By Max Harper

The Associated Press is reporting that Irv Cross, a former Eagles defensive back who became the first Black man to work full time as a sports analyst on national television, is the latest football player diagnosed with the brain disease CTE.

Cross, who was 81 when he died Feb. 28, 2021, suffered from stage 4 chronic traumatic encephalopathy, Boston University researchers said today.

Stage 4 is the most advanced stage of CTE, showing the kind of damage that often causes cognitive and behavioral issues in those exposed to repetitive head trauma. He struggled physically with his balance and was paranoid.

“Toward the end,” his wife Liz Cross said, “he saw things that weren’t there.”

Cross said her husband, who was diagnosed with mild cognitive dementia in 2018, often sat in a chair and grimaced from headaches that weren’t going away. He declined any kind of medicine because it didn’t help the pain. He stopped going to church. Although Irv Cross was once a student of the game, NFL games became mostly background noise because he didn’t know who was playing.

“He was afraid someone would ask him a question,” Liz Cross said, “and he wouldn’t know the answer.”

Dr. Ann McKee, a professor of neurology and pathology at Boston University, said she was not surprised Irv Cross’ brain reached stage 4, given the length of his overall football career (the study counted 17 years) and his age. Irv Cross and his family made the decision to donate his brain to help raise awareness of the long-term consequences of repeated blows to the head.

One of 15 children and from Hammond, Indiana, Irv Cross starred in football and track and field at Northwestern. He was drafted in the seventh round by Philadelphia in 1961, was traded to the Los Angeles Rams in 1966 and returned to the Eagles in 1969 as a player-coach for his final season.

The two-time Pro Bowl cornerback had 22 interceptions, 14 fumble recoveries, 8 forced fumbles and 2 defensive touchdowns. He also averaged 27.9 yards on kickoff returns and returned punts.

Chris Nowinski, the founder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, said that, when he met with Cross in 2018, “it was very clear” the former Eagle was suffering.

“It’s important to highlight cases like Irv Cross’ because he was able to live a long and successful life where CTE didn’t dramatically impair him,” he said. “But at the end, it was a struggle.”

Cross joined CBS in 1971, becoming the first Black network sports show anchor. He left the network in 1994 and later served as athletic director at Idaho State and Macalester College in Minnesota. In 2009, he received the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award. He had been married to Liz for 34 years when he died.

Liz Cross said her husband never experienced regret over his football career.

“He would have done it again in a heartbeat,” she said. “But he didn’t think kids should play football.”

As for diagnosed concussions, Cross said her husband told her he did suffer from several during his playing career but did not keep count. He suffered so many head injuries in his rookie season that his Eagles teammates called him “Paper Head.”

Irv Cross told his wife that after a blow to his head that almost caused him to swallow his tongue, doctors said if he suffered another concussion “he would die.”

“And so did he stop playing? No,” his 76-year-old widow said. “They made him a stronger helmet.”

Liz Cross said she wanted to remember the joy their young grandson brought Irv over his final years and not dwell on how she had to watch the man she loved slip away.

“He was just a wonderful man,” she said, “and this disease changed his life.”

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