Chuck Crist

Chuck Crist during his playing days at Salamanca High School.

The unexpected call came in the middle of June.

It was from long-time friend Patti Crist, wife of Chuck, the former four-sport MVP at Salamanca High School, star basketball player at Penn State and 7-year National Football League safety with the Giants, Saints and 49ers.

In 2014, he was diagnosed with aplastic anemia, a rare and often fatal disease in which the bone marrow fails to produce an adequate number of red blood cells. Only about 750 people worldwide are diagnosed with the illness in a given year and it tends to target the very young, particularly Asians, though among its victims have been Eleanor Roosevelt and Marie Curie.

It was this past August at Bartlett Country Club when I saw last Chuck and Patti. They were watching son Scott compete in the SWNY-NWPA Shootout of Former Champions.

Crist had endured a tense induction into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame (GBSHF) the previous November as he wrestled with memory and cognitive issues, but got through his speech almost seamlessly.

Nine months later, at the Olean golf course, he was totally upbeat and lucid and looked surprisingly fit.

Patti explained Chuck was booked for a September bone marrow transplant at the Cleveland Clinic, a procedure that would hopefully alleviate the most impactful effects of his disease.

Sadly, the transplant, though a match, failed and, on Oct. 28, one of greatest athletes in Southern Tier history -- who had been profiled on these pages since his teenage years -- was dead at age 69.

 

THERE was no funeral due to Covid-19, but Patti planned a private memorial service for this summer.

That was the purpose of her call, letting me know that the celebration of Chuck’s life would be held in early August at the Chautauqua Harbor Hotel.

But after extending the invitation, she paused, then said, “There’s one other thing I wanted you to know. Chuck donated his brain to the Boston University CTE Center and it was determined (at New York City’s Mount Sinai Hospital) that he had Stage 4 CTE … the most severe form.

“It’s odd, when he would remember things from years before, but forget something that happened yesterday, I attributed it to his getting older … or even his (aplastic anemia). I didn’t really consider CTE, but I think Chuck knew something was wrong, which is why he donated his brain.”

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a progressive and fatal brain disease associated with repeated traumatic brain injuries, including concussions and repeated blows to the head. It’s also associated with the development of dementia. 

 

TO BE SURE, Crist qualified.

He made the Giants as an undrafted free agent in 1972 and admitted that as a rookie he sustained five concussions, not playing strong safety, but rather as the “bomber” (wedge buster) on the kickoff return unit.

But the head trauma began long before his NFL career.

As Patti recalled, “Dan Metzler (the Walsh star who shared the Times Herald’s Big 30 Player of the Year Award with Crist in 1968) was at a garage sale and bought some Salamanca game films from when Chuck played. After Dan looked at them he said, ‘Not only did Chuck get hit when he carried the ball, which was often, even when he didn’t, he was the lead blocker so he was subjected to head contact on virtually every play.’”

She added, “In hindsight, it’s probably a good thing Chuck didn’t play football in college (Crist opted for hoops when coach Joe Paterno wouldn’t let him try out for quarterback). If he’d taken all those hits at Penn State, he might not have lived as long as he did.”

But Patti also had another message.

“We wanted to be careful how we announced Chuck’s CTE and weren’t even sure when or how we’d do it,” she admitted. “He wanted to be totally candid and forthcoming about his situation … but he also loved football and didn’t want it to be seen as an indictment of the game.”

 

CRIST RETIRED from the NFL just before his 28th birthday in 1978j, an era before tackling statistics were kept. But he had an impressive 20 interceptions and 11 fumble recoveries in 92 games including 65 starts and was the Saints’ Defensive MVP in ’77.

After teaching for two years at Cattaraugus, he was hired as an adjunct professor at Alfred University and was the Saxons’ defensive coordinator for coach Sam Sanders. From there he became a school administrator in his hometown, serving as principal at the district’s elementary and high schools.

Already a member of both the Cattaraugus and Chautauqua County Halls of Fame, his induction into the GBSHF came at just the right time.

“I feel very honored and humbled … it was quite a surprise,” Crist said shortly after being named. “I know there were friends who went to bat for me including Cheech Letro (Olean native, now a Buffalo attorney).

“It’s an honor for the Southern Tier with Shane Conlan (Frewsburg), Bill Bergey (Pine Valley) and Marv Hubbard (Randolph) already in,” he said of the three other NFL players from the two counties.

Yet it’s not without irony that the very sport at which Chuck Crist was so proficient and which so enhanced his regional reputation ultimately provided a cautionary tale for those who choose to play it.

(Chuck Pollock, an Olean Times Herald senior sports columnist, can be reached at cpollock@oleantimesherald.com)