This was Steve Hendrickson: 

A bullish running back who joined Napa High School’s varsity football team as a freshman and became its unquestioned leader. A hard-hitting linebacker at Cal, as comfortable in the classroom as on the AstroTurf of Memorial Stadium. A feisty, fearless human pinball who reached two Super Bowls, lasting seven NFL seasons amid faster and taller opponents.

This is Steve Hendrickson:

A battered body with an increasingly broken-down brain, his short-term memory disappearing. A father of two unable to work for the last six years, divorced for the past year.

And a man who fears the sport into which he poured his heart and will may now be shortening his life, and dimming his memory of it.

“I can remember material I had before the concussions,” Hendrickson, who played mostly with the San Diego Chargers and still lives in the suburb of Escondido, said during a recent visit to his mother and sister in Napa. “Twenty years ago seems so clear to me, but yesterday seems just — far away, foggy.”

Through 15 years of running and tackling from high school to the pros, Hendrickson distinguished himself as a man who played far bigger than his sub-6-foot frame.

Now, the marks left by his football career are apparent to those who see him, and even more to those who know him.

The square chin, untamed hair and wide shoulders are still there, but so, too, is a flattened nose and a face pale and sallow beyond Hendrickson’s 45 years. A knife-like vertical scar slashes across his right knee, the mark of a knee replacement operation so painful he quickly abandoned a similar surgery for his left leg. On his right hand is a ring commemorating the Super Bowl he won with the San Francisco 49ers, the one dot of brightness on his person.

Perhaps the most subtle signs of Hendrickson’s troubles are his gray eyes: narrowed to gunslits, often unfocused, and sometimes drooping when gripped by a deep malaise that can put him to sleep for a week or more.

It takes a leap of imagination to see in the man the schoolboy who, more than three decades ago, began his climb to the aerie of the nation’s most popular sport.

A football phenomenon at Napa High

In the fall of 1981, the Napa High Indians had won their first seven games, but a rash of injuries had left the team shorthanded and in need of a new linebacker as the playoffs neared.

Their rescuer would be an unlikely choice: the youngest of eight children, 15 years old, 180 pounds and just promoted from the junior varsity squad. Soon, though, Steve Hendrickson showed an intensity and moxie that immediately won him the starting linebacker post — and grabbed his head coach’s attention from the first varsity practice.

“We were running gassers at the end of practice, 20-yard (sprints) back and forth, and Steve was full-bore. He was full-speed all the time,” remembered Les Franco, who led the Napa football team throughout the 1980s.

“There was a senior starter who was kind of jogging the gassers, and Steve went and hit him, knocked him down for loafing. And he said to him, ‘You’re varsity, so start acting like it!’ A freshman telling a varsity player to pick up the pace! So we knew we had ourselves a football player, even then.”

Hendrickson helped the Indians reach the postseason and, over the next three seasons, made himself invaluable to the Indians all over the field — as a plow horse of a fullback and the middle linebacker of the Napa defense, even as a kickoff specialist. He would be named the Monticello Empire League’s Player of the Year in his last two seasons, and make the All-State team in his senior season of 1984. His jersey number, No. 30, remains the only one to be retired by Napa High School.

So eager was Hendrickson to stay on the field, he once played the entire second half of a game against Vallejo with a separated shoulder. Even when healthy, he absorbed constant hits running the ball in an option offense where “you get hit whether you have the ball or not,” his coach recalled.

“His tolerance for pain was off the map,” Franco said. “Of all the players I had, I’ve never had a player who loved the game as much as Steve.”

Hendrickson’s accomplishments earned him a football scholarship at Cal, where he developed into a linebacker skilled enough to be chosen for the 1988 Blue-Gray Football Classic and be named the all-star game’s best defensive player. The following April, the San Francisco 49ers selected him in the sixth round of the NFL draft, shortly before he graduated from UC Berkeley with a history degree.

Undersized by NFL standards at 5 feet, 10 inches and a cannonball-like 250 pounds, Hendrickson found the pro football life a constant battle to keep his roster spot each summer — and find new ways to make himself useful to a team. The 49ers, the team that drafted Hendrickson, cut him before taking him back later in 1989 — after he had been hired and dropped by the Dallas Cowboys in the meantime — in time for the team’s Super Bowl XXIV victory.

Playing for the San Diego Chargers, his home for five of his seven NFL seasons, he lined up at nine different positions in the first seven games of 1992, including linebacker, fullback, H-back and special teams. His versatility left him open to even more tackles, more blows, but Hendrickson accepted that as the price of keeping a place in the big time that always felt tenuous.

“I never feel secure,” he told the Los Angeles Times midway through that season. “Most of it comes from being a special teams guy and seeing great special-teams guys in the league get cut or left unprotected.”

Hendrickson played during a time when concussions often were dealt with lightly, if at all, with coaches and players alike dismissing the seemingly lighter hits as “dings” or “getting your bell rung.” Crunching hits could still be played for laughs on television, as in a 1997 Snickers commercial showing a concussed quarterback temporarily believing himself to be Batman.

Hendrickson does not recall any especially jarring head hits during his high school days, and Franco, his Napa coach, said he gave the team trainer free rein to bench any player showing concussion symptoms. But Hendrickson also estimated sustaining at least 20 concussions during more than a decade in college and pro ball, some on hits that left him barely able to stand.

“I remember one time when I realized Bill Bates (of the Dallas Cowboys) was holding me up, so I asked ‘Hey Billy, what’s up?’” he recalled. “And he said, ‘You got knocked out. I’m holding you up so you don’t fall over.’”

If his name stayed off the league’s weekly lists of the injured, it was because trainers and coaches rarely asked probing questions, he recalled.

“They never even questioned you, and I never questioned it,” he said. “They’d tell me how I got (the concussions) but never said it was some bad thing or that I should sit out. And when you cover kickoffs like I did, you’ll get a few, especially with the helmets they had then.”

Tests to check his fitness to return to play were often cursory, he said, recalling a college game against Oregon in which he was knocked cold. When a team trainer asked him which side he played for, he claimed to be with the opposing Ducks yet couldn’t remember the visitors’ nickname, instead calling them “the green team.”

“That was just a joke, and they’d throw me right back,” said Hendrickson. “After you have the first concussion, the second one, the third one, the fourth one, they come a lot faster.”

The abandon with which Hendrickson played — throwing himself toward ballcarriers or those trying to tackle them — earned him suitably forceful nicknames among his teammates: Rocket Head, Madman, Frankie (short for Frankenstein). But his older sister remembers an even more evocative one.

“They called my brother Brunswick,” said Linda J. Lewis, Steve’s elder by 21 years and still a Napa resident. “He was like a bowling ball. He had no fear. And he got hurt a lot.”

Job failures after football

After his final pro football season in 1995, Hendrickson involved himself in activities including a multimedia company and a youth football camp. But in his late 30s, his family began sensing ominous changes. His memory was starting to slip; he had more trouble concentrating; and the jobs became fewer and shorter-lived.

“I know I had a large vocabulary but now I had a hard time reaching for it. That’s how I know something was wrong,” he said of that period. “And then I’d get in these states where I’d be comatose two or three days, unable to move.”

Soon after Hendrickson received a job arranged by his former Chargers teammate, kicker John Carney, Lewis got an alarmed phone call one evening.

“He did really fine for three days and then all of a sudden, John calls me and says, ‘He didn’t show!’” she remembered. “So I called Steve and he said ‘(expletive), I forgot to go!’ I asked where he was at and he said, ‘I’m at the movies.’”

The breaking point came in 2006 when Hendrickson found work as a soil specialist, only to have his new job fall apart within days. Tasks he learned one day would flee his brain the next — if extreme fatigue didn’t confine him to bed first.

“They would train me on one thing one day, and then they’d have to retrain me on the same thing the next day — and I would swear to God they’d never showed me or taught me that,” he said. “But there were some things that I’d retain; I was one of the only guys they had who passed the materials testing. And then I’d go out in the field, and completely forget the process — even if it was written down.”

Unable to hold down a job, he applied for disability payments from the NFL’s pension program, known as the Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan. But he described the process as a long and frustrating battle with the plan’s board that evaluates players’ applications, even as the Social Security Administration accepted his disability claim after doctors at California State University, Northridge diagnosed him with trauma-related brain damage in 2007.

Hendrickson has collected about $36,000 annually from the league’s pension plan, which is available to those who have played at least three seasons in the league. But he remained classified as disabled by “non-football” causes and, thus, ineligible for the higher annual payment for those with football-related disabilities, having been unable to win over the pension program’s six-person board that decides a player’s benefit level.

A new plan that took effect last September raises the payment to $50,000 a year for Hendrickson and other ex-players at the same benefit level.

“What did I do for the last 20 years, roll down the stairs without a helmet?” he quipped bitterly.

The retirement years of players like Hendrickson are playing out against the backdrop of heightened scrutiny of the possible links between repeated football head impacts, and dementia and cognitive decline in later life.

In the decade since neuropathologists at the University of Pittsburgh and Boston University began diagnosing deceased players with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — brain damage from the accumulation of toxic, cell-killing proteins — 18 NFL veterans have been identified with the condition.

Meanwhile, more than 2,400 ex-players, spouses and players’ estates have become plaintiffs in more than 80 lawsuits accusing the NFL of systematically hiding the long-term effects of concussions for decades, a charge league spokesmen have denied. Plaintiffs’ lawyers seek to unite most of the cases into a class-action suit to be heard in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia.

As of mid-June, Hendrickson’s name was not among those listed in the court papers.

“It would be nice if the NFL wouldn’t make us jump through these hoops,” he said. “If someone has a brain disability, they have to fill out all this paperwork (to get disability payments). Well, what’s the one thing that’s a very difficult task? These mundane tasks of filling out specific things, having the paperwork and organizing it. Those are the skills you lose.”

The possibility of football-induced brain damage hangs over at least two of Hendrickson’s San Diego teammates, including fellow linebacker Junior Seau, who committed suicide May 2 only three years after concluding a Hall of Fame-caliber 20-year NFL career. Another teammate, center Curtis Whitley, was diagnosed with CTE after his death from a drug overdose in May 2008, at age 39.

Much of the news coverage in the wake of Seau’s death focused on whether his episodes of erratic behavior after his retirement — including a 2010 incident in which he drove his truck off a cliff shortly after an arrest on suspicion of domestic violence — might have been signs of encroaching brain damage stemming from concussions.

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“I was in shock when he died, but I knew from the beginning it was suicide,” Hendrickson said of Seau, the day after a public memorial in San Diego that drew some 20,000 people to Qualcomm Stadium, where the teammates once played.

Family rallies in support

It was, at first glance, a relaxed family gathering, a time for relatives to catch up. Steve Hendrickson had driven up from his Escondido home to Napa in the last week of May to spend time with his older sister, greet his 19-year-old daughter, Courtney, on her return from the Cal field hockey team’s tour of South America, visit his mother, Bev, who was widowed two years ago.

But Bev mostly looked on from a recliner in her living room, largely silenced by dementia. And chatting from a nearby sofa, Hendrickson, seemingly labored with fatigue in the late afternoon, wondered if his condition might be harder on his loved ones than himself.

“You look at the guys who did stupid stuff, or the guys who straight-up killed themselves like Junior Seau: nobody sane does that,” he said. “A lot of the time it’s hard to diagnose, because you’re smarter, or you’re too proud and you’re not going to admit to it. The people that know it are your family, like my daughter. Those are the people who live it, and they know it more than us. Some of the time, we don’t even know what we’re doing or saying.”

As Hendrickson took a few minutes’ pause outside, Courtney, who recently completed her sophomore year at Cal, shared her memories with a surprisingly good humor — at first.

Growing up it was like, ‘Ugh, he’s in one of those moods again. I don’t want to be around him,’ she remembered. “Then the next day he’d be making eggs and French toast and I’d be going, ‘Oh, my dad’s back! Long time, no see! Where have you been?’

“I didn’t really understand what was going on. I thought it was just him being an (expletive),” she said. “For example, I can tell when he’s in a weird funk. His face seems to change; his habits change. He’ll sleep all the time. It’s like he’s being run by his hypothalamus, because he’s only driven by the basic needs to survive. He’ll just sleep and eat and that’s about it,” she said with a rueful half-smile.

A high schooler when her father was diagnosed, Courtney found the knowledge of his condition a blessing and curse, the replacement of uncertainty by growing fear.

“We finally knew what was going on, but at the same time, it’s terrifying,” she recalled. “Ignorance is bliss sometimes. (At first) you think it’s something wrong with his personality, but when it’s something wrong with your brain, it’s ... not exactly settling,” she said, her voice growing quiet.

And what does she feel thinking about the condition her father might be in five years, or 10? Whatever mask of stoicism Courtney still had, suddenly fell away from her reddened face as the tears welled.

“It’s something I can’t think about,” she whispered as her aunt held her in her right arm. Patting her niece’s shoulder, Lewis answered: “I know; I understand. I’ve been watching it too.”

For all his awareness of his decline, Hendrickson, in a sad way, may be the luckier one, his sister said.

“He doesn’t address it is the problem. It’s not in his real world,” Lewis told her niece. “It’s in my real world and it’s in your real world because we see it. But he doesn’t address it because it’s not in his world. He’s found somewhere, a safe zone, that he’s put himself in, that he feels safe there.”

Was it worth it?

“Living the life, it wasn’t a great life,” Lewis said last week. “You’re a piece of meat, there one day and gone the next. And it might cost you your brain.”

The very resourcefulness her brother showed in extending his career amid swifter and stronger players, she guessed, may have opened him to more damage in his later life.

“You look at Muhammad Ali, at his Parkinson’s disease,” she said of the three-time heavyweight champion famous for his iron chin. “Maybe he wouldn’t be that way now if he wasn’t the great fighter that he was.”

Still, the highs of joining the exclusive fraternity of pro football players can remain tempting — sometimes even to those who already have endured concussions or frightening hits.

After suffering two concussions in the 2011 college season, Stanford wide receiver Chris Owusu went undrafted in the April NFL draft as newly wary teams shied away from a player with his medical history.

“He’s off our board. It wouldn’t matter if he was Robert Griffin III; he’d still be off our board,” one general manager told Sports Illustrated, comparing him to the 2011 Heisman Trophy winner. Yet Owusu pressed forward and signed with the 49ers for a chance to make the team at this summer’s training camp.

More than 20 years after making the same jump from an elite university to the NFL, Steve Hendrickson hoped Owusu and other college players like him might consider a different path.

“I’d tell him go to grad school,” the Berkeley graduate said forcefully. “I’d say to him, ‘The day you go to the NFL, you’ll never have the intelligence you had on that day.”

Half a state away in Napa, his sister wondered if the choice between safety and glory could ever be so simple.

“Would I have taken (football) away from him? No,” Linda Lewis said. “It was a nice ride; he had a nice ride. But you can’t redo the past.”

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