By Avram Wolfman-Arent
It’s the damn little things Ricky Nattiel can’t seem to remember: the name of an old friend, or a favorite actor, or a television show he’s seen thousands of times. The former Denver Bronco wide receiver says he doesn’t have dementia or suffer from depression. He hasn’t experienced mood swings or entertained thoughts of suicide. But it’s those seemingly benign memory lapses that dog him, causing him to fixate endlessly on whatever it is he cannot remember.
“I’m one of those types of people where I get OCD,” Nattiel said in a phone interview. “I can’t just forget about it. It will drive me nuts until I figure it out.”
The 48-year-old Nattiel said his memory woes began three years ago, and he believes that blows to the head he received playing football are to blame. He is afraid the symptoms will intensify with time. ”I’m always worried,” Nattiel said. “If I’m forgetting people now, what’s it going to be like five, ten years from now? It’s a scary thought.”
Nattiel is one of more than 4,000 former NFL players who have sued the league claiming it withheld information about the long-term health effects of repetitive head trauma. The two sides agreed to a $765 million settlement last August, but federal judge Anita B. Brody recently denied preliminary approval of the deal on grounds that the amount allotted may not cover all eligible players.
Nattiel said he never reported a concussion during his six years with the Broncos from 1987 to 1992, citing the sport’s “gladiator mentality” for his reluctance to seek medical attention. “That was what you were taught,” Nattiel said. “You tough it out. You play through injury. You show no weakness.”
Raised in Archer, Florida, a farming community about 20 minutes outside Gainesville, Nattiel was the youngest of five siblings born to Harry Nattiel, a tile layer, and Katie Nattiel, a school custodian. It was a welcoming home, with sports at its core. Harry built a basketball court in the backyard and strung lights around the edge so neighborhood kids could play late into the night. Katie made Kool Aid and kept an eye out for troublemakers. After standout careers at Newberry High School and nearby University of Florida, the fleet-footed Nattiel, who by then had acquired the nickname “Ricky the Rocket,” was taken by the Denver Broncos with 27th overall pick of the 1987 NFL draft.
Nattiel flourished early in Denver, joining with fellow pass catchers Vance Johnson and Mark Jackson to form one of the league’s most prolific and popular wide receiver trios. Dubbed the “Three Amigos,” a reference to the spaghetti Western spoof of the same name, Johnson, Jackson and Nattiel combined to catch 99 passes for 1,750 yards during the 1987 season. With the Amigos piling up yards and publicity, the Broncos won their second consecutive AFC championship before falling to Washington in the Super Bowl.
Linebacker Michael Brooks, Nattiel’s training camp roommate during the ‘87 season, recalled Nattiel as an easygoing prankster who was well liked among teammates. Brooks’ overall memories of training camp were less fond. In a phone interview, he described a Darwinian climate where teammates ignored maladies to avoid being replaced, an environment epitomized by the saying that “you couldn’t make the club in the tub.” That attitude extended to concussions, Brooks said, informing the way players diagnosed their own head injuries. “If you could see what was in front of you, you could go back on the field,” Brooks said.
During his time in Denver, Nattiel would be besieged by injury, but none linked to his brain. After posting solid numbers in his second season, Nattiel suffered a cracked patella during the 1989 season that sapped him of his agility. He never fully healed, and at 26 was out of professional football.
A devastated Nattiel moved back to the Gainesville area. It would be five years before he could bring himself to watch football again. Only decades later would Nattiel begin to see positives in his knee injury. True, it had shortened his career, but it also prevented him from absorbing more blows. “It might have saved me from that hit that really screwed it up for me,” Nattiel said.
It was the fate of two fellow players that crystallized Nattiel’s anxiety about his own mental health. In November 2013, an experimental diagnostic test administered at UCLA concluded that Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett had early signs of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease caused by repetitive head trauma. There is considerable debate about the validity of Dorsett’s diagnosis. CTE had never before been identified in a living person. Regardless, Nattiel was devastated. Dorsett spent the final year of his career in Denver, and Nattiel said he grew close to former Heisman Trophy winner. He remembered receiving the news with a morbid sense of his own vulnerability. “This could happen to me,” Nattiel remembered thinking. “This could be me.”
Nattiel was similarly shaken by the 2012 suicide of former San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau, who was just 43 at the time of his death. Nattiel grew angry over the phone trying to make sense of Seau’s death. To him, it was proof that something sinister was going on in the heads of former football players. “What the hell was wrong with him,” Nattiel asked. “That’s not normal. That’s not normal. I’m sorry. That’s. Not. Normal.”
He paused to let the emphasis linger. “So, yeah, it makes ya wonder.”
Katie Nattiel wonders, too. Ricky’s mom had fretted about her son’s safety on the football field ever since high school. As Ricky aged and moved further from home, Katie’s worry grew. She soothed herself with prayer, asking God to protect her son from the “licks and hits” native to his chosen game. Only when Ricky’s career ended did she exhale. “It was a great relief when it was all over because I didn’t have to worry about that no more,” Katie said via phone from her home in Archer.
Ricky’s memory woes have reignited that familiar sense of unease. And as the family waits for a decline that may or may not come, Katie has turned again to an old comfort. “I just pray about it,” Katie said. “Because I know God’s will is gonna be done.”