Wally Hilgenberg, an outstanding and long-term starting linebacker for the Vikings, died on Sept. 23, 2008. He was 66 and the cause of his death was first believed to be ALS.
Fred McNeill, another outstanding linebacker who replaced Hilgenberg as the Vikings starter on the right side in 1977, died this week at age 63. The cause of his death has been stated as ALS.
The Vikings alumni also have lost Orlando Thomas, a very good safety, to ALS at age 42 on Nov. 9, 2014. He had the disease for a decade.
The Hilgenberg family donated Wally’s brain to a study for the damage caused by football. In 2010, the researchers behind the study deemed Wally’s death to have been caused not by ALS, but by repetitive brain trauma that can lead to a disease that mimics ALS.
McNeill was diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy several years ago. His condition also has been described in news reports as dementia, but that memory loss undoubtedly can be traced to CTE, the brain disease that has afflicted way too many former NFL players.
There would seem to be a probability that McNeill died from the same disease as Hilgenberg, his teammate and predecessor as the Vikings right side linebacker – that being the football-related, repetitive brain trauma that causes the disease mimicking ALS.
McNeill’s death caused Matt Blair to receive numerous interview requests, including with the Star Tribune. Blair was the left-side linebacker, and such a terrific player that he overshadowed the good work of McNeill on the right.
McNeill was a first-round choice out of UCLA and Blair was a second-round choice out of Iowa State for the Vikings in 1974. They lived together when in the Twin Cities early in their careers. They were more like brothers than friends, Blair has said.
Matt reached out constantly and spent time with Fred in California when possible once the struggle with first CTE and then ALS overtook McNeill.
Blair, 65, is now having issues with memory loss, although so far not nearly to the degree suffered by McNeill … his teammate, roommate, friend and brother.
Blair talked on Wednesday during a radio interview of being knocked out during a Vikings game and being taken to the hospital. He played the next week, because that was the ethic back then.
And it was an ethic that has NFL players – wonderful players such as Hilgenberg and McNeill – dying ahead of their time.
Matt Blair said that he thanks God that he’s not worse, and also for a wife who makes sure that he keeps his daily schedule.
What has become of players of these prior generations is a tragedy that no financial settlement from the NFL can adequately pay for. How do you pay for loss of quality of life and then death that comes too early?
*WHEN LOOKING AT THE BLAIR-MC NEILL connection from a football standpoint on Wednesday, I was struck by this:
Why has Matt Blair not been given serious mention as a candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame?
I asked this on Twitter and someone offered this astute response: “He played at Iowa State and with Vikings. If it had been Notre Dame and Cowboys, he’d be in.’’
Blair started six games as a rookie when Hilgenberg was injured in 1974. He was a heavily-used backup to Hilgenberg in 1975. From 1976 to 1984, he was a typical Viking of the Bud Grant Era – meaning durable. He missed four starts in those nine seasons.
What type of athlete was Blair in an era when a 6-foot-5 linebacker was completely unique? During his career, Blair had 16 interceptions, 20 fumble recoveries and 20 blocked kicks.
He was all-NFC from 1977 to 1981 and he was all-NFL – meaning, All-Pro – in 1980 and 1981.
I’m not saying Matt Blair was a layup for the Hall of Fame. I’m suggesting he was worthy of being more fully in the conversation.
I mean, 20 blocked kicks. Twenty.