Finding Nittmo: Answers, finally, from the NFL kicker who disappeared - The Buffalo News
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Finding Nittmo: Answers, finally, from the NFL kicker who disappeared

WILLIAMS, Ariz. – Mary Lois Nittmo’s closest confidants were worried. She was on an interstate quest to locate the ex-husband who abandoned their four little children 12 years ago.

One friend dreaded the journey would be a waste of time, that Mary Lois would drive 30 hours round trip without making contact.

Another was afraid that she would find him, and the encounter would turn violent.

Bjorn Nittmo, the Swedish NFL kicker and recurring “Late Night with David Letterman” guest, will drop by without warning to see his kids at their Winnsboro, Texas, home. He looks increasingly haggard each time. After a day or two he’ll disappear again, off into the Coconino Mountains of northwest Arizona, where he lives in a camper with no address.

Or so he has said.

Mary Lois wanted to see for herself. Even now, despite how frequently Bjorn’s behavior has infuriated her and their children, she agonizes over his condition.

The Buffalo News first told Nittmo’s story in September, but he would not participate.

Although he played just six NFL games, his brain absorbed a beating while chasing the dream another dozen years, living proof long-term brain injuries aren’t limited to fullbacks and linebackers.

The Buffalo Bills signed him in 1991 to compete with Scott Norwood after Wide Right. Nittmo kicked in the World League of American Football, the Canadian Football League and the Arena Football League, including with the Buffalo Destroyers in 1999. That same year he appeared in the film “Any Given Sunday.”

His brain already was faltering by then.

Mary Lois endured Bjorn’s descent after he suffered a wicked concussion in a 1997 Tampa Bay Buccaneers preseason game. A few years later, after he’d given up the NFL ghost, he didn’t come home from his construction job.

They divorced. Mary Lois eventually moved the family from Arizona to Texas, her family’s home state.

The thought of returning to Arizona turned her stomach.

But with a desire to learn as much as she can about Bjorn so she can pass that insight along to her frazzled children, Mary Lois – prepared only with a few old house numbers culled from her child-support case and a search of public records – invited a Buffalo News reporter to drive across the Southwest last week in hopes of finding Bjorn.

Bjorn and Mary Lois Nittmo at their wedding (Photo provided by Mary Lois Nittmo).

She told Bjorn a couple weeks earlier she wanted to visit, and he said OK, probably not expecting her to call his bluff.

Her best friend was certain Bjorn wouldn’t be found. “He’s been so elusive about his life in Arizona,” Julie Conner said.

Bjorn’s good buddy from Enterprise High School in Alabama severed ties when Bjorn ditched the family, but Charles Grigsby has remained among Mary Lois’ steadiest supporters.

Grigsby feared if Mary Lois encountered her ex-husband on his turf, then Bjorn would either run away or physically attack.

Three days after pulling out of Winnsboro, after crossing the width of New Mexico, after driving 180 miles to make the rounds at three potential addresses in the snowy Flagstaff, Ariz., area and after cruising two RV parks in nearby Williams, where he said his camper had been parked, Bjorn Nittmo couldn’t be located.

Mary Lois was defeated. Bjorn had been returning her phone calls, but stopped now that she was in the area. She waited two hours at the McDonald’s before getting back into the car to leave Williams.

On the other side of the I-40 overpass, it turned out, was another RV park. The driveway was red dirt, interjected by jarring potholes. Around the bend and past the rental office, a man was struggling to dig a trench.

“It’s him,” Mary Lois gasped.

Soon, the walk-behind trencher conked out. Dusk had arrived and Bjorn appeared to surrender for the day. He was putting down high-speed internet lines at the Canyon Gateway RV Park. The job was in exchange for a place to park his camper for a little while.

Williams is 1.3 miles above sea level, and the thin air was 38 degrees. Bjorn huffed from the workout while he wheeled away the trencher, his breath visible in the orangey gloaming. He was dressed in layers under a flannel jacket. Reading glasses rested atop his head.

He didn’t say much until after he sat on the bumper of his work van and slugged water from a plastic bottle.

Yes, Bjorn replied, he would like to sit down for dinner.

And he would answer whatever questions anybody wanted to ask him about how he’s surviving, what type of medical help he’s receiving, whether he resents football and why he walked out on his wife and four little children.

“I’m not a great talker,” Nittmo said. “I grew up in a place where you shouldn’t talk about stuff.

“If I could go hide in the shadows, I would be perfectly fine. But you came all the way out here. So let’s talk.”

‘Bordering on homelessness’

Before heading into town, Bjorn Nittmo needed to fetch a gas can on the other end of the RV park. Mary Lois asked if she could look inside his camper to see how he lives.

On this day, Bjorn’s life was wide open. Mary Lois went in alone and within a minute completed her tour of the tight confines.

“It smelled really bad,” Mary Lois said. “It was bothering me. I couldn’t imagine staying in there much longer.

“You can tell he doesn’t have a lot. It wasn’t filthy, but the carpet was stained and wet.”

Bjorn later explained the roof recently needed repairs. Rain had been leaking inside.

Mary Lois was struck by Bjorn’s tiny bed, topped only by a thin sheet.

“She said the living conditions were bordering on homelessness,” said Conner, a second-grade teacher at Winnsboro Elementary. Mary Lois is her teaching assistant. “When you juxtapose appearing on David Letterman’s show to how he’s living now, it’s hard to comprehend the road he’s taken and how far he’s fallen. It’s tragic.”

Bjorn was a quirky whirlwind sensation in 1989. He hadn’t seen an American football game until he arrived from Sweden as an exchange student. He learned quickly enough to get a scholarship to Appalachian State, where Mary Lois’ father was athletics director.

By the Nittmos’ first wedding anniversary, he was kicking for the New York Giants and sitting in Letterman’s guest chair for a TV audience of 3.1 million viewers.

When a man was caught in New York clubs impersonating Bjorn to score free drinks and impress women, Letterman turned the saying “Who do you think you are? Bjorn Nittmo?” into a catchphrase.

‘Who do you think you are? Bjorn Nittmo?’

The USA-based Swedish newspaper Nordstjernan compared the Nittmo phenomenon to those of legendary countrymen Ingemar Johansson and Bjorn Borg.

“One thing that went through my head was, ‘He’s gone from the NFL to this,’ ” Mary Lois said after surveying Bjorn’s camper. “That’s not how it was supposed to be. This is not a normal life.

“It made me feel sad that this is how he lives.”

Dinner and reflection

The Pine Country Restaurant is on the corner of North Grand Canyon Boulevard and historic Route 66. A famous Thomas Jefferson quote is on the menu:

“It is neither wealth nor splendor, but tranquility and occupation, which give us happiness.”

Jefferson, while living in Paris, wrote the passage in a letter to his youngest sister upon hearing she had gotten married. Bjorn Nittmo almost surely wouldn’t have known the quote’s context; he probably didn’t even notice it, instead fixating on the Texas Red Burger, an open-faced beef patty on cornbread, smothered with cheddar cheese and chili.

Bjorn, his knuckles still loamy from working in the dirt, dominated his dinner. In between bites he readily discussed his lack of wealth and splendor, and he was fine with that. His affliction has been the absence of tranquility.

“The chaos in my head,” Bjorn said, “is absolutely devastating.”

Bjorn sat in a corner booth, facing one of the restaurant’s large picture windows. Mary Lois sat quietly next to him. She went to the interview already having decided she would not speak much, choosing to listen rather than participate. She feared she could derail his sometimes scattershot thoughts or say something to set him off.

Bjorn revealed he suffered “eight or nine concussions,” all on kickoff coverage. He’d never told Mary Lois that number before. She knew of only three, including the one that erased part of his memory with Tampa Bay.

Nittmo was beating out incumbent Buccaneers kicker Michael Husted for the job in 1997. Husted admitted last summer he was losing the competition.

“I was on fire,” Bjorn said. “I had him whupped. I’m not exactly sure, but I think 90-plus percent of my field goals were good. It didn’t matter where I kicked from.

“It was one of those things where I hit a groove and went nuts. The snaps and the holds were perfect, just deadly.”

But while trying to make a tackle on a preseason kickoff against the Atlanta Falcons, a 310-pound blocker accidentally kneed Nittmo in the head and knocked him out.

Last May, Mary Lois saw a replay of the kickoff and the hit for the first time and sobbed. The man who kicked off was effervescent, equally at ease making a teammate laugh as he was doting on his babies at home. The concussion changed everything.

“That person is dead,” Grigsby said from Huntsville, Ala., where he works as a NASA engineer. “This is someone different.”

Bjorn’s last memory before that concussion was stopping by Walmart for thin socks – he would cram his kicking foot into a shoe that was a size too small – on his way to the airport for the team’s flight to Atlanta.

Morten Andersen recalls meeting Nittmo

His next memory is maybe eight months later. He was working an offseason construction job in Shreveport, La., where he would play in the Canadian Football League, and former Shreveport and NFL quarterback Billy Joe Tolliver stopped by to say hello.

“There are months I don’t remember,” Bjorn said of the aftermath. “It’s missing.”

He turned to Mary Lois to rehash a recent conversation they had.

Bjorn: “You said there was another game that was played.”

Mary Lois: “You played in another game for Tampa after the injury.”

Bjorn flipped his palms upward and made an expression of helplessness.

“I was surprised to hear there was another game after I got hurt,” Bjorn said. “I didn’t know that.”

Bjorn Nittmo during an interview in the Pine Country Restaurant in Williams, Ariz.. “There are months I don’t remember,” Bjorn said of the aftermath of a concussion that all but ended his NFL career. (Tim Graham/Buffalo News)

The Buccaneers cleared Nittmo to kick in their next preseason game six days after his concussion. He then was released and never kicked in any NFL game again.

Current NFL concussion protocol would prevent a club from letting any player with a serious concussion back on the field or from cutting him.

“Thinking back, it pisses me off,” Bjorn said. “I’m still trying to move past it. There’s obviously a lot of anger.

“When – and if – they knew there were issues with my brain and they hid it ... If I don’t remember the next game, then there’s obviously something wrong with me somewhere. How could you just let somebody go?”

Bjorn snatched an empty coffee creamer container and flung it into Mary Lois’ salad plate.

“I don’t understand the whole thing. ‘Oh, we used you up. See ya.’ For the life of me,” Bjorn said, “I don’t get it. I did all this for you, and now you just throw me away?”

Buccaneers senior communications director Nelson Luis declined to comment. Luis cited HIPAA restrictions and noted the people primarily involved with handling Nittmo nearly 20 years ago are no longer with the Buccaneers.

Bjorn sees a neurologist, but remedies they’ve tried so far haven’t helped. Bjorn pays $92 a month for insurance through the Affordable Care Act and previously was unable to obtain coverage.

Bjorn outlined several cognitive problems consistent with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated blows to the head.

Nittmo is not involved with any of the class-action concussion lawsuits against the NFL. He told The News on Thursday night he wants his family to donate his brain and spinal cord to the Boston University CTE Center for study.

He described debilitating headaches, “dull, thumping, never-ending pain” on the crown of his head but sometimes at his right temple “pretty much every day.”

He said the constant ringing in his ears is so loud it wakes him up at night and will drown out the sound of a hard rain on his camper roof.

He was fired from his last construction job because of his impaired memory. “I wasn’t knowing or showing where I was supposed to be,” Bjorn said. While driving he has been known to find himself miles away from his intended route and not know how he got there.

Bjorn chooses to work alone now. He has installed satellite systems and fiber internet cables. Construction jobs require teamwork, and Bjorn conceded he’s too unreliable.

“When I start a job,” Bjorn said, “I think, ‘It should take me this long.’ But because I forget, it’s never-ending.

“It was really, really hard, working for these big building companies and having a really good job and forgetting half or three-quarters of the stuff you were supposed to do. All the time.

“Now, it’s just me and my time. So it’s OK. I don’t hurt anybody else.”

A search of public records indicate Bjorn may be using an alias. Someone named Bjorn Arne Hihro uses the same Social Security number and birth date and has been linked to the same addresses as Bjorn Arne Nittmo.

Nittmo claimed he had no idea how that has happened.

“For some reason, people have used my name,” Bjorn Nittmo said. “Somebody got ahold of my Social, I guess.

“I’ve never used aliases. That’s too much work. I can’t remember who I am half the time.”

Bjorn was asked, with recurring brain problems and relentless pain, how dark his thoughts have gotten.

He gazed out the Pine Country Restaurant’s window. His lips began to quiver. The veins in his neck throbbed. Then his voice dropped into a whisper.

“You know, that’s the one thing ... ” Bjorn said, not finishing the sentence. “I’m too happy for that. Life is too beautiful. They sky’s too blue. I don’t have a dark side.

“As in hurting yourself or anything like that, I don’t have that.”

Bjorn, still staring out the window, looked like he had more to say. But he sat silent for 22 seconds.

“The world is a wonderful place,” he finally said, making eye contact again. “I’ve just got to do what I can to fit in.”

The long-awaited answers

Much of what Bjorn discussed for nearly two hours in their Pine Country Restaurant booth, Mary Lois never had heard him say. It was the first time Bjorn had explained himself in such a matter-of-fact way in her presence.

The meeting seemed to unlock answers she’d long sought.

And finally she heard Bjorn spell out why he abandoned his wife, three daughters and one son in 2005. His oldest child was 11, his youngest merely six months.

“Hurting the kids was one of my fears,” Bjorn said. “The chaos with kids, the screaming goes in here somewhere.”

He pointed to the base of his skull.

“There was no sanity whatsoever,” he continued. “I had to move myself away from that to make sure they were OK, or at least my weird way of thinking whatever ‘OK’ means.”

After the 1997 concussion, Bjorn’s temper became increasingly volatile, his rage unpredictable. His own kids, doing whatever normal kids do, pushed him to a dangerous brink.

“I’ve been pretty much a happy-go-lucky guy my whole life,” Bjorn said. “Now I flip out. Boom! I get madder than a bee.

“That worries me a lot. I just get livid. All I want to do is rip your head off.”

Bjorn had been a tender father. He insisted on giving each of his babies their first baths when they got home from the hospital. He relished brushing and drying his daughters’ hair.

He was involved in their once-a-week “Swedish school,” which introduced them to his homeland’s language and culture. He coached youth soccer.

When his youngest daughter, Annika, born a month prematurely because of a heart condition, aspirated shortly after going home, he instinctively ripped off his shirt to give his newborn skin-on-skin contact and rode in the back of the ambulance with her.

“I didn’t consider it chaos then,” Bjorn said. “Now, two days is about as much as I can take. I have to leave.

“I enjoy being around my kids, but I don’t feel like I’m surviving.”

His children won’t call him Dad. He’s just Bjorn to them.

In all of 2016, he spent six days with them. Two of those days were arranged by an ESPN crew for a feature that might never air. Bjorn said ESPN’s approach stressed him out, so he stopped cooperating.

Daughters Katarina, 22, Madeleine, 20, with Mary Lois Nittmo, 47, and siblings, Annika, 15, and Karsten, 11 during the summer of 2016. At left is one of Katarina's horses, "Mama." (David Leeson/Special to The News)

Katarina, who turned 23 Thursday, manages Winnsboro’s CVS Pharmacy. She and Madeleine, 20, attend the University of Texas at Tyler. Annika is a sophomore at Winnsboro High. Karsten is in sixth grade.

“I’ve missed my kids growing up,” Bjorn said, staring out the window again. “Our relationship is strained on a good day.”

Bjorn wondered if healing with his children is impossible because of the grief he has put them through.

“There was a lot of hurt,” Bjorn said. “But nothing was done maliciously. Nothing was done just to be mean or to be an ass.

“Maybe some day the kids can see that. Who knows?”

Bjorn sat obligingly in the booth until the questions ran dry. He seemed to value the encounter, a chance to articulate how he has been coping and to clarify his intentions over the past dozen years.

Before ghosting back to his camper for the night, Bjorn and Mary Lois hugged. He told her he would come to Winnsboro for Katarina's birthday (he did not, although Flagstaff was hammered by a snowstorm) and Annika's power-lifting meet Saturday (he did not, but Annika qualified for regionals in the 105-pound class).

Mary Lois didn’t say anything at the Pine Country Restaurant but reflected after taking a few days to digest what Bjorn divulged.

“It was hard to hear him say those things,” Mary Lois said by phone from Winnsboro. “He loved being with his kids and interacting with them, and to hear him say he couldn’t any more and that he had to leave them because he was afraid he’d hit one of them?

“If that was a possibility, I’m thankful he made the choice he did, but I wish he would have said something. Things might have been different.”

A new understanding

Mary Lois was drained an hour after meeting her ex-husband on his home turf for the first and probably only time.

She was satisfied she made the 1,150-mile journey. She was relieved she’d found him. She was sad for her children. She was unsettled by all the new information to process.

She was livid at the NFL.

That anger was on her mind when she saw the blue welcome mat just inside her hotel’s sliding glass doors.

In white letters: “Courtyard Marriott ... Official hotel of the NFL.” Upon the NFL’s logo, she wiped the red Arizona dirt from the soles of her gray Skechers.

She groaned when she noticed on her room’s key card the picture of a football being kicked through the uprights.

“They just threw him away,” Mary Lois said. “They treated him like dirt. Seeing how he lived, it brought it all back how I feel about the NFL. Now look what I have to deal with.”

Mary Lois’ friends sensed the road trip provided a deeper peace.

She returned to Winnsboro with a better understanding of why Bjorn behaves as he does. She can share that insight with their children, perhaps helping to reconcile how their father could leave them for such spartan solitude.

“She would still like him to get help and achieve goals for his well-being,” said Conner, her friend from Winnsboro Elementary, “but from an emotional standpoint I don’t know if it’s going to get any better. It is what it is.

“She realized his options are becoming more and more limited as his behavior progresses into the bizarre.”

The trip was stressful, but in many ways it couldn’t have gone better.

She found Bjorn almost by accident. She saw what she had to see. He made himself vulnerable enough to admit his faults. He shared heavy thoughts that provided some of the insight she craved.

“He’s never really taken ownership of what he’s done,” Mary Lois said. “So to hear him do that was bittersweet. I’ve just never heard him talk like that. He’s never acknowledged his actions.”

“I got some answers. They were hard to hear, but that’s what I went out there for.”

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