Rob Kelly (34), at right, and other Ohio State defenders Luke Fickell (99) and Ryan Miller (43) sack Purdue quarterback John Reeves (3) in a 1995 game in Columbus, Ohio.

(AP Photo)

"In sickness and in health" takes on added meaning for the wives of professional football players. Their husbands are subjected to blows on the field that can leave them with serious brain injuries. Emily Kelly is one of them. Her husband Rob Kelly played for Ohio State and then went on to play in the NFL, including a long stint as a safety with the New Orleans SaintsThey now live in Boulder, and she tells Colorado Matters about the unexpected turn her family's life has taken.

Kelly retired in 2000 at age 28. Today, the league considers him totally and permanently disabled. And while it's not been confirmed, Kelly may be showing the effects of a long-term brain injury, like chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE, Emily says. She speaks about seeing early warning signs that something was wrong, including uncharacteristic obsessions doing the laundry. And then his angry episodes, withdrawal, and eventual psychosis.

Edited Highlights

On when she noticed that something was wrong:

“I think it was about the end of 2013, there was a lot of symptoms that just came out of nowhere. He was losing balance. He was no longer hungry. He stopped eating. He'd forget to eat. I wrote this in the piece, but I'd find bowls of cereal, full bowls of cereal, all around the house and he just was losing weight. He stopped leaving the house. He cut himself off from people and it was just, it was so extreme that I started to realize that something, obviously, was really wrong. Obviously, he played in the NFL and to see him stumbling around, just like my toddler, my son was almost a year, at the time, and he was falling and bumping into things as much as my toddler was, my son.”

On the onset of Rob's obsessions:

“What I see with, and I hear from all my friends, who have husbands who are retired, have played, is that OCD is a big symptom. … For Rob, it has been in different ways. Like doing old laundry, washing old clothes, baby clothes, when my children had gotten older and no one was wearing that stuff and old towels, just the machine was going all day long and I'd think, "What is he washing?" Because he wears the same sweats every day. He doesn't leave the house. And definitely becoming obsessive about me and what I'm doing. I think it's all that energy that had been focused on playing sports. It just becomes focused on something that's in the house and something small and they fixate. And they can't stop and let it go and it's really scary. I didn't realize what it was until I heard these other women say, "I haven't done laundry in 20 years," or "I've got the cleanest sink you've ever seen because my husband's constantly scrubbing the sink out." I'm like, "Oh my God, I completely relate to that," because I've seen it.”

On why she’s convinced he has CTE:

"Well, there's a few reasons. First of all because I've been with them for over 10 years and I have seen the changes. I've seen, I can look back and I think about how different things were and how he never used to be this way or that way. Maybe there was some jealousy but the obsessive jealousy and the not trusting, it wasn't there, and that can go for so, I mean I could go on and on about all the different symptoms that I've seen change over the year and progress and get worse, and there's just no reasoning for it, and also the memory problems. I mean, there was a time where he thought we had a fight that was three weeks prior and I had gone out and I came home and he had been in the shower and he came out and he was in a rage. He started to bring up this fight that we had three weeks ago and he had thought that it had just happened that day.

I had such a terrified look on my face and he saw it. I remember saying, I said, "Rob, you think that happened today," and when he saw the look my face, he stopped and he just walked away, because I think he was so scared. He could see how afraid I was. I knew this isn't right, that he would confuse the time like that. He's young. It didn't make sense. When I met, or I connected with all these wives through this NFL group and we're all telling ... I mean, the stories, they're so similar. I was just contacted last night by another woman and she's telling the exact same story. I've heard it a million times and then there's the stories where they're exactly the same but, yes, my husband's brain has been donated and yes, he has CTE, and every time, I mean the women in the group have been going through the symptoms. Their husband has died. They're waiting for the results and then they come back to the group and they say, "Yes, he has CTE."

On why they moved to Boulder:

"I didn't think that he could survive another winter. We lived in Ohio in the Midwest and the winters are very long and dark and gray. There's no sunshine. Colorado is everybody's out, they're biking, they're hiking, and I moved us in one month. I said, "We have got to get out of here. I'm afraid he won't live through it." I was really, really scared and I packed up our whole house and the two young children and we were out here very quickly. The first year we were here, he was still struggling, but in August of last year he went into a brain injury treatment center and he was there for about five weeks. We got new medication. We started using cannabis as a medication. He was using it before but it was just sporadically and we realized he has to take it every single day, the same amount every day. We just really work on getting him out and getting him walking. He's gained 40 pounds."

On how their kids have experienced all this:

"Obviously, they're very young. My stepdaughter's 10 and she knew the way her dad used to be, such a hands-on dad, amazing, the best father. I worked with children, I was a teacher, preschool teacher, kindergarten. I've never seen anyone be so great with children and just play for hours and have so much patience and never be bored, and so she's been able, she's seen the change.

My children, not so much, because this happened a lot when they were babies, the symptoms getting worse, but I've just been very, very open with them about, "Football hurt daddy's brain. When daddy's cranky, when daddy's sad, when daddy's quiet, it's not your fault and it's not mommy's fault and it's not even daddy's fault. Daddy, his brain doesn't work like ours because he hit his head a lot very hard for a very, very long time."

On not allowing her son to play football:

No. Absolutely not. Our son will not play football and anytime somebody asks us, like, "Should my son play," my husband adamantly, I'm always right there agreeing, "No. Please." Obviously, people are free to make their own choices, their own decisions, but you just, you just wouldn't wish this on anybody and I just don't think it's worth it. I think it's just too dangerous and you don't know if you're going to be one of the people. You don’t know if your children are going to be one of the people. There's so many sports out there. And we know that this is really a dangerous one.

Full Transcript

Ryan Warner: This is Colorado Matters from CPR News, I'm Ryan Warner. In sickness and in health, takes on added meaning for the wives of professional football players. Their husbands are subjected to blows on the field that can leave them with serious brain injuries. Emily Kelly, who lives in Boulder, is watching this unfold in her own marriage. Her husband Rob Kelly fulfilled a dream many little boys have to play football.

[Recording plays: Rob Kelly, the free safety, and he takes it to the far sideline, still on his feet to the 30. Boy, Rob Kelly, the senior. The word on Rob Kelly, aggressive.]

RW: That is when Kelly played for Ohio State. He went on to play in the NFL and retired in 2000 at age 28. His aggressive style of play has led to physical and mental problems. The league considers him totally and permanently disabled. And while it's not been confirmed, Kelly maybe showing the effects of a long-term brain injury, like chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. His wife, Emily, recently wrote about their life together after football in the New York Times and she's with me from Boulder, welcome to the program.

Emily Kelly: Hi Ryan, how are you?

RW: I'm doing well. I appreciate you sharing your story with us. How did you know that things were changing with your husband? That he wasn't necessarily the man you'd married.

EK: Well, around, I think it was about the end of 2013, there was a lot of symptoms that just came out of nowhere. He was losing balance. He was no longer hungry. He stopped eating. He'd forget to eat. I wrote this in the piece, but I'd find bowls of cereal, full bowls of cereal, all around the house and he just was losing weight. He stopped leaving the house. He cut himself off from people and it was just, it was so 
extreme that I started to realize that something, obviously, was really wrong. Obviously, he played in the NFL and to see him stumbling around, just like my toddler, my son was almost a year, at the time, and he was falling and bumping into things as much as my toddler was, my son.

I knew something wasn't right and it was really terrifying. I mean, especially, to see him lose weight and not be hungry. And just not want to leave the house, at all, it was just really scary.

RW: Yeah, he'd lost so much weight that friends, who didn't necessarily know, at first, that he had played  with the NFL, just couldn't imagine that he had been a football player. That's how gaunt he got.

EK: Yes.

RW: You also say that he became obsessive, like obsessed with you. Obsessed, apparently, with doing laundry. The washing machine was running all day.

EK: It appears that one of the symptoms of CTE -- and I believe he has CTE, no one can convince me otherwise. After all these years, and knowing him so well, and seeing the changes, I'm positive that he has it, but obviously you don't know for sure until after death and they examine the brain -- But what I see with, and I hear from all my friends, who have husbands who are retired, have played, is that OCD is a big symptom. It's one of the number one symptoms that these guys get. And it comes out of nowhere and it manifests in different ways. One of my friends was just saying the other day her husband is obsessive about changing the furniture in the house and vacuuming in the middle of the night.

For Rob, it has been in different ways. Like doing old laundry, washing old clothes, baby clothes, when my children had gotten older and no one was wearing that stuff and old towels, just the machine was going all day long and I'd think, "What is he washing?" Because he wears the same sweats every day. He doesn't leave the house. And definitely becoming obsessive about me and what I'm doing. I think it's all that energy that had been focused on playing sports. It just becomes focused on something that's in the house and something small and they fixate. And they can't stop and let it go and it's really scary. I didn't realize what it was until I heard these other women say, "I haven't done laundry in 20 years," or "I've got the cleanest sink you've ever seen because my husband's constantly scrubbing the sink out." I'm like, "Oh my God, I completely relate to that," because I've seen it.

RW: You write in the piece, "The first time he accused me of stealing loose change from his nightstand, I was speechless." 

EK: That was really, well, I thought he was joking at first because he, and the thing was, that I realized that he had just forgotten, probably, that he spent it, or he put it somewhere else and he came to me and he was like, "I had $2 here, or $3," and he was basically implying that I took it. I'm laughing because I'm like, "Rob, we share a bank account and we've got tons of money in the bank. Why would I steal from you and lie about it?" When I thought I could just rationally explain it and he became even more angry and more suspicious. That was a point where it scared me because I thought, "He really believes this and he doesn't trust me." He's not seeing the logic that it doesn't make any sense. Why would I take, and if I, and let's say 
I did, "Oh, I needed to borrow a $1, I would have told him. Yeah, I took it. I used it for this or that," but he didn't trust me all of a sudden. That was just, it was scary.

RW: You've talked about how confident you are that he is suffering from CTE, this long-term brain injury, and you've noted that it can truly only be diagnosed for now, at least, they're trying to develop a test for the living, but for now you have to examine brain tissue after someone is deceased. What makes you so convinced it's CTE? 

EK: Well, there's a few reasons. First of all because I've been with them for over 10 years and I have seen the changes. I've seen, I can look back and I think about how different things were and how he never used to be this way or that way. Maybe there was some jealousy but the obsessive jealousy and the not trusting, it wasn't there, and that can go for so, I mean I could go on and on about all the different symptoms that I've seen change over the year and progress and get worse, and there's just no reasoning for it, and also the memory problems. I mean, there was a time where he thought we had a fight that was three weeks prior and I had gone out and I came home and he had been in the shower and he came out and he was in a rage. He started to bring up this fight that we had three weeks ago and he had thought that it had just 
happened that day.

I had such a terrified look on my face and he saw it. I remember saying, I said, "Rob, you think that happened today," and when he saw the look my face, he stopped and he just walked away, because I think he was so scared. He could see how afraid I was. I knew this isn't right, that he would confuse the time like that. He's young. It didn't make sense. When I met, or I connected with all these wives through this NFL group and we're all telling ... I mean, the stories, they're so similar. I was just contacted last night by another woman and she's telling the exact same story. I've heard it a million times and then there's the stories where they're exactly the same but, yes, my husband's brain has been donated and yes, he has CTE, and every time, I mean the women in the group have been going through the symptoms. Their husband has died. They're waiting for the results and then they come back to the group and they say, "Yes, he has CTE." 

RW: It sounds like this group is really important to you, so there is this ...

EK: Yes. 

RW: ... This Facebook group of NFL wives who are struggling with this and gosh, it just gives me the sense that it has made you feel less alone. 

EK: I can't even tell you how helpful it's been for me. When I read the first interview, this friend of mine, Liz Nicholson, she's very outspoken, and she was describing my husband. She was talking about her own husband, but it was Rob, and this sense of peace came over me that somebody knew. I contacted her and she added me to the group and now I've got the phone numbers of all these women. I mean, 20 women, 
I've got their numbers, and all the time, you can call me at any time. I'll always be here for you, and that we all have this shared experience. It's not just as the wives but that our husbands, you know, it's like to know I can go back and tell Rob, "I got contacted again last night. There's a guy going through the same  thing as you. You're not alone."

When he thinks it's me, and years ago he just, what's wrong with me? He had so much shame and so much guilt and I can now, he now knows and I can tell him, "It's not your fault. All these men go through this." 

RW: You're listening to Colorado Matters. I'm Ryan Warner. We're speaking with Emily Kelly of Boulder. Her husband, Rob Kelly, is a retired NFL player who, because of his career, his decades in tackle football, is suffering both mental and physical ailments. I guess just briefly, how is he doing today? I understand that  you moved to Colorado in part for his care. 

EK: Yes, absolutely 100 percent. I didn't think that he could survive another winter. We lived in Ohio in the Midwest and the winters are very long and dark and gray. There's no sunshine. Colorado is everybody's out, they're biking, they're hiking, and I moved us in one month. I said, "We have got to get out of here. I'm afraid he won't live through it." I was really, really scared and I packed up our whole house and the two young children and we were out here very quickly. The first year we were here, he was still struggling, but in August of last year he went into a brain injury treatment center and he was there for about five weeks. We got new medication. We started using cannabis as a medication. He was using it before but it was just sporadically and we realized he has to take it every single day, the same amount every day. We just really work on getting him out and getting him walking. He's gained 40 pounds. 

RW: Oh wow. 

EK: In the past five months. Yep, he's back to his normal 200 pound weight, and he's doing a lot better. For us, that means like, he's here with me today. We're going to go out to lunch, and that's like a big deal for us. Just getting out of the house together and going for a walk or having lunch together and just doing those little things to be a part of the world. 

RW: How do you feel the NFL has handled this? 

EK: Well, I mean, for our situation, we were extremely fortunate because I truly believe that the reason why we lucked out is because Rob doesn't drink, but the NFL gives us disability for life. It's the highest level and less than two percent of the men who've ever applied have gotten this permanent disability, and this level, I don't even know the number. It's probably less than one percent, so it's really hard to get. The NFL denies guys all the time, and I think they deny anybody who drinks because they just blame it on, "Well, you  drink and that's the reason why you have these issues." I'm grateful that we are taken care of monetarily from them and I appreciate that, but I wish that Rob could've had informed consent 20 years ago. I wish he could've known and they knew. They knew and they hid it.

About this whole NFL settlement, they're willing to pay over a billion dollars, as long as they never have to reveal how long they knew that CTE existed and how long they knew that football caused brain injury. That's the terms of the settlement.

RW: How has this affected your children?

EK: Obviously, they're very young. My stepdaughter's 10 and she knew the way her dad used to be, such a hands-on dad, amazing, the best father. I worked with children, I was a teacher, preschool teacher, kindergarten. I've never seen anyone be so great with children and just play for hours and have so much patience and never be bored, and so she's been able, she's seen the change. 

My children, not so much, because this happened a lot when they were babies, the symptoms getting worse, but I've just been very, very open with them about, "Football hurt daddy's brain. When daddy's cranky, when daddy's sad, when daddy's quiet, it's not your fault and it's not mommy's fault and it's not even daddy's fault. Daddy, his brain doesn't work like ours because he hit his head a lot very hard for a very, very long time."

We just always talk about it with them, so that they understand that there's something going on that is not their fault because children tend to blame themselves, but I'm sure it's been very difficult. I can't imagine them not knowing and then just thinking, "What's wrong with my dad," but at least they have some kind of answer.

RW: You talked about informed consent just a bit ago. Do you think that your husband, Rob Kelly, would have played pro football if he had known?

EK: No.

RW: Really?

EK: I know 100 percent that he wouldn't. No. He actually turned down, after he played for the Saints, the Seahawks wanted to sign him, and he was actually in the room. He had the contract right there. He was about to sign and he said, "I can't do this," and he's like, "My heart's not in it right now."  He knows, because it's such a violent game, and if your heart's not into it and you're not enjoying yourself, you're going to get hurt and he's like, "I'm not going to do it," and he quit football for a year before he signed with the Patriots.

RW: Right.

EK: He always has said, "If I had known, I would ... " I know my husband in and out. He would not have  done it. He's like, "I wish I would've played soccer." Anything. He would've been good, I think, at anything he would've done.

RW: In the article, in the New York Times, you write of an occasion when Rob, who is a defensive back, suffered a concussion so severe that he tried to return to the field as an offensive player, and so you're aware of the kinds of blows that he suffered. 

EK: Yes.

RW: You write about how Rob became obsessed with details for his funeral. Other former players like Dave Duerson of the Chicago Bears and Junior Seau of the then San Diego Chargers committed suicide because of the impact their brain injuries had on their lives. They were diagnosed with CTE postmortem. Do you think Rob had been planning on committing suicide? 

EK: Well, before we moved to Colorado, the last winter in Ohio was, I look back and it was so bad. Depression isn't even the word to explain. I'm talking about someone who cannot eat. Well, can't eat,  can't speak, can't move, is functioning in no way, whatsoever, and depression doesn't describe. It's so dark and terrifying, and he would just go months without barely speaking a word. I'd ask, "What do you want 
for dinner" or "What should I pick up from the store," and he couldn't speak. He couldn't answer me. When that time would, when he'd come out of it a little bit, he would tell me, "Emily, all I could think about was  suicide. I would just fixate," and he'd think about it and he'd obsess about it. He wrote out a will.

Luckily, we don't have weapons in the house, and Rob has told me like, "If I could speak to any guys right now who are suffering, I would tell them just don't have a weapon in the house because you can go from zero to suicidal thoughts in a minute." It just comes on, and so I think it's something that people really need to be, any ex-NFL players that are suffering through this, they need to be aware of it because 
... 

I was just speaking to a friend this morning whose, her husband, she thought it was out of nowhere. She looks back now, that he killed himself. I think it's so dark, the depression that they're in and the frontal lobe's been damaged and you're impulsive and that's it.

RW: You sometimes refer to it as a caveman mentality, these fits of rage, this acting on a moment's  emotion. I guess, to wrap up, Emily Kelly, will you let your children play football?

EK: No. Absolutely not. Our son will not play football and anytime somebody asks us, like, "Should my son play," my husband adamantly, I'm always right there agreeing, "No. Please." Obviously, people are free to make their own choices, their own decisions, but you just, you just wouldn't wish this on anybody and I just don't think it's worth it. I think it's just too dangerous and you don't know if you're going to be one of the people. You don’t know if your children are going to be one of the people. There's so many sports out there. And we know that this is really a dangerous one. 

RW: Thanks for sharing your story.

EK: Thank you so much.

RW: Emily Kelly of Boulder is the wife of former NFL player, Rob Kelly, who played for the New Orleans Saints and we talked about Rob's physical and mental struggles after playing tackle football for more than 20 years. Emily wrote recently in the New York Times a piece called "I'm the wife of a former NFL player. Football destroyed his mind."  We'll have a link at cpr.org. This is Colorado Matters from CPR News.