Discuss as:

NFL wives: We 'pick up the pieces' after brain injuries to football player husbands

Lawyers on both sides are finalizing details of a settlement which compensates former players and funds medical research. Players who developed debilitating brain injuries after spending a short time in the NFL may not receive as much as those who were injured after playing for a longer period of time.  NBC's Stephanie Gosk reports.

The wife of an ex-football player who is suing the NFL for allegedly concealing the danger of concussions said that during games, even way up in the stands, she could hear the sound of helmet-clad heads slamming into each other.

“You would hear the clapping of the helmets,” said Garland Radloff, whose husband Wayne played five seasons at center for the Atlanta Falcons. “But then you’d hear cheering. … You know, you didn’t think about any head injury.” She says she wasn’t thinking about long-term effects even after the time her husband was knocked out cold for five minutes.

More than 20 years later, Wayne Radloff, at age 52, has been diagnosed with a form of early onset dementia brought on by repeated concussions. He is unable to work and the bank has started foreclosure proceedings on his South Carolina home. And Garland Radloff has become one of the football wives who are left to carry the ball -- to earn a living, take care of the kids, and fight for what they believe the NFL owes their families.

“The woman has to pick the pieces up,” said Garland.

Courtesy the Radloff Family

Wayne Radloff (left) with wife Garland (right) and family.

Last August the lawsuit, filed on behalf of 4,500 former players, was settled for $765 million, though the NFL has not admitted any liability or that the injuries were caused by football. The final details are still being determined, and the settlement must still be approved by a federal judge, but the league has agreed to split the money between compensation for players, research, and medical monitoring for players who have not yet been diagnosed. The settlement applies to all retired NFL players and their spouses -- more than 20,000 people.

When the settlement was announced earlier this year, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell called it "a significant amount of money" and said it was good for both sides. "We were able to find common ground to be able to get relief to the players and their families now rather than spending years litigating," he said at a September press conference.

Read terms of the settlement here.

A group of wives of players who retired in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s told NBC they hope the settlement will relieve some of their financial burden. But they’re also concerned that the settlement, in which they played a crucial role, won’t be enough. Players who played five years or less or were diagnosed after the age of 45 may not receive much money, according to a letter written by one of the law firms involved in the suit that was recently obtained by NBC.

Three wives of former professional football players sit down to discuss their husband's conditions and involvement in a lawsuit against the NFL for allegedly covering up the dangers of concussions. NBC's Stephanie Gosk reports.

The wives have had to handle much of the paperwork, the discussions with doctors and lawyers, and the fight for benefits, while also holding their households together, because their husbands have been left with short term memory loss, depression, and other ills that make it difficult to hold a job or pay mounting medical bills.

Courtesy of Tia McNeill

Fred and Tia McNeill

Tia McNeill, whose husband Fred played defense for the Minnesota Vikings from 1974 to 1985, said Fred struggles to recognize old friends. “People we run into that he should know,” said Tia. “People that were in our wedding.” Fred, who thought he’d prepared for life after football by earning a law degree, tries to hide his mental difficulties.  “He will act as if he knows them,” said his wife. “Then he will pull me aside and say, ‘Now, who is that again?’”

Trisha Bell’s husband Nick starred for the Iowa Hawkeyes in college and then played three seasons for the NFL’s Raiders.  At 45, he suffers from depression, and Trisha does all the shopping and driving and pays all the bills, responsibilities she had to “wrestle” away from him. Said Trisha, “When he is in really deep depression -- I can't leave him at all, because I'm so afraid that he's going to hurt himself.”

Courtesy of Trisha Bell

Trisha and Nick Bell

Tanya Bradley says her husband Henry, who was a nose tackle for the Cleveland Browns, now stammers, shakes and loses his temper. “I’m concerned about my husband all day, every day,” said Tanya.

The physical toll of football is often easy to see in the veterans. Tanya Bradley says her husband had the body of a 65-year-old at age 30. Now, at age 60, he struggles to walk down stairs or sit on the couch. While a player he broke both hands, injured both feet, both knees, his neck and his shoulder, and had a muscle removed from his back.

But brain injuries are less visible. The condition most often associated with repeated concussions, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), is hard to diagnose until after death, during an autopsy. In 2010, Bradley’s doctor diagnosed “post traumatic head syndrome,” and wrote, “100 percent of impairment/disability is felt to be due to cumulative trauma while playing professional football.”

George Rose / Getty Images

Defensive end Leon Seals and linebacker Ray Bentley of the Buffalo Bills take down running back Nick Bell of the Los Angeles Raiders during a game at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on December 8, 1991 in Los Angeles, California.

Tanya says “the most scary part” is “to think that there may be a point where my husband can't think for himself, can't control his behavior [or] has to be in a facility.”

The women all worry about a lack of financial help for their husbands as conditions worsen. They want to dispel the impression that playing pro ball is always a lucrative proposition. Most of their husbands played five years or less, none of them earned more than $300,000 a year, and agents and other representatives could take 40 percent and more of their paychecks.

“I mean, we can't afford our medical bills right now,“ said Trisha Bell. She said she can’t keep up with prescriptions and copays, despite Medicare coverage and NFL disability payments, and her husband had two ambulance visits within the past month.

Jason Luckasevic, the attorney who filed the first concussion lawsuit against the NFL two years ago, said “the saddest calls” come from the players’ wives.

Courtesy of Tanya Bradley

Tanya and Henry Bradley

“I almost dread that call,” said Luckasevic, a Pittsburgh-based attorney with the firm Goldberg, Persky & White, “because I know that there's nothing that I can offer them with any certainty right now.  That all I can offer them is, ‘Hang in there.  You're doing the right thing.  You are their hero now.’"

But the wives say that their pursuit of money, and publicity about the risks of the game, is not just for their families, but for future NFL families – and future wives.

 “I want the young wives to have this information,” said Tanya Bradley.

She said her goal was not to warn women away from football players. “[This is] not to say, ‘Don't get married to him,’” explained Bradley, “but to say, ‘You need to be prepared, now, because gradually you will have to take control over your whole life and his whole life.’”

More from NBC News Investigations:

Follow NBC News Investigations on Twitter and Facebook 

Investigate this!

Read and vote on readers' story tips and suggested topics for investigation or submit your own.