Chuck Crist arose from his seat to applause, shook hands with childhood friends, stepped behind a podium at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center and opened his speech with a joke about head injuries.
“Thank you,” Crist began at that November 2019 event, using a previous speaker’s performance as a segue to his own. “Unlike another Penn State grad, I need notes, 'cause after five concussions my rookie year in the NFL, sometimes I can’t remember things.”
Some in the audience laughed.
If only they knew what the Salamanca native and his family had been through in the previous 24 hours.
If only Crist knew, as well.
Crist, who played pro football for seven seasons in the 1970s, was 69 when he died from a rare blood disorder in October. But he also had the most advanced form of the degenerative brain disease CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, his family learned in June. The disease is often found in the autopsied brains of former athletes and military veterans who endured repetitive head trauma – and not only concussions, according to researchers, but the type of sub-concussive hits that occur on every football snap. Symptoms can include cognitive, behavioral, mood and motor changes.
Crist’s wife and children shared his diagnosis with The Buffalo News, explaining his decision to donate his brain for scientific research and recounting a tragicomedy preceding his speech at the 2019 Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame induction dinner. Their story reveals how all those long-ago hits impacted his family, his final decade and what should have been one of the grandest days of his life.
“Chuck would want everything public,” said Patti Crist, his high school sweetheart and wife of 50 years. “He wouldn’t have done this just to keep it private. He would want the public to be educated and learn from it. … Chuck would want the Concussion Legacy Foundation message to be loud and clear about protecting children’s developing brains.”
The nonprofit organization advocates children play flag football before high school. In 2008, it partnered with the Boston University School of Medicine and the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs to found the BU CTE Center and the VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank, the largest CTE tissue repository in the world.
In studies of approximately 1,100 brains that sustained traumatic injury, including those of more than 700 football players, CTE was identified in more than 60%, said Dr. Ann McKee, the chief of neuropathology at VA Boston Healthcare System and director of the BU CTE Center.
As of 2017, CTE was found in 110 of 111 brains of former NFL players studied. As of 2019, CTE was found in 223 of 266 brains of football players of all levels. The same study revealed that each year of playing football may increase a player’s odds of developing CTE by as much as 30%.
Early-stage CTE has been identified in a football player as young as 17 years old.
“It tells me that this disease happens at low levels of play, that you don’t have to be a professional player,” McKee said. “It’s really a risk for juveniles. It’s a risk for amateurs. And I think it’s very sobering that we’re seeing it in teenagers.”
'Where am I?'
Crist began playing tackle football when he was 7 years old and continued through high school. He played basketball in college, then 92 games as a safety and on special teams for the New York Giants, New Orleans Saints and San Francisco 49ers from 1972 to ’78.
Decades later, his family assumed his uncharacteristic outbursts, confusion, short-term memory loss and obsessive-compulsive behavior – Crist developed an infatuation with extension cords and placing metal clips on lampshades – were related to his six-year battle with aplastic anemia, either a byproduct of the fatal blood disease or the drugs used to treat it.
But eight months after his death, researchers at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, working in partnership with the BU CTE Center, found in stained, cold-cut thin slices of Crist’s brain the telltale pattern of tau protein consistent with CTE.
“There were lesions really throughout the cortex, frontal lobe, temporal lobe,” McKee said. “There were changes in the deep structures … parts of the brain that control learning and memory. And also the brainstem is involved.”
Crist’s brain had also shrunk, because of nerve cell loss, to about 85% the size of the smallest average adult male’s brain, McKee said.
There is no known connection between aplastic anemia and CTE.
“He was on all kinds of medications,” his son, Scott, said. “He’d been in and out of hospitals. We just didn’t understand maybe what was going on. And maybe it was easy to say, ‘Well, this is part of his illness.’ Because you didn’t know. You could guess. You could assume. We certainly knew he had concussions. But we didn’t necessarily know that he had CTE, because you can’t diagnose it until it’s too late.”
The night before his induction, Crist held court with about 80 friends and family members who gathered for a party at Osteria 166 in Buffalo.
“People came in from everywhere,” said childhood friend Francis Letro. “And with Chuck, he was still a big, strong-looking guy and everybody wanted to talk about the past and all that and he remembered, from what I could see. I didn’t see any cognitive decline.”
Few would have.
“He hid it very well from most people,” said Niki Crist-O’Neill, explaining that her father was comfortable reminiscing. “It was almost a coping mechanism, to mask the fact that he couldn’t remember what he did 20 minutes ago.”
Crist spent hours discussing minute details of long-ago games with those he had known all his life.
“And the next morning, he sat up in his bed,” Patti said. “We were at the Hyatt downtown. And he said, ‘Where am I? And what am I doing here?’”
‘The big one'
Crist starred on the football, basketball, baseball and track teams at Salamanca High School and received football and basketball scholarships from Penn State.
But the headstrong teen only played college hoops after Joe Paterno refused to let him try out at quarterback, insisting he play defensive back.
After graduation, he signed with the Giants as an undrafted free agent.
“By the way, a defensive back,” Crist said during his induction speech.
He went into greater detail months earlier, during an interview with The Buffalo News.
“I was a special teams bomber,” Crist said in June 2019. “I was the guy next to the kicker who in those days had to take the wedge out. Nowadays, they’re like, ‘Oh, concussions.’ I was knocked out five times my rookie year from hitting the wedge, and they’d go over and give you the smelling salts and say, ‘How many fingers do I have up?’ And I said, ‘Two.’ And he goes, ‘Close enough.’ ”
The cushioning technology inside his helmet predated the use of facemasks and chinstraps.
“My rookie year, we played with these suspension helmets,” Crist said. “Basically, it was a shell that had these straps connected. There was a gap in between. And in the old days, they used to say, ‘You got your bell rung,’ because if you got hit helmet-to-helmet, it did sort of ring like a bell in your head. It would just kind of vibrate. During my first four years, five years, I saw so many helmets cracked. It was just part of the game.”
Crist was named the Saints’ defensive MVP in 1977 and finished his career with 20 interceptions. Tackles were not recorded.
He retired from pro football after the 1978 season, a month short of his 28th birthday, became a teacher and later a principal and won six club golf championships at Holiday Valley in Ellicottville.
Crist was named the Southwestern New York “Athlete of the Century” by the Olean Times Herald, was inducted into the Cattaraugus County Athletic Hall of Fame in 2003 and the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame in 2015.
But he viewed the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame as a crowning achievement.
“This is the big one as far as I’m concerned,” Crist said.
He struggled to write his induction speech for seven months.
“He’d work on one angle of it and then didn’t like it and he’d start all over again,” Patti said. “He had trouble concentrating or finding a path that he was going to go down, but he had plenty of time, so that was OK.”
His daughter helped perfect the speech.
“He went back and forth a million times and he would email it to me and say, ‘What do you think?’ ” Niki said. “I think he had other assistance. My mom had someone else who does speeches, ran it by them. If you could read his first iteration, it was kind of scary.”
On the morning of his induction, Patti called the Cleveland Clinic, which managed Chuck’s treatment for aplastic anemia, to report his weak and bewildered state.
“And of course they’re always just going to say, ‘Get him to the emergency room immediately,’ ” Patti said. “And I’m like, ‘No, he’s done this before and I know he’s pretty safe and I’m not going to let him miss this special moment, no matter what.’ ”
‘A perfect storm’
Crist couldn’t remember his laptop password to print the final version of his speech, and after spending the day failing to figure it out, Niki printed an old draft he’d sent to her email account.
There was also the matter of cleaning him up.
“Trying to get him dressed, into a tuxedo, and all those little buttons,” Patti said. “It took my entire family to get him downstairs.”
Patti’s mom, children and their spouses pitched in.
“He just had no idea what was going on,” Niki said. “I’m putting his tie on and I’m like, ‘It’s OK, dad. You’ve just got to get through this evening!' ”
Crist’s pants were too big. And in her haste, Niki grabbed his blue sport coat out of the closet.
Nobody noticed until they arrived at the party.
“Luckily, it was pretty dark in there and you really couldn’t tell,” Scott said.
In photos, Patti tried to position her hands to cover the jacket’s brass buttons.
“And then he gets there and he doesn’t know anybody,” Patti said. “It was just like, ‘How could this be happening? How could this possibly be happening?’”
Then his pants fell down during the cocktail party.
Chuck and Patti were standing on opposite sides of a high-top table when a stranger approached.
“Somebody came up to me and said, ‘Your husband’s pants are around his ankles. His tuxedo pants,’ ” Patti said. “And I’m like, ‘WHAT?!?’
“I go over there and sure enough, those little clips on the side that hold your tuxedo pants up, I guess one let loose and he didn’t even know his pants were down around his ankles.
“I’m like, ‘Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me. Omigod! Omigod! Omigod! I’m going to die!’
“So I went over and I pulled his pants up and I go, ‘Chuck, your pants!’
“And he goes, ‘Ah, these damn tuxedos. You just don’t know what’s going to happen.’ ”
“He had lost so much weight,” Niki said, “and it was hard to get him to eat. It was a perfect storm.”
Later, Niki stood by the stage with a rough draft of the speech, ready to take over in case her father struggled, fearful of the notes he scribbled as other inductees spoke.
When it was his turn, lifelong friends Dan Metzler and Letro presented him with a commemorative ring.
“I walked up there and he’s looking at me, and I’m looking at him, and I’m going, ‘He has no idea who I am,’ ” Metzler said. “It was like a deer caught in headlights. I don’t know if he was surprised because he didn’t know I was coming up there to present him with the ring. But I just know him so well, and it was just like he was looking right through me.”
Once Crist began addressing the crowd, Niki followed along with her copy of the speech.
Crist stumbled over his words a couple of times, but recovered, and over the 6½-minute performance ad-libbed one joke about how there’s “no ‘i’ in team, but two ‘i’s in idiot.”
“He just went into ‘Chuck mode,’ ” his daughter said. “He did fabulous. I really just kept praying that he would get through it because he had looked forward to it for so very long and he was so proud of the accomplishment and so proud to have everybody there. … And then as soon as it was over, he was ready to go. It wasn’t like, ‘Hey, let’s go to the bar. Let’s hang out with friends.’ He was done.”
The next day, Patti took Chuck to Buffalo General Medical Center.
“If they hadn’t given him such a beautiful ring at that induction and taken all these professional pictures they sent us – and all our friends and relatives took pictures – he would have never, ever known that night happened,” Patti said.
“He had no memories of it whatsoever.”
Crist died a year later at the Cleveland Clinic, after a bone marrow transplant failed to cure his aplastic anemia. His wife and children were by his side.
They did not have a funeral because of the Covid-19 pandemic, but will host a private celebration of life gathering in August at the Chautauqua Harbor Hotel. Later, they hope to host a public event at the Ray Evans Seneca Theater in Salamanca.
They are just beginning to process his CTE diagnosis.
“We’re not an anti-football family, even after all this,” said Scott, whose oldest son punts for Division II Mercyhurst University. “There’s inherent risks in everything you do, but I think you have to decide for you personally or your family, ‘Do the rewards outweigh the risk?’ ”