SAN FRANCISCO (CBS) – A former San Francisco 49er who played until concussions cost him his career is now on the streets.
Terry Tautolo, a nine-year NFL linebacker who was a member of the San Francisco 49ers during the beginning of their dynasty has lived in a tunnel under the freeway much of the time since he retired.
A series of concussions ended his playing career early and left him with brain damage that has led to diagnosed dementia. To understand Tautolo’s journey, CBS’s Sacramento affiliate enlisted the help of George Visger, his old 49ers roommate
“What this game does to you, people have no clue,” Visger said. “I wish I never played the game.”
Scans show Visger himself has developed holes in his brain. He’s had nine brain surgeries.
“A tube goes in the middle of my brain there and from the pump back here it goes down the side of my neck,” he demonstrated.
Thirty years after they parted ways, Visger wanted to bring his old friend to his doctor to find out if the hits Tautolo took on the field have left his brain damaged.
“You look at him and, the teeth missing, the eyes sunken in…but you ask him, and, ‘Oh, I don’t have any issues,’” Visger said.
When we arrived in Long Beach, Tautolo was staying with his daughter.
Tautolo, now 58, is a soft-spoken gentle giant and spends some of his time fixing bikes by hand. It’s a low-impact game now. His NFL career left his fingers warped in different directions.
“After the game I’d tape ‘em up,” he said.
But Tautolo was never one to complain. He said he never reported to the NFL a massive hit that gave him a concussion and forced him to retire from the game.
“I had one my ninth year,” he said. “Got dinged. And what they call you is paper head. I wasn’t going to take another hit like that. That would’ve left me paralyzed or, I don’t know.”
Tautolo’s visit to Visger’s doctor consisted of a polite introduction only.
“So any concerns at all about how you feel or how you function?” Dr. Daniel Amen asked him.
“Ah, no. Nope,” was the reply.
He chose not to tell the doctor that, since retiring, he’d been in and out of homelessness, divorced twice, and has had anger management counseling.
“We’ve known for a long time (that) traumatic brain injury is associated with drug abuse, alcoholism, depression, suicide, panic attacks, not sleeping, homelessness, trouble with your marriage and trouble with your job,” Dr. Amen said.
Tautolo’s medical condition has never been diagnosed, but something led him down this road and onto city streets.
He took us back to his tunnel and showed where he took shelter from the rain.
“When you told people that were living here homeless that you played in the NFL…” we started to ask.
“Oh, I didn’t tell them,” he quickly interjected.
He said he’d blame his troubles on his marriage and other family relationships, but why those problems led him to fall into homelessness, he won’t say.
“I can’t put a nail on it,” he said. “Getting old, things are breaking down, but it’s all due to me, you know. Maybe it speeded up because of football.”
A former bruising NFL linebacker is now left battling questions that his mind may be broken.
“Do you think something’s wrong with me?” he asked the CBS crew.
For Terry Tautolo, life after football hasn’t been as simple as X’s and O’s.
“I’m not a role model. I just wanted to play football,” he said.
Tautolo said he doesn’t feel the NFL owes him anything. George Visger, his old roommate, had to sue the NFL for worker’s compensation and got medical benefits covered for his brain surgeries.
There’s also a class-action lawsuit against the NFL that now involves upwards of 3,500 former players who allege the NFL concealed long-term effects of head impacts.