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Article in Dallas Morning News- Kevin Sherrington in 2015
Greg Ploetz hasn’t played a football game in more than 40 years, but the scar still shows. An undersized All-Southwest Conference defensive tackle at Texas, he earned it. A “warrior,” one teammate called him. Now, at 65, Ploetz couldn’t so much as handle the crowd noise at the Big Shootout. Conversation confuses him. Walking is sometimes terrifying. In his tortured mind these days, a crack in the floor looms like a leap across a deep, dark crevasse.
Ploetz — pronounced Plets — suffers from what neurologists call “mixed dementia,” the probable result of head trauma from his days as a 5-11, 205-pound lineman at Sherman High and Texas. Doctors can’t tell his wife, Deb, if he’s a victim of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, the progressive degenerative brain disease linked with multiple concussions, harrowing news reports and a lawsuit against the NFL.
They won’t know for sure until after he’s dead. A year, maybe two.
If there’s any difference between Ploetz and the more than 4,000 plaintiffs in the NFL suit, it’s that he never played pro football. His last game was the ’72 Cotton Bowl, against Penn State.
Other than occasional financial assistance from former Texas teammates, no help is coming to the Ploetzes, as it may yet for the NFL plaintiffs. Texas isn’t liable. Neither is the NCAA. No union push by Northwestern can help them at this point, either.
At least 60 former college players with similar stories have filed lawsuits against the NCAA without success. Even if they’d cashed in, Deb wouldn’t have been a party to it.
“Greg chose to play football,” she says, “so I don’t really hold people liable for the choice he made.”
Talk to players of Ploetz’s generation, and this is the answer you get: I’d do it all over again.
Ploetz was no different until he realized just how different he is.
“Five years ago, he never wanted to recognize that football did this to him,” Deb says.
“The last two years, he stopped watching.”
Now he waits.
Ploetz is too young to die like this, for something he did in his youth, for honor he brought his school, his family, his memory. He didn’t understand the risk. No one of his generation did. If he played today, he’d have the benefit of concussion protocols and better health care. He could make an informed decision.
He might even be able to put it into words.
What do you do then with men like Greg Ploetz? Write it off as bad luck? Dismiss it as the Ploetzes’ problem? Call it a cautionary tale and leave it at that? Easy enough to do with these men, I suppose, until you hear one of their stories.
Ploetz chose football, not this: An artist, teacher and gentle soul kicked out of two memory care facilities and an adult day care center because of aggressive behavior. Darrell Royal once said he could depend on the size of Ploetz’s fight. Whatever else has been stripped from him, the fight remains.
The worst part is, before language and reason left him, he could see it coming.
“Deb, please help me,” he begged his wife. “I don’t want to live like this.”
Mike Dean has been inducted into the Cotton Bowl Hall of Fame and Longhorn Hall of Honor, but when Texas’ coaches came to Sherman his senior year, they were looking for Greg Ploetz.
Only 5-11 and 195 pounds in high school, thick in the neck and chest, son of a World War II fighter pilot, Ploetz was a “warrior,” Dean says. That mentality enabled him to start between Bill Atessis and Leo Brooks in Texas’ 1969 defensive line despite a hairline fracture in one ankle and the build of a short, squat safety.
"It’s a good feeling to have 257 pounds on one side of you,” Ploetz told The Dallas Morning News in the fall of ’69, “and 244 on the other.”
Ploetz more than held his own, particularly against the run. “He was a tackling machine,” says Dean, who started at offensive guard. “He’d run right through people.”
He was a classic ’60s paradox. A high school classmate, Dan Witt, called him quiet, wry, drawn to “artistic, iconoclastic, radical people and elements.” Julius Whittier, who in 1970 became the first black scholarship player at Texas, counted him among a handful of friends on the football team. Everyone liked Ploetz.
Probably didn’t hurt that he played so well. Ploetz was especially effective in the Big Shootout, recording six tackles in the win over Arkansas. It was nearly his last hurrah.
He sat out the ’70 season because he was academically ineligible, a byproduct of his girlfriend getting pregnant and the baby coming early.
“They didn’t know if he was going to make it,” Ploetz told Terry Frei in Horns, Hogs and Nixon Coming, “so I called Fred Bomar.”
Father Bomar baptized Chris Ploetz in the hospital. He was accompanied by Freddie Steinmark. The little Texas safety had already lost a leg to cancer and would die in 1971. Frei wrote that Ploetz couldn’t talk about his son, who survived the ordeal; the baptism; or Steinmark, Chris’ godfather, without choking up.
The summer of ’71, Ploetz was back in Austin, working his way through school, when Texas coaches recruited him again. He asked to sleep on it. That fall, he was All-SWC.
Other than the ankle injury, nothing on Ploetz’s chart hints at any problems to come. Deb says that, in high school, he once wandered to the wrong sideline. Teammates steered him to the huddle and his place in the line.
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