PHILADELPHIA — Irv Cross was a man of faith and a devoted football fan who in his later years was no longer able to attend Bible studies or watch NFL games with friends. The degenerative brain disease he suffered from inside the former Philadelphia Eagles cornerback had triggered depression, mood swings and the kind of memory loss that forced him to isolate himself.
“He really didn’t want to be around people,” said his widow, Liz Cross. “The only person he wanted to be with was me. When he was with me, he didn’t really want to be with me. He just wanted me to be there.”
Cross, the former NFL defensive back who became the first black man to work full-time as a sports analyst on national television, is the latest football player to be diagnosed with CTE brain disease. Cross, who was 81 when he died on February 28, 2021, suffered from stage 4 chronic traumatic encephalopathy, Boston University researchers said Tuesday.
Stage 4 is the most advanced stage of CTE and shows the type of damage that often causes cognitive and behavioral problems in people exposed to repetitive head trauma. He physically struggled with his balance and was paranoid.
“Toward the end,” Cross said, “he saw things that weren’t there.”
Cross said her husband, who was diagnosed with mild cognitive dementia in 2018, often sat in a chair and grimaced at headaches that wouldn’t go away. She refused any type of medication because it did not help with the pain. She stopped going to church. Once she was a student of the game, NFL games were mostly background noise because she didn’t know who was playing.
“He was afraid someone would ask him a question,” Cross said, “and he wouldn’t know the answer.”
Irv Cross, of course, was not alone in misery among his former NFL brothers. According to its latest report, the BU CTE Center said it has diagnosed CTE in 345 former NFL players out of 376 former players who were studied, a rate of 91.7%. The disease can only be diagnosed after death.
“He was the nicest, kindest, most helpful, wonderful man I’ve ever met,” Cross said. “But that wasn’t what it was in the end. And that wasn’t what it was. It was the disease that did that.”
dr. Ann McKee, a professor of neurology and pathology at Boston University, said she wasn’t surprised that Irv Cross’s brain reached stage 4 given the length of his overall football career (the study counted 17 years) and age. of the. Irv Cross and his family made the decision to donate his brain to help raise awareness about the long-term consequences of repeated blows to the head.
“I think there’s more education about the risks of soccer and I think there’s more awareness about concussion management, but I still think we’re way, way behind where we should be,” McKee said. “We need to educate young athletes about the risk they are at. We need to educate coaches to keep head injuries out of the game. We need to monitor athletes more by monitoring them better. I still think there is a big cavalier attitude towards CTE. There is a lot of denial.”
In fact, Liz Cross said that she and her husband were “both in denial” about the cause of her failing health until about five years before her death.
“For someone who had been so active and so able to do everything, and an athlete, not having balance, not having strength, not being able to do any of the things that I had done before, it was embarrassing,” he said. “He was pretty much in a constant state of depression.”
One of 15 boys from Hammond, Indiana, Cross starred in football and track at Northwestern. He was drafted in the seventh round by Philadelphia in 1961, was traded to the Los Angeles Rams in 1966 and returned to the Eagles in 1969 as player coach for his final season.
The two-time Pro Bowl cornerback had 22 interceptions, 14 fumble recoveries, eight forced fumbles and a pair of defensive touchdowns. He also averaged 27.9 yards on kickoff returns and returned punts.
Chris Nowinski, the founder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, said he met with Cross in 2018 and that “it was very clear” that the former Eagle was hurting.
“It’s important to highlight cases like Irv Cross’s because he was able to live a long and successful life where CTE didn’t drastically affect him,” he said. “But in the end, it was a struggle.”
Cross joined CBS in 1971, becoming the first sports show host for a black network. He left the network in 1994 and later served as athletic director at Idaho State and Macalester College in Minnesota. In 2009, he received the Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award from the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was married to Liz for 34 years when she died.
Cross said her husband has never regretted his soccer career.
“I would have done it again in a heartbeat,” he said. “But I didn’t think boys should play soccer.”
As for diagnosed concussions, Cross said her husband told her he suffered several during his playing career, but he didn’t keep track. He suffered so many head injuries in his rookie season that his Eagles teammates called him “Paperhead.”
Irv told his wife that after a blow to the head that nearly caused him to swallow his tongue, doctors said if he suffered another concussion he would “die.”
“And then he stopped playing? No,” said the 76-year-old widow. “They made him a stronger helmet.”
Liz Cross said she wanted to remember the joy her little grandson gave Irv in his later years and not think about how she had to watch the man she loved slip away.
“He was just a wonderful man,” she said, “and this disease changed his life.”