Samantha Buono knew something was wrong with her dad, she just didn’t know what it was. She thought one day she might write a book about it.
Mike Pyle played football for the Chicago Bears for nine seasons in the 1960s, starting at center on the 1963 NFL championship team. He was coached by Bears founder George Halas, roomed with Hall of Famer Mike Ditka and also shared the sidelines with legends Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers.
His gregarious personality led to a broadcasting career for WGN radio after he retired from the football field, and his booming voice became a familiar sound to legions of Bears fans who watched the games on television.
“He was the life of the party, always smiling and laughing and always wanting to help a friend out,” said Buono, a Palm Desert resident. “He loved and he laughed.
“Until he didn’t.”
By the time he reached his 50s, Buono started noticing her dad’s demeanor change. He began isolating himself and losing control over things that didn’t seem to make sense.
“Those were the first signs; the rage and the irrational anger,” Buono recalled.
She thought it was merely a former pro athlete wrestling with life outside of the limelight. It wasn’t until years later that she discovered her dad’s behavior was severely affected by the repeated blows to the head he endured playing football.
And after more than two decades of watching her dad struggle with the most advanced stage of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) – the brain disease detected in scores of deceased former NFL players from Junior Seau to Frank Gifford – Buono is allowing her own son, Luca, to strap on a helmet and play for Palm Desert High School this fall.
She’s among the many sons and daughters who’ve witnessed the NFL’s collateral damage and are now making decisions whether to let their own children play the brutal game. Many have distanced themselves from the sport. Buono is still giving it a chance.
“I wanted to respect that that was what my son wanted to do,” she said. “He was excited about participating in football and following his dream and his goals and his interests.”
But concussion concerns persist.
Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist, examined the brains of 202 deceased football players and published her findings in The Journal of the American Medical Association in July. Though college and professional players showed more severe stages of CTE, some brains from those who only played in high school did have mild traces of the brain disease.
Those findings, along with what she witnessed her dad go through, has made Buono hyper alert as her son plays. She is viewing her circumstance as a four-month experiment, and an opportunity to show others that with advancements in concussion protocol and awareness, football can be played safely, and the effects of the trauma can be mitigated if parents, coaches and administrators are aware of the dangers.
Whether that is indeed the case is an issue parents across the country are now wrestling with.