As a former NFL player fights dementia — his wife fights the league

Liz Nicholson Sullivan has been married to Gerry Sullivan for more than 20 years. But she says she loses the man she married more and more every day.

"He's very funny, and he's very bright. … And he is very self-deprecating, which I love. I would say for maybe the first 15 years, we had a great time. We had a wonderful relationship. I saw signs probably the whole time that I was a little bit in denial of. But I would say the last dozen years have been pretty poor," Liz Nicholson Sullivan said. 

Gerry Sullivan is a former NFL offensive lineman who played eight seasons with the Cleveland Browns. He started playing football when he was 8 years old and didn't stop until he was in his 30s. He now suffers from dementia and shows all of the signs that come along with a  degenerative brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.

Newsy's Jamal Andress asked: "You mentioned in the past dozen or so years, that's when you started to notice those changes. How did those changes manifest themselves?"

Liz Nicholson Sullivan responded: "Unbelievable rage, unprovoked rage. I'm not talking about your usual driver road rage kind of thing. … Out of nowhere, I'm talking about going from zero to 120, and the eyes change color. They change to black, the fists ball up. … So rage, paranoia, unmitigated aggression and violent thoughts that he would say to me that he felt toward others. That was really frightening."

While former players like Gerry Sullivan are dealing with things like memory loss, constant irritation and depression — their loved ones are fighting their own battles.

"Now, it's out in the open, but for years, so many of us wives would, if we were social with each other or NFL gals and guys, we would say, like, 'Oh, my husband's fine.' We were all lying to one another because the husbands, when they're a certain age, don't want others to know that maybe there's mental illness or they're depressed. ... About seven years ago, at least to Gerry's little circle of friends, I started saying: … 'Sue, does John stay up at night? Does he have trouble sleeping?' And when I first opened up to them, then the floodgates opened. And then social media is what, ... a gal formed a NFL wives facebook page, a private page, and that thing opened the floodgates," Liz Nicholson Sullivan said. 

Prominent cases of NFL players with CTE
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Prominent cases of NFL players with CTE
San Diego Chargers Junior Seau during a game against the New York Jets at the Qualcomm Stadium Sunday November 3, 2002, in San Diego, CA. (Photo by Matt A. Brown/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Frank Gifford provides the classic throwing motion in his University of Southern California Trojans uniform. Following his college days, Gifford went on to star for the NFL's New York Giants, then worked as a broadcaster for CBS and ABC's Monday Night Football. (University of Southern California/Collegiate Images via Getty Images)
CLEVELAND - OCTOBER 9: Quarterback Ken Stabler #12 of the Oakland Raiders on the ground after taking a hit during a game against the Cleveland Browns at Municipal Stadium on October 9, 1977 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Raiders defeated the Browns 26-10. (Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - OCTOBER 14: Defensive back Tyler Sash #39 of the New York Giants on the sidelines against the San Francisco 49ers during the third quarter at Candlestick Park on October 14, 2012 in San Francisco, California. The New York Giants defeated the San Francisco 49ers 26-3. Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images)
Inside linebacker Jovan Belcher #59 of the Kansas City Chiefs watches from the sidelines during his final game against the Denver Broncos at Arrowhead Stadium on November 25, 2012 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH - SEPTEMBER 13: Offensive lineman Terry Long #74 of the Pittsburgh Steelers talks with offensive line coach Hal Hunter (R) on the sideline during a game against the San Francisco 49ers at Three Rivers Stadium on September 13, 1987 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images)
Mike Webster #52 of Pittsburgh Steelers looks on during a game circa 1987 at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Webster played for the Steelers from 1974-88. (Photo by George Gojkovich/Sporting News via Getty Images)
Quarterback Earl Morrall #15 of the Miami Dolphins looks on from the sidelines against the New York Jets during an NFL football game at The Orange Bowl November 19, 1972 in Miami, Florida. Morrall played for the Dolphins from 1972-76. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
Defensive tackle Shane Dronett #75 of the Atlanta Falcons in action during the game against the New York Jets at the Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The Jets defeated the Falcons 28-3. Mandatory Credit: Todd Warshaw /Allsport
Dave Duerson #22 of the Chicago Bears looks on during a game in the 1985 season. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, D.C. - DECEMBER 31: Guard John Wilbur #60 of the Washington Redskins rests on the sideline against the Dallas Cowboys at RFK Stadium in the 1972 NFC Championship Game on December 31, 1972 in Washington, D.C. The Redskins defeated the Cowboys 26-3. (Photo by Nate Fine/Getty Images)
PHILADELPHIA, PA - DECEMBER 10: Defensive back Andre Waters #20 of the Philadelphia Eagles looks on from the sideline during a game against the Dallas Cowboys at Veterans Stadium on December 10, 1989. in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Eagles defeated the Cowboys 20-10. (Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images)
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - SEPTEMBER 21: New York Jets players tackle New England Patriots player Mosi Tatupu during a game at The Meadowlands Sports Complex in East Rutherford, N.J. on Sept. 21, 1987. The game was the last game before a strike in the NFL. (Photo by Bill Greene/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH - AUGUST 31: Offensive lineman Justin Strzelczyk #73 of the Pittsburgh Steelers on the sideline during a game against the Dallas Cowboys at Three Rivers Stadium on August 31, 1997 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images)
CIRCA 1968: Defensive Tackle Bubba Smith #78 of the Baltimore Colts is seen watching the action from the bench circa 1968 during an NFL football game. Smith played for the Colts from 1967-71. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES - AUGUST 1: Running back Ollie Matson #33 of the Los Angeles Rams poses for a publicity photo during training camp at Chapman Colleg on August 1, 1961 in Orange, California. (Photo by Vic Stein /Getty Images)
FILE: Baltimore Colts HOFer John Mackey during a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. (Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
BALTIMORE - OCTOBER 11: Chris Henry #15 of the Cincinnati Bengals runs with the ball against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on October 11, 2009 in Baltimore, Maryland. The Bengals defeated the Ravens 17-14. (Photo by Rob Tringali/Sportschrome/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 15: John Grimsley #59 of the Houston Oilers lines up during a football game against the Chicago Bears on October 15, 1989 at Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois. The Oilers won 33-28. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
SAN DIEGO, CA - SEPTEMBER 24: Defensive end Pete Duranko of the Denver Broncos watches from the sideline against the San Diego Chargers at San Diego Stadium on September 24, 1972 in San Diego, California. The Chargers defeated the Broncos 37-14. (Photo by James Flores/Getty Images)

Liz Nicholson Sullivan is one of literally thousands of women who go online to find advice, comfort and camaraderie from other wives of NFL players.

"Finally, I have found you girls. I thought I was going crazy. I thought my husband, ... I thought something was wrong with us. Now I'm hearing that you girls experienced it, too. There is such comfort in that. I can't even tell you," she said. 

Sullivan found that comfort and has given it back — becoming an advocate for former NFL players and wives. She, in many cases, is fighting with the very league that connects her to these families across the country.

SEE MORE: An NFL Son Who Lost His Dad To CTE Works To Ban Youth Tackle Football

Jamal Andress asked, "I'm curious what it's like for you kind of being in the active back-and-forth with an organization that your husband in large part gave a lot of his life to?"

Sullivan responded: "It's infuriating. … The league is worth $14 billion. … Yet, they don't take care of the fellas whose brains and bodies are the reason why they're worth $14 billion."

Since CTE was discovered in 2005, the NFL has had a long and brutal tussle with medical doctors and more recently the families of former players. After denying the link between head trauma and long-term health problems for years, when the NFL finally acknowledged the existence of CTE and agreed to a billion-dollar settlement with the families of debilitated former NFL players.

"The biggest misnomer with the settlement is this: The public led to believe by the NFL: 'Oh, yeah. It's taken care of. These guys all got payouts.' That is so far from the truth," she said.

According to The New York Times, of the 1,400 claims filed as of November 2017, 140 have been approved. While many former players say the league is purposefully dragging its feet, the NFL claims it's just trying to deter fraud.

"'Delay, deny and hope they die.' And that is coined by a former Minnesota Viking Brent Boyd, who is an activist, and he's right. … We feel that it's very much, I won't use the word 'rigged,' but that the cards are stacked against us," she said. 

Jamal Andress asked, "Do you think that the sport itself is worth saving?"

Sullivan responded by saying: "I really truly believe that at some point, it will be phased out on its own, and I will not be crying about that. … It's eroding, and I think that's the way it should go. … Personally, as a wife, personally seeing the destruction caused by this, I will not, I will not shed a tear."

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