George Visger played for San Francisco in 1980.
Courtesy of George Visger
LOS ANGELES -- On a postcard-perfect Southern California morning, George Visger is pissing blood. This comes as a relief. For me, mostly. But also for him. Things could be worse. He could be having a seizure. Or slipping into a coma. Which means I could be jamming a one-inch butterfly needle into a thumbnail-sized hole in the side of his skull, trying to siphon off excess spinal fluid while avoiding what Visger calls "the white stuff."
The white stuff being brain tissue.
Don't get the wrong idea. Pissing blood still hurts. It hurts because Visger's kidney stones hurt, and if he had health insurance -- or a job, for that matter -- he'd be seeing a doctor. Instead, he's brushing his teeth in a drab, popcorn-ceilinged hotel room near the airport, across town from the brain clinic. Football brought him here. Once upon a time, Visger played the sport. Offensive and defensive line. Pee Wee and prep. College and pro. He won a Super Bowl ring with the San Francisco 49ers, his nascent career cut short by a head injury. He suffered his first concussion in ninth grade, on a helmet-breaking hit that left a bloody divot in his forehead. He loved the game, lived its balls-out ethos, attacked every play the way his father taught him to attack life. Hey ace, shoot your best shot. He was 6-feet-5 inches and 275 pounds of grinning, stubborn self-belief, hell-bent on becoming a legend, hit by punishing hit.
Today, Visger is 54 years old, a little lighter, a lot more sore. He sports perpetually bloodshot eyes, a dark, furrowed brow and a surprisingly vibrant smile. He still has a forehead divot. He is an outspoken advocate for brain-damaged former players, ferociously self-sufficient men who get lost while driving in their neighborhoods, whose tempers frighten their wives and children, who largely suffer in shame and silence. Men who have sued the National Football League en masse, essentially alleging the worst kind of negligence; men who were taught to neither blame nor complain; men who occasionally take their own lives out of frustration and despair.
Men, in other words, like himself.
Visger's scar, and the needle kit to drain his brain.
Timothy Archibald for ESPN
"I don't see my flight," Visger says. "Am I on Southwest?"
Delta, I say.
Visger lives in Sacramento, in a trailer behind his brother's house. He says he's struggling financially. He has trouble remembering things, such as what he was talking about five minutes ago. Reading a newspaper can take him all day. Reading the comics can be a chore. In a comprehensive neuropsychological evaluation, he scored above average on tests of verbal reasoning and the ability to recall information learned in school, but far below average on tests involving short-term memory, information processing speed and abstract thinking; a doctor described his overall intellectual functioning as "difficult to summarize by a single score." Visger has been diagnosed with chronic traumatic brain injury, frontal and temporal lobe disorders, generalized seizure disorder and cognitive impairment. He believes he also suffers from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive neurodegenerative disease similar to Alzheimer's that has been linked to absorbing repeated blows to the head. Visger has a bum knee, too, and a right arm he can barely lift over his head. His kidney stones burn like hot coals. He sometimes goes four days without sleeping.
Nevertheless, he's still fighting.
While attending Sacramento State University following his retirement from professional football, Visger underwent the sixth of his nine brain surgeries. Two days later, he recalls, he was back in chemistry class, 35 metal staples jutting from his shaved scalp. In addition to his other ailments, he suffers from hydrocephalus, a medical condition also known as "water on the brain." In healthy people, spinal fluid circulates through and drains from the brain; in Visger's case, concussion-induced scar tissue blocks that flow. The resulting intracranial pressure ultimately can result in coma and death, crushing his brain from the inside out.
The compression, Visger says, feels like a beer can being shoved into the middle of his skull.
In records provided by Visger of a 1984 workers' compensation case he brought against the 49ers, a doctor stated that while congenital factors have contributed to Visger's hydrocephalus, football-induced head trauma also played a role. A judge agreed. (Two representatives of the California Workers' Compensation Appeals Board said state records of the case had been destroyed, making it impossible to verify Visger's documents. The attorneys listed on the case could not be located.). Surgeons have installed a shunt in Visger's brain to empty excess fluid into his abdomen. But the shunt can clog. It can fail. It has failed, more than once. Hence the butterfly needle. Visger keeps the needle in a small plastic box, along with surgical tubing, an antiseptic gauze pad, a razor, a large syringe and a doctor's note:
In case of coma when hospital is not available:
1. Feel for reservoir, a lump the size of a nickel behind right ear.
2. Shave hair over reservoir.
3. Wash skin over reservoir for 5 minutes.
4. Puncture reservoir with butterfly and allow fluid to drip out for three minutes.
5. May attach syringe but try to avoid aspirating.
Visger calls this his "brain drain" kit. He stashes it in his truck. Takes it on trips. You can't buy it at a drugstore. Visger's old neurosurgeon made it for him. Because Visger demanded it. He needed something that would allow him to continue his fieldwork as a wildlife biologist, to keep leading two-week hunting trips in the Argentine backcountry. He needed to live his life. Because he was -- and still is -- a man, dammit.
George Visger on his Pop Warner team.
Courtesy of George Visger
Visger remembers it like this: While playing for San Francisco in 1981, he began experiencing daily headaches. Nightly projectile vomiting. He would see bright balls of light. His hearing would cut in and out with every heartbeat. Later, he says, doctors told him hydrocephalus was to blame -- the lights, for instance, were the result of pressure on his optic nerve from his swollen brain -- but at the time, he says, a team doctor misdiagnosed him with high blood pressure.
Visger needed surgery. Instead, he was given pills.
One night after a game against the Chicago Bears, Visger and teammates Terry Tautolo and Scott Stauch went out drinking. Visger's head was pounding worse than usual. He went home to the apartment the three men shared. Started puking. Couldn't hear or see. Tautolo and Stauch returned after last call, kept going in and out of Visger's bedroom.
Dude, let us take you to the hospital.
Nah. Nah. I'm OK.
Around dawn, Visger's right arm began curling up to his armpit -- focal point paralysis. Hunched over a bowl, vomiting blood, he straightened it out with his left hand, then collapsed on his bed. I'm dying, he thought. If those guys come back, I'll let them take me to the hospital. But I won't ask.
"I didn't want to be a freakin' p---y," Visger says.
After a career of concussions, George Visger, a former NFL player, says he regrets his decision to play football.
A few hours later, Visger claims, he confronted the 49ers' team doctor at the team's Redwood City, Calif., practice facility. Doc, don't tell me this is only high blood pressure. Visger remembers sitting on an exam table. The doctor shone a light into his eyes.
"Oh my god," Visger recalls the doctor saying. "Your brain is hemorrhaging."
A freakin' stud. That's all Visger ever wanted to be. Like his father, Big Jack, the greatest man he has ever known. Like his older brothers, Bob and Mel, tied for the second-greatest men he has ever known.
Visger was born in 1958, the fifth of six children. His dad grew up in Michigan, stood 6-foot-6 and, according to family members, was invited to try out for a professional basketball team in Fort Wayne, Ind., after his senior year of high school; instead, he enlisted in the Navy at age 17 and served as a gunner on a transport ship during World War II.
Decades later, when Visger's father was diagnosed with cancer of the mouth, doctors removed his jaw. Seventy-two years old at the time, a metal bar implanted in place of his teeth, he lived for another eight months.
"My dad was the toughest son of a bitch," Visger says.
Big Jack met Visger's mother, Rita, when his ship was decommissioned in Stockton, Calif. After they married, he drove a beer truck. She was a stay-at-home mom who later worked in a hospital. The Visger family lived in a 1,000-square-foot home, sharing two bedrooms, a single bathroom and no air conditioning. Visger and his brothers bunked in a converted garage. The boys watered their sheets in the sweltering summers and huddled under sleeping bags in the frigid winters. They would stage impromptu boxing matches, gleefully punching each other's heads. They would take their rifles to school, going fishing and hunting after class. It was a different time. Bob, the oldest, played and later coached football at Sacramento State; Mel was a standout high school wrestler, played football at the University of the Pacific and later coached at Sacramento State like his brother.
Visger had two childhood dreams: become the next Jacques Cousteau, and become the greatest pro football player who ever lived. He was a bright student who loved nature. But he also loved knocking the snot out of people, sticking his head straight into the other guy's number, the way he was taught to hit, to dominate. After his first practice with the West Stockton Bear Cubs -- a Pop Warner team that included three future NFL players and eventual Major League Baseball All-Star Von Hayes -- Visger started eating raw eggs, lifting weights in his bedroom and wearing ankle weights in gym class. He would press his feet against the floor in academic classes, as hard as he could, hoping to get a plyometric boost.
By the time one of Visger's ninth-grade teachers asked him to write down his top three wishes, undersea adventures had become less of a priority:
1. Be 6-foot-8, 325 pounds
2. Run a 4.5-second 40-yard dash
3. Bench-press 500 pounds
Visger suffered his first diagnosed concussion the same year, during a bull-in-the-ring practice drill. He was knocked out cold and ended up in a hospital. He saw stars at least a dozen times while playing for Amos Alonzo Stagg High School but never lost consciousness. During a 1976 all-star camp, he spent two weeks butting heads with Rick Banas, a defensive lineman for Linden High School in Linden, Calif. Their one-on-one battles were so ferocious, everyone else on the field would stop what they were doing to watch.
"George was the first guy to make me smell pain," Banas says.
Banas became Visger's friend. Loves him like a brother. He played for Visger's brother Mel at Sacramento State, was a four-year starter on the defensive line. For decades, he worked as a sports writer, covering the NFL.
"You have no idea how violent those collisions were," Banas says. "I've been up against a lot of big guys. It wasn't George's size that made him different than other players. It was his intensity. You knew you had to hit him hard because he would hit you hard."
Banas is 54. Five years ago, his memory was sharp. Today, not so much. He finds himself walking around the house, unsure why he got up in the first place. His roommate says he's becoming more irritable. Banas is deaf. His lip-reading skills have been slipping. All of this concerns him. Makes him grateful he was too small to play pro football.
Banas makes a fist with his right hand. He pounds it against his left palm. Smack!
"It was a sharp, burning, acrid smell," he says. "Only later did I realize that's a symptom of getting a concussion."
"George made me smell pain every single day."
George Visger holds a copy of a scan of his brain as he speaks during a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
Reuters, Courtesy of George Visger
Visger stands behind a lectern in a Las Vegas casino conference room, dressed in a blue pinstriped suit. On a nearby projector screen, there's a picture of a human brain. A computerized scan, measuring blood flow and metabolic activity.
The brain on display is smooth, round and bright. It resembles a digital Easter egg.
"This is a non-football player's brain," Visger says.
Click. Next slide. Another brain. This one is darker. It has holes. Ridges and canyons. As if a bored dog had spent an afternoon chewing on it.
"This is my brain on football," Visger says. "It shouldn't look like cottage cheese."
Visger is going to beat this. Correction: He's going to rock the traumatic brain injury world. Rattle some cages. Bruise some egos. Kick a few asses. Those are his exact words. He is speaking to the second annual Independent Football Veterans Conference, held last April, a gathering of nearly two dozen former players. The kind of reunion most fans would rather not know about.
Conrad Dobler is here. Sports Illustrated once labeled him "pro football's dirtiest player." Today, he's on his 12th knee replacement, and says doctors have warned him that his next surgery will be an amputation. Ron Mix is here. He is a Hall of Fame offensive lineman and now a workers' compensation lawyer. Sean Pamphilon is here. He's the filmmaker who recorded and later released audio of former New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams telling his players, "Kill the head, the body will die." Jason Luckasevic is here. He went to the same college as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and is one of the lead attorneys on the first of more than 200 concussion lawsuits filed on behalf of more than 4,000 players against the league.
Kristen Willeumier is here, as well. A neurobiologist, she's the director of research at the Amen Clinics in Newport Beach, Calif., where Visger underwent his brain scan. She also co-authored a study that examined the mental health of 100 active and retired pro players. The findings were grim: One in five had dementia; one in three was depressed; all of them scored below average for their ages on a series of cognitive tests. The healthiest brain researchers saw belonged to a five-year veteran who spent his entire career as a backup quarterback.
In the back of the room, word is spreading: Former NFL safety Ray Easterling, the lead plaintiff on the first concussion suit, just killed himself. At the front of the room, Visger is talking about concussions. "If we weren't seeing stars," he says, "we weren't playing hard." He then discusses his multiyear legal battle against the 49ers, eventually settled in Visger's favor, a ruling that requires the team's insurers to pay his brain-trauma-related medical bills -- and only those bills -- to this day.
Empower yourselves, he says. Know your rights. Keep going hard.
"I've been in the trenches 31 years," he says. "They have fought me tooth and nail every time there's a change in my prescription. Every time a doctor recommended something new. And I have never lost a fight."
Visger uses notebooks to track his daily activities.
Timothy Archibald for ESPN
The footage is blurry, culled from a low-res videotape and transferred to DVD. Oct. 12, 1980: On Visger's first snap in his first regular-season game with San Francisco, he was ear-holed by Dallas tight end Jay Saldi on a trap play. Visger was given smelling salts, remained on the field and was hit in the head again in the fourth quarter, this time by Cowboys tight end Doug Cosbie. The same trap play, only run in the opposite direction. Visger watched game film the next day. He remembered nothing. In the summer of 1981, the headaches began. The 49ers defeated the Chicago Bears on Sept. 13; hours after Visger's early-morning vomiting and arm paralysis, he underwent emergency brain surgery at Stanford Hospital, where a neurosurgeon installed a shunt.
During his recovery, Visger says, the same neurosurgeon told him that perhaps a special helmet could be built, one that would protect his shunt and allow him to keep banging heads. Bob and Rita Visger claim the surgeon told them the same thing.
"But he wouldn't recommend that I play unless I would make All-Pro," Visger says. "This was the surgeon the Niners sent me to!"
Visger missed the rest of the 1981 season. The next spring, his shunt failed while he was having dinner with his brother Mel during a fishing trip in Mexico. Visger went into a coma. He was rushed back to the United States for two more emergency shunt-repairing surgeries that took place less than 24 hours apart; at one point, Bob Visger says, his brother was given last rites. Visger was 23 years old. He never played football again.
The next year was a haze. Visger worked for his brother's construction business as a general contractor. He would frame windows backward, walls upside down. At home, he would blow up at his mother and sisters for no reason. The hair on one side of his head was short, having been shaved for surgery; the hair covering the other side grew long and uneven. For three months, Visger wore a baseball cap to his job. "One day, he comes in without the hat and says, 'Jesus Christ, why didn't you tell me how I looked?'" Bob says. "All that time, he had been looking in the mirror while shaving and didn't even recognize it."
To cope with his faltering memory, Visger began writing things down on bright yellow Rite in the Rain waterproof notebooks. Today, he carries them in his back pockets. Takes them wherever he goes. Fills as many as 20 pages in a single day:
9:15 a.m. -- Friend of Joe Klecko called. She has been asked by Roger Goodell to sit in on meeting to address head injuries for kids. Wanted to be brought up to speed. Spoke until 10:20.
10:40 a.m. -- Called mom in hospital. She is doing OK.
10:42 a.m. -- Received a voicemail.
10:45 a.m. -- Credit bureau called. Daughter went to hospital in [an] out of service area last October. Owe $300.
Visger has boxes and boxes of notebooks -- touchstones to his past.
Timothy Archibald for ESPN
Visger has 28 years' worth of notebooks. Boxes and boxes of them -- start date scribbled on the first page, end date on the last. Every night, he looks over his current notebook; every few days, he reviews the entire previous week. If Visger has an appointment, he'll set multiple alarms on his laptop. Two weeks away. One week away. Five days. Four days. One day. Every hour. Every 15 minutes. Beep-beep-beep.
"But I could have 17 reminders and still get distracted at the last minute and forget," he says.
For years, Visger was ashamed of his condition. He thought he was an anomaly. All alone. He worked for an environmental consulting firm, conducting endangered wildlife surveys. He led bow hunts in Colorado and Arizona. He taught algebra to gangbangers at an inner-city high school. He married his wife, Kristi, and fell in love with her little girl. The couple had two more children. Notebooks in pocket, he managed to make a life for himself -- the same way he had gone back to college at Sacramento State in the late 1980s, he says, to earn a biological conservation degree. Slowly, however, his memory kept deteriorating. About five years ago, he found himself becoming more impatient, quick to anger. He would drive from his Sacramento office to his home in Grass Valley, Calif. -- a highway he had been using for 15 years -- and suddenly not recognize where he was, or even if he was heading in the right direction.
In 2009, Visger and his wife went to the Amen Clinics where he was diagnosed with having a "very high" risk for developing dementia within the next decade. When the couple subsequently met with Visger's primary care doctor, the doctor gently mentioned that it might be a good idea for George to get his finances and affairs in order.
"What are you really telling me?" he remembers asking. "To prepare for the end?"
"You ever see 'Remember the Titans'?" Visger asks.
Sure, I say.
"That mirrors my high school experience to a T."
Visger closes his eyes, the same way he did before games, visualizing big plays. Getting his mind right. He has difficulty recalling some of his time at Colorado, where he was a two-year starter on the defensive line. Like a 1978 game against Oregon and his Pop Warner teammate Chris Cosgrove. Visger tallied a sack, an interception and a concussion. That evening, he says, he went to dinner with Cosgrove and his family.
Or so Cosgrove later told him.
High school is different. Visger remembers it all. The Stagg High Delta Kings, more than a dozen boys from broken homes, some bused in from inner-city Stockton to a recently desegregated school simmering with racial tension and fistfights. They called themselves "The Family."
On the last drive of Visger's last game, he and his teammates held hands in the huddle, not letting go as they jogged to the line. Everyone was in tears, he recalls, cheeks glistening with salt and sweat. Over and over, they blew the other team off the line. "We were tapped," Visger says. "Leaving it all on the field. It was the awesomest feeling ever." Better than New York Jets star Joe Klecko's acknowledgement during training camp, even though Visger was a lowly sixth-round pick. Better than when Big Jack used to show off Visger's Orange Bowl and Super Bowl rings. Better than the last words Visger heard from his old high school coach, Bob Mattos -- for whom good was never good enough, who perpetually needled Visger as a "stud on paper" -- when he was dying of cancer.
"I love you," Mattos said.
Football made Visger a man. Taught him to do what it takes. To kick ass, or get your ass kicked. To be more than a stud on paper. It taught him that the harder you work at something, the less likely you are to quit.
"You win the fourth quarter," he says. "No matter what. Be standing up, not piled up somewhere in the mud."
Former Steelers center Mike Webster struggled with health issues after football and died at age 50.
Around the same time he was told to stop driving, one of Visger's old University of Colorado teammates sent him a GQ magazine article about Bennet Omalu, the neuropathologist who discovered CTE. Previously associated with prizefighters -- think "punch-drunkenness" -- the disease has been found in the brains of 49 deceased professional, college and high school football players, including former Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame lineman Mike Webster.
Visger idolized Webster. Once lined up against him in a preseason game. After football, Webster suffered a slow, agonizing slide into erratic behavior and madness, eventually dying of heart failure. Near the end of his life, he was living in his truck, shooting himself with a Taser gun in order to sleep.
The GQ article also described how doctors on the NFL's concussion committee allegedly responded to scientific evidence that football causes brain damage the same way Big Tobacco responded to evidence that smoking causes cancer: with obfuscation and denial.
(In a written statement, the league repeatedly has maintained that "the NFL has long made player safety a priority and continues to do so. Any allegation that the NFL sought to mislead players has no merit.")
Visger was livid. He read the article over and over, highlighted key passages, made notes in the margins. Prepare for the end? He decided to fight. Hold the bastards accountable, he says. Visger talked to newspapers, television stations, National Public Radio. He posted comments on every Internet story about football and concussions he could find. He met with Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., a former attorney who memorably held Goodell's feet to the fire during congressional hearings on football concussions that publicly shamed the league into changing its player safety policies and acknowledging a link between football-induced head trauma and long-term neurological problems. He reached out to neurologist Richard Ellenbogen, the new co-chairman of the NFL's revamped concussion committee, and gave him two-plus pages of football safety recommendations. He began traveling to traumatic-brain-injury conferences, sharing his survival tips, personally counseling other former players whose minds and lives were falling apart.
When a group of current and retired NFL players -- including Hall of Famers Lem Barney and Joe DeLamielleure -- appeared at the National Press Club in 2011 to voice support for a class-action lawsuit against the league, demanding better benefits for former players, Visger was front and center, brain drain kit in hand.
"This is reality," he said. "This is my life."
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Ashamed? Visger keeps his thick, dark hair in a buzz cut. So that no one can say he's "full of s---." So that everyone can see the surgical scar on the side of his head, above his right ear, a curved, crooked line that looks like a candy cane. Get Visger going and he'll bow his head, then place your finger on a second spot, just above where his hairline ends. It feels squishy.
"There's nothing there," he'll say. "You're just pressing against brain."
Ashamed? Visger wants to create a series of videos and seminars on brain-injury prevention and recovery. Take them on the road. City to city. Team to team. Tell his story. Show his scars. When he recently received an award from the Brain Injury Association of California for his public advocacy, he emailed out a picture of the accompanying trophy to more than 70 people: journalists, former players, other advocates.
The subject line? The hell with being All-Pro, I made the Brain Damaged Hall of Fame.
Back in Las Vegas, Visger flips through his notebooks. Last year, he was hired as an environmental inspector on three major projects.
Three times, he was let go.
"I send out résumés constantly," he says.
The lawyer nods, takes notes of his own. His name is Chris Asvar, and he specializes in brain injury litigation, sometimes representing clients who don't seem to be impaired. Who often don't realize they're impaired.
"There's an idealization of what these people can do," Asvar says. "A job at a movie theater might seem easy. But to be there every day at 4 p.m.? No. Making change if there are 18 people in line yelling at you? No. So what the hell kind of job are we talking about?"
Visger excuses himself to use the bathroom.
"There's a lot of bravado with George," Asvar says. "The real story is a little different. Are you going to talk to his wife?"
Kristi Visger keeps a large binder with George's medical records.
Timothy Archibald for ESPN
The binder is black and heavy, about six inches thick. It belongs to Kristi Visger and contains, well, everything. Medical evaluations, bills, angry letters. All of the pain.
"I have a whole box," she says. "But I know if something ever happens, people can only read so much. So I've picked out the most important things."
They met at the gym. Kristi was working out. George walked in, tall and handsome, charismatic and glib, a group of women following him around from machine to machine.
"Unbeknownst to me, he had just had a brain surgery," Kristi says. "His hair had just grown back enough that you couldn't see the scar."
The two fell in love. Kristi's daughter from a previous marriage, Steph, was barely 2 years old. The three of them ate at Chuck E. Cheese. Steph called Visger "giant." He ultimately proposed by taking a knee in front of the little girl: Can I be your giant forever? The Visgers had two more children, Amanda and Jack. George was gone a lot, traveling for work. He was forgetful, too, but cheerful about it, never angry when Kristi had to remind him to go to doctor's appointments or pick up groceries.
These days, she says, offering the same reminders is like walking into a minefield.
Kristi is open, friendly. But she looks tired. She always looks tired. She flips through the binder. Here is a traffic ticket. Here is an expired EZ-Pass fee, a court summons, a collection agency letter, a suspended license, an arrest warrant. From Sacramento County, Yuba County, Fresno County. Pages and pages. Thousands of dollars' worth. Each offense in Visger's name. Fines getting bigger, growing over time, violations becoming increasingly serious.
Four times, Visger promised to pay a single ticket issued in Roseville, Calif.
Four times, Kristi had to call about it.
"You'd be shocked by how much time I spend on this," she says. "It's like having a second job."
For years, George Visger worked as a field biologist. Emphasis on field. In a seven-year span on the job, he estimates, he was in the office for a total of one workday. Just the way he liked it. Out in the field, he could track spotted owls, sleep in his truck, get up and do it all over again. Offices meant other people, and other people could be irritating; offices meant paperwork, and paperwork was a pain; offices meant computers, and computers were so freakin' hard to use.
"I don't even know if George had an office," says Debra Percy, a former co-worker of Visger and a friend of the family.
A few years ago, Percy's phone rang. It was Kristi. There was a problem with Visger, who had since gone into business for himself.
Kristi has tried to help George manage his paperwork and finances, but it is challenging.
Timothy Archibald for ESPN
Debra, he's doing all this work. And there is no money coming in.
Percy went to Visger's office. She brought along Kim, another former co-worker. They found a mess -- piles of paperwork, scattered files, sticky notes pasted everywhere, even on the screen of Visger's laptop. The man seemed lost, unable to explain himself.
"George," they told him, "just give us the papers."
Visger had forgotten to bill clients for tens of thousands of dollars' worth of time. He was billing other clients twice, then fighting with them. He was moody and temperamental, Percy recalls, and easily distracted -- especially by his brain-trauma-advocacy work. He missed meetings, couldn't meet deadlines, couldn't always read his own notes. He would open checking accounts and three weeks later not remember where the checks were or where the money went.
Once, Visger wanted to keep working with a client who previously had taken advantage of his memory problems and refused to pay him; when Percy advised against it, he crossed his arms like an angry child.
Eventually, Percy and Kim managed to recover about $55,000 in outstanding bills. They set Visger up with a daily timesheet, plus a whole simplified system for running his business.
Four months later, Kristi called again.
Debra, it's still a mess.
Kristi now wants her husband to find something undemanding, like the building maintenance job he recently turned down because he thought it was beneath him. Better yet, he could quit trying to work altogether and collect disability. That's what his doctors recommend. George, they tell him, you need to take it easy. You need to sleep. Rest your brain. You need to take your medication. You shouldn't drive unless absolutely necessary. You shouldn't drive with others in the car. You shouldn't keep guns where you live. "I tell him he has nothing left to prove, that he can turn off the switch," says his brother Bob. "But he's a survivor. He should be dead. People poked around in his brain nine times. I mean, my god." Visger wants to win the fourth quarter. He stays up late, glued to his laptop, looking for jobs and speaking gigs, sending out résumés. He still can find environmental work. He just can't keep it. On one project earlier this year, he drove through a restricted area, forcing a shutdown of the entire site; on another, he was given a rental truck to use. The rental truck took regular gasoline. Visger thought it took diesel fuel, same as his own truck, so he filled the tank one drop at a time, holding the stupid nozzle that wouldn't fit above the truck's open gas cap. It took forever. God, was he pissed.
Shortly thereafter, Visger put regular gas in his diesel truck.
Kristi and the children live with her mother. They used to have a house. Three bedrooms and a swimming pool, fruit trees and hardwood floors, out in Grass Valley, where Kristi works as a teacher and Amanda and Jack go to school. On the very day the Visgers were signing papers to sell their previous home and move in, Kristi says, George remembered something. He owed $80,000 in unpaid taxes. Suddenly, the couple had to take out a bigger mortgage with a higher interest rate. The recession hit. George lost his job. Foreclosure followed. The Visgers worked out a short sale with the bank.
A week before the short sale was set to close, Kristi recalls, George called the family's real estate agent. Stop the sale. I'll pay off the house.
"Apparently, George has lots of Iraqi dinars that someone gave him," Kristi says. "He got it in his head that we were going to be millionaires by trading them for dollars with a bank in Santa Monica. You give them your account and routing numbers, and three days later they deposit the money."
Kristi went online. Article upon article broke down "the Iraqi dinar scam." She went to the family's bank, a local branch of a large national institution. They told her the same thing. She showed it all to Visger.
God, was he pissed.
"He didn't believe it," she says. "He said that I shoot down all of his ideas."
Visger carries anger for the San Francisco 49ers and coach Bill Walsh.
Robert Riger/Getty Images
Visger has a dream. Well, more like a nightmare. He used to have it every night. He would drive to the 49ers' practice facility. Kick in the door of the main meeting room. Grab former San Francisco coach Bill Walsh -- the same man, he says, who never came to see Visger in the hospital after his first brain surgery, 14 days in intensive care; the same son of a bitch, he says, who instead sent his secretary with the gift of a Sony Walkman -- by the throat. Slap the ever-living s--- out of him. Pummel the team doctor, too, that "freaking butcher." Then pound general manager John McVay for good measure, right there in front of the whole squad, Joe Montana and Randy Cross and the rest.
"Do you know what they did to me?" Visger would scream. "Have you seen what these guys did to me?"
Kristi tells the story like this: she and George were sitting in the stands. Amanda, their 14-year-old daughter, had just finished playing in a basketball game. She loves the sport, just like her grandfather did; like her dad, she's a first-rate student.
Kristi, George said, Amanda told me the team is going to McDonald's.
Kristi was surprised. No one else had mentioned that. She asked some of the other team moms. They hadn't heard anything, either.
Amanda came over.
Are you going to McDonald's? Kristi asked.
Oh, no, Amanda said.
George said that you told him you are, Kristi said.
No, I didn't say that, Amanda said.
George overheard. He became agitated, Kristi remembers. Angry and confrontational. He started making a scene. People stared.
Dad, I didn't say anything about McDonald's, Amanda pleaded, eyes moist.
Do you think I'm making this up? George shouted. Do you think I'm crazy? Have dementia?
Visger has good days. He has bad ones. His wife and children walk on eggshells either way. They love him. They know he means well. But Kristi, Amanda and Jack all are in counseling. They never know what to expect. Dad can be sweet. He can explode. He can rent the same movie four times in a single week. He can open the refrigerator, prepare a sandwich, then place the leftover ingredients on top of the fridge. The kids have two nicknames for him.
"Gentle Giant." And "Maximum George."
Gentle Giant calls Amanda on her cell phone. Tells her that he's at the orthodontist's office and that he has just paid the entire bill to reapply her braces, the same ones that had to be removed after Dad lost his job.
Maximum George comes home and swears he never called Amanda. Who is now crying.
On good days, Visger is the "Gentle Giant."
Courtesy of George Visger
Gentle Giant loves hunting. Loves going with his nephews, showing them how it's done, passing on a family tradition. Making memories. Gentle Giant takes his son, Jack, out to Penn Valley, Calif., to shoot ducks.
Maximum George brings Jack home. It's late. Jack is a wreck. Won't say a word until his father leaves. When he does, Jack tells the story. Dad went up in his tree stand, gave Jack a pellet gun, told him to go off and hunt by himself, then meet Dad at the car when it's dark. At the time, Jack was 10 years old. He was afraid of the dark and had powerful asthma attacks, so powerful that the X-ray techs at the local intensive care unit kept toys on hand for him. Jack hid out in an old barn. When dusk finally came, he ran back to the truck. The doors were locked. He crawled into the truck's bed and cried. He could hear coyotes. Maximum George didn't return until it was pitch black.
"I told this story to a dear family friend, a retired police officer who is one of George's hunting buddies," Kristi says. "He said, 'Oh my god, I would have been afraid that George could have shot Jack by accident.'"
Visger is never violent. But he can be scary, intimidating. When he gets angry, his jaw tightens. His arms flex. His nostrils flare. He leans into Kristi, screaming, and sometimes all she can see is his mouth and his tongue. All she can feel is his hot breath on her face.
Kristi is back in her binder. There's a letter from the school where she works as a teacher. The letter is addressed to Visger, asking him to stop sending harassing emails and leaving inappropriate voice messages. When Kristi's work phone rings, the first thing she does is check to see whether it's an outside line; if it is, her heart starts to race.
Is it George? Do I pick up? What is he going to say?
"I feel like I got run over by a bulldozer or a train," she says.
Kristi shows me a handwritten note. From her husband. Amanda found it in the bathroom. It made her bawl.
"Kristi," the letter begins, "you are rude as hell to me and I'm tired of it "
Most of the rest is too profane to print. Kristi shows me another note, this one a printed email message, also from Visger.
"I love you more than you will ever know. I always have."
Air kisses. Those are the worst. Air kisses are what happen when Visger leans in toward Kristi, heart in hand, wanting to be wanted, to feel like he used to, strong and reliable, a man in control, only to have her plant a disengaged peck on the space near his cheek. Like he's a living ghost.
"The most painful thing ever," Visger says.
Visger has mentioned this before. More than once. In almost every long conversation we've had, actually, each time as if it's brand-new. As if he's letting me in on a secret.
We're having dinner. Visger talks about football. He loves the sport. He hates it. For years, he couldn't even watch a game. Doing so made him sick. Then he started coaching kids at a Sacramento private school. He found himself tuning back in, to the hated 49ers, ignoring the score, focusing on line play, the violent, individual battles for control. The ones he used to fight and lose. The ones he used to fight and win.
"How can you watch that stuff when you know what is happening to those kids?" Kristi would ask him. "How can you even stomach it?"
"Oh, you know, my case is unusual," Visger would say.
There's a preseason NFL game on a television above the restaurant bar. Visger turns away. He keeps talking. I listen.
"I have issues. Two years ago, I would just feel on the verge of beating the hell out of something all the time. I'm trying to repair the damage that I've done.
"They said Kristi has [post-traumatic stress disorder]. I took that as a slap in the face. Guys on patrol, picking up pieces of their buddies and stuffing them in bags after an [improvised explosive device] blast -- that's PTSD.
"I think she listens to doctors too much. She refuses to acknowledge that I've improved at all.
"I don't trust doctors. It's hard for me to trust anyone.
"As a biologist, I'll be out in the field and look at something and say, 'Damn, what is the scientific name for that plant?' Something I used to know. It drives me nuts. And I pause while talking to find words.
"I was very well read. I took a lot of pride in speaking like an educated human being. Then again, that was back when I had some pride.
"Jack should be out hunting with me. I should be over by the river shooting critters, teaching him plants, teaching him a love of the outdoors. But I'm not allowed to drive with my children.
"The last few years, I have no memory with my children. All I want is to make memories with them.
"One of the things that I would like is to see those NFL p---ks stand up in front of a court and get hammered. Held criminally liable for killing people.
"It hurts me to crawl and ask Kristi for money.
"It's gotten to the point where I'm done. I'm taking my life back. I was a guy. Now everyone tells me what to do. Everyone. As if I can't make a decision for myself. I hear it from Jack now. It's disrespectful. He won't listen to me. He'll say, 'OK, brain damage.'
"It's emasculating me."
"I can't leave George alone," says Kristi Visger.
Timothy Archibald for ESPN
Kristi sees Visger now more than when they lived together. He comes over to her mom's house every night, as soon as she gets back from work. Every weekend, too, bright and early in the morning. He stays until bedtime.
"I can't leave George alone," she says.
Visger swallows more than 30 pills every day. But most of them are supplements. Fish oil. Vitamin D. Cranberry extract. He forgets to take his seizure medications, Kristi says. Throws his mood disorder pills in the trash. Refuses to take his dementia pills, the ones that are supposed to slow his rate of cognitive decline. Visger says they make him foggy and nauseated.
"I talked to his pharmacist," Kristi says. "He picked up a 30-day supply of seizure meds the first week of July. He didn't pick it up again until the first week of September. He was driving all that time, which makes him a danger to himself and others."
Visger still drives. He still has his hunting rifles. Kristi is afraid he'll hurt himself, or someone else. She's afraid she'll lose her children. More than once, she says, Child Protective Services officers have come by to talk.
The worst part, she continues, is that Visger believes he's improving. Getting better. He's been receiving regular hyperbaric oxygen treatments -- a potentially promising but unproved therapy for traumatic brain injuries -- and practically living at the clinic.
"The first day he got that, he woke up the next morning and said, 'My god, I can't believe how much better I am,'" Kristi says.
"He said the exact same thing the first day he took dementia medication."
Before the family lost the house, Kristi had been going back to school one night a week, working on her master's degree in special education. She felt as if she was moving forward. She was three classes short when she quit, which crushed her. Still, she had to quit. One evening while leaving class, her phone rang. Visger had shown up at Jack's basketball practice and taken the boy away in his truck, something he was never, ever supposed to do again.
Lately, Kristi says, even Visger's yellow notebooks have become unreliable.
"But he doesn't know that," she says. "I row my boat alone."
The table is piled high with prizes: San Diego Chargers commemorative footballs, minor league baseball tickets, two 49ers helmets. This is the seventh annual Brown and Gold Alumni Golf Tournament, held to benefit the Stagg High football team, and as soon as everyone clears the links, the goodies will be raffled off.
Visger says he can't afford a ticket. He's here anyway.
"So, guess who drilled me in the earhole?" Visger says. "Doug Cosbie!"
Laughter. Visger is standing outside, under an American flag, four of his old high school teammates surrounding him in a semicircle. Almost like a huddle. Everyone is drinking beer, except Visger. He swears he hasn't had a drink in decades. Alcohol gives him seizures. Nevertheless, he's holding court. Telling stories about seeing lights, about going the wrong way on the field. There are hugs and handshakes. More laughter. Visger keeps talking, practically tells his entire life story.
"So," asks a former teammate, "are you seeing improvements?"
"Oh yeah," Visger says. "All of my cognitive scores are continuing to improve. They're better than high school!"
Visger brings up his workers' compensation case against the 49ers. His suggestions to make football safer. All of his irons in the fire -- the three documentaries he says he's appearing in; the angry letters to Goodell and the NFL players' union that he keeps writing and posting online; the big-shot lawyers who keep calling him. I've heard it all before, almost verbatim. Visger is a great storyteller. He spends a lot of time living in his head, in his own past, telling and retelling his stories, stitching together his fractured memories. In a different way than Kristi, he rows his boat alone. He has no choice, really.
Without his stories, all he has are his notebooks.
"I'm hoping to be able to get a little return off 31 years of bulls---," Visger says.
"I've got 13 [brain-trauma] conferences booked through next year," he says.
"Good for you, George," someone says.
Dr. Bennet Omalu discovered CTE in the brains of football players.
AP Photo/Paul Sancya
A few years ago, Visger reached out to Omalu, the neuropathologist who discovered CTE. Visger believes he suffers from the disease. Omalu, now the chief medical examiner for San Joaquin County, believes that's a reasonable assumption based on Visger's cognitive and behavioral problems.
One evening, the two men had dinner in Stockton.
Bennet, Visger said, is there any way to test a living human for CTE?
No, Omalu said. You have to do an autopsy.
Well, what if I sign a waiver that the next time I have to have a brain surgery, you can come and take a little piece out and test for it?
My god, George, this has never been done. It would be incredible. We could name [the procedure] after you.
Can Visger afford to lose a piece of his brain?
"Pfft," he says with a shrug.
(Omalu recently co-authored a study in which researchers identified signs of CTE in living former football players.)
The clinic where Visger is treated.
Timothy Archibald for ESPN
The call comes on a mid-October night. It's Kristi, two months after we spoke in person. There's a problem with George. Make that problems. He's literally living at the hyperbaric clinic, sleeping on a foam mat placed on the floor. His car broke down. He tried to get around town on public transportation. Got lost. He borrowed another car from a friend, drove it to Kristi's school. He left an unloaded hunting rifle in a gun case in the back seat, under his outdoors pack and boots. Someone saw it. The cops came. The car was unregistered, and besides, there was a gun on school grounds. Afterward, Visger went to the police station to get his rifle back. They told him no. Told him that charges might be filed. He was stunned. He thought the registration was the big deal.
"Patrick," Kristi says, "my binder is so thick now."
"It was thick when I saw it," I say.
"It's gotten thicker," she says.
The lobby is quiet. The front desk is deserted. Near the hallway, an elderly woman sits in a wheelchair, frail and demented, eyes shut. She's talking to herself, mumbling incomprehensibly, trying to push her arm though a blanket. Visger leans over, gently attempts to help.
"Are you looking for a sleeve?" he says. "I don't think this has a sleeve."
The woman ignores him. She pulls at her shirt.
"I don't want to end up like that," Visger says to me. "I want to go like hell and flash out."
We're here at a Stockton hospital to see Big Rita, Visger's mother, the woman who used to keep him in line by carrying a wooden spoon in her purse. The greatest human being he has ever known. Rita Visger is 89 years old, recovering from heart surgery. We find her down the hall. She's smiling. Bright-eyed and alert.
"OK, George, get busy," she says, thumbing toward the handles on her wheelchair. "I can't remember being this tired."
"Remember after my brain surgery," Visger says, "when I would sleep for like 23 hours a day?"
Rita remembers. She would check on her son every hour, she says, tug on his toes to make sure he hadn't fallen back into a coma. The boy has come so far. Visger wheels Rita to her recovery room. There's a book of word-search puzzles on her bed. Being cooped up drives her nuts. Having no appetite drives her nuts.
An orderly comes by, asks Rita whether she wants some ice cream.
"Maybe this little boy would like one," she says, pointing at Visger.
Rita always hated football. Hated watching her sons play. Hated seeing them at the bottom of the pile. Hated that they wanted to be there. Get up, she would say to herself. Get up.
"I'm glad you're letting your hair grow out, Georgie," she says.
"It's so thin now," Visger says.
"Let your hair grow out," she says. "The scars aren't noticeable. Listen to your mom."
Visger brings up the hyperbaric clinic. There's an apartment above it. Maybe he can rent it. Maybe he can set up an extra bedroom for Amanda and Jack.
"How are the kids and Kristi?" Rita asks.
"Great," Visger says. "They all send love to Grandma Rita."
Visger pauses. There was something else. Something Jack wanted him to say. Or maybe something he was supposed to give to Rita. A hug and a squeeze for Grandma but also Visger furrows his brow. He winces. He can't remember. He will never remember. There's nothing left. This is the terrible bargain, the one he struck with football, and that football struck with him.
The sport made Visger a man. Now it is unmaking him.
"All the supplements have helped you, George," Rita says. "Just talking, I can tell how far you have come. George, you are a miracle. You were made for this."
She looks at me.
"He lost his family, his job, his life," she says. "It's like a ripple."
Visger kisses his mother on the cheek. She's exhausted. It's time for us to leave. We head out through the lobby, past the empty reception desk. The elderly woman is still there, eyes closed, softly thumbing her blanket. All alone. Forgotten and almost gone. Like a living ghost.