Dorsett doesn’t know exactly when he began having trouble remembering things. He didn’t think he’d have to keep track, and what does it matter anyway? It started happening, and then it started happening more, and he still didn’t believe it was happening at all until it was unavoidable. “I was in denial”—he hits the word preacher-hard—“for a long time. Because I was just, ‘Nah, this can’t be happening to me at this age.’ ”

His longtime friend and former teammate Tony Hill recalls Dorsett mentioning over the years that he was starting to forget, that he needed to write things down. But Hill didn’t know how serious it was until Dorsett went public in early 2012, joining more than 4,500 retired players and families of deceased players in a class-action lawsuit (a consolidation of several concurrent suits) against the NFL. (The various plantiff’s attorneys and lawyers for the NFL are currently in the process of finalizing a $765 million settlement.)

tony_dorsett_4 The first years of Dorsett's NFL career coincided with the final seasons for quarterback Roger Staubach. Photo via Corbis Images

“That’s a humbling experience, to acknowledge that there is a deficiency in your life,” Hill says. “People take for granted that we’re entertainers, for lack of a better term, but it’s a very high-risk, high-return profession. There are some severe consequences that are associated with what we do. When you
look at Tony Dorsett on the outside, on the shell, he looks fantastic. I mean, he’s in great shape, he looks good, he’s articulate. But the bottom line is that there is more than meets the eye.”

By 2009, it had become a daily struggle for Dorsett. The practice fields and gyms he had been taking his daughters to all their lives—now he had to stop and ask for directions. A roomful of people he “had been around for a zillion years”—now they were almost strangers, familiar faces with no names attached, the vague familiarity making it worse. 

“To be, you know, to be—sometimes, man, I would get—it’s the weirdest feeling, man,” he finally settles on. “When I’m out there, I’m on a cloud. It’s like a fog, man. It’s like a fog. That’s the only way I can explain it. I can’t get out of it, and I know—it’s just a weird feeling, dude. I hate it, and I get really, really—and that can make me get real frustrated, if I’m not careful. I get mad at myself for certain things. Not knowing how to get certain places, forgetting where I’m going, driving somewhere then forgetting where I’m going. That kind of craziness, man. So I’ve learned to write notes. Or speak into my phone, write notes on it. Write it down.” He never makes a move unless he has written it down in the planner he keeps at home.

“It’s just a frustrating deal, man. I can become short-tempered, on edge, you know, and that’s not good for a family-type atmosphere, either. It’s not good for that. So if I’m feeling that way, I just gotta get away, just get up in my room. ‘Daddy’s just chilling.’ ” He shakes his head, lets out a kind of soundless laugh. “ ‘Let him chill.’ ”

The sudden bouts of anger were worse than the forgetfulness. His family didn’t understand what would set him off or why, why he would be yelling at his wife or one of his daughters out of nowhere. He didn’t understand. Until Dorsett learned to remove himself from the situation whenever he could, it was paralyzing. Something, anything, nothing would trigger his rage, and then he would turn it on himself: How does something so little just make me blow up like this? I know better than this. 

Dorsett is a big believer—and has always told his daughters this—that little things make big things happen. And here he was, unable to take care of the little things. He wasn’t himself anymore, wasn’t the man he had been or the father and husband he wanted to be.

“I said, ‘Something is not right. I don’t know what it is, but something is not right.’ And, finally, when I was diagnosed, it all made sense. It all came together.”

In October, Dorsett boarded a plane bound for Los Angeles. But when he sat down, he couldn’t remember where he was going, or why.

He was going to have his brain tested.

In October, Dorsett boarded a plane bound for Los Angeles. But when he sat down, he couldn’t remember where he was going, or why. He was going to have his brain tested.

Last year, over a period of three months, a research team at UCLA put Dorsett and three other former NFL players through a battery of tests and brain scans. In November, they released their findings: the four players were diagnosed with signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain condition. Some researchers have linked CTE—which they believe is caused by repeated head trauma—to dementia and depression. Although the work at UCLA is encouraging to the medical community, and to former players like Dorsett, there is still no definitive test to determine the presence of CTE in the brains of the living—only postmortem.

That’s why former players such as Junior Seau and Dave Duerson shot themselves in their hearts. They hoped someone would figure out what had happened to their brains. That’s why Dorsett and others are so excited by the research coming out of UCLA. Maybe they won’t have to make the same choice that Seau and Duerson did. Maybe, if doctors can determine the presence of CTE while they are still alive, they can find a cure. 

Apart from being one of the first living players to be told he may have CTE, Dorsett is the most famous former athlete connected to the condition. For the next few days, after the results of his testing were released, his story was everywhere. Hill is hopeful that Dorsett’s fame will keep it there. 

“Dorsett is a leader. He always has been,” Hill says. “It’s unfortunate that he’s experiencing these things, but I think he brought awareness.”

Dorsett is glad just to finally know

“Well, I was very much relieved that I was diagnosed with something,” he says. “It was a relief to find out what it was, what was happening with me. But disappointment with that, too, obviously. But, but, but—now I know. Now I know what I gotta do.”