimer’s, what was known as the 88 Plan. I knew instantly that that was going to be their downfall. Their strategy had always been to discredit the data or the methods of every study that had linked football with cognitive impairments. And here they were collecting the data—they were blessing the data.

And I knew that once the number of people in the plan reached a certain point, about sixty or eighty, there would be a decent sample to analyze, in terms of at what age these players were starting to show signs of dementia. I needed to wait. But I always had in the back of my mind, “I can’t wait to get my hands on that list.”

In January of 2009 I found out that the number of players in the plan was ninety-five. A little while later I was on the beach in Puerto Rico, with my wife. I should have been more with my wife, but I was thinking about this stuff—I just knew I was on to something. And I started sketching the numbers out on this little Marriott pad, literally while I was on the beach. I was doodling around—if there’s this many people alive, what would the curve look like?

When I got home, I started calling as many people as I could, trying to find out who was in the plan. It wasn’t that I needed the names themselves, but it was important to know the players’ birth years, to get a sense of how old they were when they started to experience dementia. I thought somebody would just leak the list to me, but holy shit was that thing locked down. It was virtually impossible; you always heard the same small group of names. Eventually, I pieced together sixteen, and that was actually enough to have a pretty good idea of what was going on. You could basically know what the age-distribution curve was going to look like.

So the next question was, what’s the denominator? How many retired players are alive? I knew that there were about 13,000 living ex-players, so I sketched out a reasonable estimate of their age groups. I also happen to have a good friend who has the best biographical data on athletes of anybody, so with his help I got those numbers almost exact.

The rates I got actually weren’t that alarming. But the real breakthrough came later when I noticed that the plan was only open to vested players, those who had played four or five years in the league. So the denominator just plummeted, and the rates of dementia went whooosh.

By August of 2009, we were getting ready to try to figure out how to publish this—“data proves,” or “suggests,” or “indicates,” whatever verb we were going to end up comfortable with. And then somebody leaked me the Michigan study, a phone survey commissioned by the NFL that showed these dramatically elevated rates of Alzheimer’s and memory impairments among former NFL players. It was a different data set, but it proved what I had been noodling with. The numbers were almost identical. Basically, the NFL scooped me. Their own study scooped me. When we published that story, people finally understood.

We published my 88 Plan analysis a few months later, after the lawyer for the players’ union did his own noodling with some numbers, and came out saying everything’s fine. Well, it was totally fucked up. His numbers were wrong, and his analysis was wrong. And I could tell that instantly, as soon as the person who leaked it to me handed it to me, because I had studied it myself.

Dispassion Drives People Crazy

One of the challenges throughout was how to take otherwise dry material and turn it into something humane, to put a face on it. Most of the time, those faces were women. I realized pretty early that it was the men who lived the dreams, and the women who lived the nightmares. Their husbands were either brain-damaged or brainwashed, but the women got it. And so I used them to understand, to learn, to find out more.

At the same time, none of them ever said, or even suggested, that football should not be played. None of them ever said, “I hate football.” Eleanor Perfetto, whose husband has degenerative dementia, said, “Hey, I’m a football fan.” Linda Sanchez, the congresswoman who starred at the hearings, said she’s a football fan. They’re all fans; they don’t want it to go away. They just want it to be less stupid.

Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.