And then there’s Fred McNeill, from the Minnesota Vikings. Here is a picture of Fred McNeill, a real person, who really exists, because I know sometimes these things seem like mere statistics if you don’t have a photo. Here is a photo.
Sorry it’s not bigger. I tried. But you can tell he’s handsome. Fred is also thought to have CTE. Would you like to know what happened to Fred? Let’s read an excerpt from The People V. Football, which explains what happened to Fred:
There was a time when Fred was brilliant. He started law school during his last year with the Vikings, studying on the plane to and from games while the other guys slept. He graduated from William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, top of his class. After he retired from the Vikings in 1985, he got recruited by a huge firm and then another one, where he was made partner. Then one day in 1996 a certified letter came while Fred and Tia were on vacation with the kids. We voted you out, it said. Fred was 44. It was devastating. How Tia hated those people. Fred was calm, though. He went into private practice, started doing workers’-comp cases for athletes, including some injured Vikings—work that would later prove to be tragically ironic. But after two years, no money was coming in. “What is going on?” Tia asked. It’s not like he wasn’t trying. He worked all the time, gave it his all; you couldn’t find a more honest, diligent man. But the family was going broke. Weird things started happening. Fred jumping out of bed in the middle of the night, panicked and ready to fight. “They’re here!” he would shout, face hot with terror. “Fred, it’s just me!” Tia would say. She would shake him until he snapped out of it. At the time you think he’s just having a nightmare. You get used to things. You don’t put it all together.
They have two sons, Gavin, now 23, and “Little Freddie,” 26. Gavin shares the two-bedroom apartment with Fred, looks after him, cooks him pancakes in the morning. Freddie lives with Tia, about fifteen minutes away, both of them piled into her mother’s house, a blessing, since it’s paid for. The boys are good boys, trying to run a creative agency together, and they go to counseling to help deal with their dad, to help untangle all the craziness that was never understood.
Here now is Fred. Thank God. He knocks on the passenger window, flashes a wide, beautiful smile, does a little ta-dah! dance move. He’s 58 years old, and he has a long, gentle face, a blocky brow, and sprouts of gray hair shooting this way and that. He’s wearing a windbreaker, baggy jeans, sneakers. She thinks he looks terrible. He’s carrying a white notepad, stained and smudged, and covered top to bottom with phone numbers. He forgot the suitcase.
“You need a haircut, Fred,” Tia says. “You look like Bozo the Clown!”
“I don’t want a haircut.”
“All right, let’s just go.” She pulls out, and still, even now, listens as if there is going to be substance.
“I have to make some calls,” Fred says, looking at the notepad. “One of the things you have to do is, people call you, you have to respond to them.” He speaks softly, almost a purr. “You would do the same thing, Tia. Somebody called you, what would you do? Call them back. I take this, I put the number on a big sheet of paper, and I’m cool. I have to start now calling back, not just writing it down. That’s next. And then when I call the person back, I have to respond to whatever it is they say. That’s how it goes. You would do the same thing.”
“Yup,” she says.
“I need to go to the office,” he says.
There really is an office. He’s not making it up. He’s not delusional. One of the things that happens to people when they begin losing their minds is they fall prey to vultures. One such vulture swooped in on Fred about three years ago. An old-man paralegal offered Fred the dusty back room of his little green house over on Arlington. The man had use for a befuddled lawyer with a valid license, someone he could get to sign legal documents, do his bidding. Fred would show up each day, suit and tie, meticulous, a look befitting a partner in a big firm, and he would do what he was told to do.
Tia knew nothing about any of this. She’d left Fred in 2007. “I’m moving out with the boys, and you’re not coming,” she had said. She couldn’t take it anymore. She thought he was severely depressed and refusing to get help. She kept up his car and phone payments but otherwise stepped out of his life. Gavin stayed in better touch, heard about the paralegal, which didn’t sound quite right. He learned about a “girlfriend” who lived in a rented room Fred would sometimes share. He slept on people’s couches or sometimes in his car. It was Gavin who first rallied the troops. He called Freddie home from college. “There is something seriously wrong with Dad,” he said to Tia.
This was about a year ago, when all the lights went on. Tia met Fred outside his “office” and confronted him in the driveway of the little green house. She hadn’t seen him in nearly a year.
“Fred!” she said. “What is going on?”
“Going on?” he asked. He was standing by his car, a silver Altima with fresh dents. It was filled with clothes and also dozens of Starbucks napkins and paper cups, which Tia instinctively began gathering.
“What are you doing?” he said.
“Throwing shit out.”
“I need my cups!”
She let it go. “Gavin’s taking you to a doctor, and I don’t want you giving him any trouble,” she told Fred. She felt like a one-woman ambulance with a big siren on top of her head. “Now, would you mind telling me what you are doing with this asshole paralegal?” she asked. “He’s using your license and pimping you for rent!”
Fred stood in the driveway, taking in the sun and thinking about asshole and pimping rent for some time. There was still a vast intelligence beneath the fog. “That would be a hustler, not an asshole,” he said to Tia.
“Oh, my God. Where did you meet this guy?” she asked. “He’s crazy. Stay away from crazy people!”
“Okay,” he said, and agreed to move out of the office.
He hasn’t yet. He will. He has to pack it up first. There are materials in file folders. He has to open the file folders and read the materials and decide which box the file folder with those materials should go in. For example, he will open one file folder and read the materials and make a decision to put that file folder with those materials in this box, or that box, or some other box. That’s how it works. That’s how you would do it, too. He’s been packing up the office for about six months now.