Nearly a decade after Wally Hilgenberg’s death, his widow can still hear his voice telling her he loves her, at the push of a button. It’s programmed into a stuffed bear he gave her shortly before succumbing to ALS in 2008.
That’s how Mary Hilgenberg has chosen to remember her husband, not as the hard-nosed linebacker over 15 years for the Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings or as the victim of a debilitating disease that left him unable to move any muscle but his eyeballs in his final days.
“If a fly landed on him, he couldn’t move it,” she said. “And this was all for the game of football.”
Doctors who studied Wally Hilgenberg’s donated brain after he died determined that the amyotrophic lateral sclerosis he suffered from was due to his lifelong participation in the sport.
“We thought of his ankles, his knees, his broken jaws, his nose broken so many times, his fingers broken so many times, everything like that, but the brain never once came into our conversation, that he could be hurting his brain,” Mary Hilgenberg said. “Wally would be knocked out, and if he could count to 10, he’s back in the game. It wasn’t a thing to think about.”
Wally Hilgenberg was one of the hundreds of former football players studied posthumously by Boston medical researchers for the brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy . Mary Hilgenberg was one of many surviving family members interviewed by The Associated Press about their experiences with loved ones who suffered from post-career symptoms traced to head trauma.
“The death that Wally had was horrendous,” she said. “By the time he died, he could only blink his eyes and he was defenseless against a fly. If a fly landed on him, he couldn’t move it. And this was all for the game of football.
“Now when I look at parents who just say it’s OK and they make excuses, I think they want to live in the glory that their sons play football. I think it’s really sad. It’s just very sad. And I hope that someday these boys don’t go back and say, ‘Mom, Dad, you knew!'”
The pictures of Wally around her home in the Twin Cities area don’t show him in uniform, except one in the garage. Mary doesn’t watch football on television. With 22 grandchildren, she’s relieved that none are allowed any longer by their parents to play the sport.
Now she serves as a support to friends whose living husbands once played for the Vikings and struggling through their post-playing days. She’s on a mission to try to tell as many parents as possible to keep their kids from playing the sport.
“Our brain was not made to do this sport. And you only get one brain,” she said. “Get your children in golf and tennis and basketball and track, you know? There are a lot of sports you can do that can be competitive but still safe.”
She recalled their first meeting in the mid-1960s at a swimming pool in Detroit, when he was just starting his career and she didn’t realize what he meant when he said he was a Lion. Last month, a group of 38 family members gathered for a weekend of camping to honor Wally and Mary Hilgenberg’s 50th wedding anniversary.
“He wasn’t there, but I know he was celebrating in heaven,” she said. “I brought a big picture of Grandpa and a cake, and we all sang happy anniversary, and it was a good time. It’s good to turn sad things into wonderful, fun family times.”