Deb Ploetz visits her husband, former University of Texas defensive tackle Greg Ploetz, who holds their dog, Butter, at an Arvada facility designed to assist people with dementia. The couple moved here from Texas to supplement Greg's care by legally using marijuana oils. (Andy Cross, The Denver Post)

Texas family finds haven in Colo. to treat ex-football player’s dementia

“His mind was always going and he had a brilliant mind,” Richardson recalled. “He didn’t have to study. It came to him so easy. He was a heck of a football player, as tough as they come.”

Ploetz was a fine arts major. “As I took the life drawing classes, we had nudes, of course,” he said in 2001. “The guys would literally be waiting at the dorm: ‘Here he comes! Let’s take a look!’ … They’d get my pad out and look at the girls I was drawing.”

During the 1969 season, he made four unassisted tackles as the Longhorns beat Arkansas in the famous “Big Shootout” then helped knock off Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl to secure an undisputed national championship.

He sat out the next season, though, because his girlfriend from Sherman became pregnant, they were married and he managed an apartment complex while continuing to go to school.

“The baby was real premature and had to stay in the hospital,” Ploetz said. “They didn’t know if he was going to make it, so I called Fred Bomar.”

Father Fred Bomar was the friend of many of the Texas players, including former Wheat Ridge High star and Longhorns safety Freddie Steinmark, whose leg had been amputated in December 1969, within a week of the Arkansas game, because of cancer.

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When Bomar baptized Chris — soon Chris Fry after his parents were divorced and he took his stepfather’s name — Steinmark stood in as Chris’ godfather. Chris survived; the doctors were shocked. Years later, Ploetz still couldn’t talk about Chris, his baptism and his godfather without choking up. (Steinmark, a Denver Post Gold Helmet Award winner, died in 1971 and remains one of the most legendary figures in Colorado sports history.)

Named the top art student at Texas, Ploetz played one more season with the Longhorns, in 1971, then managed a movie theater; bought, refurbished and sold houses; and earned spots in shows with his artwork. He taught off and on before finally settling into a career as a teacher, while also doing some coaching.

Dementia tied to football?

In 1978, he remarried. Deb Hardin was at the Longhorns-Razorbacks game in 1969 — as an Arkansas student. They had two children: Beau and Erin.

Greg took Beau fishing and Erin on butterfly expeditions. They lived on an 11-acre spread in Weatherford, Texas, where Greg had done much of building of the house himself, and they were happy.

Then Greg started having problems.

In 2005, when Greg was teaching at Trimble Tech in Fort Worth, he couldn’t learn to work his new cellphone. He couldn’t remember what the green button was for. Greg also was struggling to adapt to new computer technology and handle television remotes.

“When I look back on it now, it was his inability to grasp new knowledge,” Deb said.

She initially wrote it off as an artist’s quirkiness, or the common tendency to be brilliant at some things, inept at others.

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In early 2009, Greg couldn’t fathom the school’s computer system to enter grades. The principal told Greg she was placing him on probation. Deb, by now aware something serious was wrong, said no, Greg was taking a medical leave.

Deb said a Fort Worth neurologist told her that Greg’s memory issues probably were related to head injuries from football. That was the first of several doctors’ similar diagnoses.

Greg still painted and was able to ride bikes with Deb. By March 2013, Greg was slipping and they had sold their Weatherford spread. Greg spent four days in a psychiatric ward as doctors determined what medications he should be taking.

Deb tried placing him in several facilities, but Greg couldn’t handle the one she liked best because of the noises around him. Eventually she made the call to bring him to Colorado. The major regret is moving away from the supportive Erin; her husband, Dan Cherkassky; and their infant son, Lukas.

So, is Ploetz’s dementia related to football? Is it the degenerative brain disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), that has been linked to concussions and to the suicides of football players such as Dave Duerson and Junior Seau?

Doctors’ verdicts have been inconclusive and more won’t be known until after Greg dies. Deb’s informal conclusion is, yes, it’s football related, but to her, that’s not a legal issue because she’s not looking to sue.

“I’ve never been a litigious person,” she said. “I’ve never believed in that. Greg chose to play football. He loved football. He would tell you his best years were with his brothers in football. He wouldn’t take that back.”

Terry Frei: or

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