A Patient Perspective on Degenerative Brain Disease - Leonard Marshall, Former NFL Great and Dementia Advocate


It was a decade after NY Giants great and Super Bowl champion Leonard Marshall retired when he first started to notice cognitive issues and a concerning change in attitude. Five years, many doctor visits and countless hours of research later, the two-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman received a diagnosis of CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease that’s common in former NFL players. He estimates taking over 30,000 blows to the head in his entire college and pro football career, which included 12 years in the NFL. “I knew what I signed up for when I started to play pro football. I knew there was a very strong chance I could end up getting a knee injury, back injury, neck injury, maybe a concussion or two. But nowhere in that fine print did it say you could end up with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, and no one ever talked about it.” Today, Marshall is using his high profile to support CaringKind, New York City's leading expert on Alzheimer's and dementia caregiving with a forty-year history of working with community partners to help affected patients and families. Join host Shiv Gaglani for this touching opportunity to hear a patient’s perspective on a disease that is constantly in the headlines, and learn what Leonard Marshall is doing to support people facing the same reality. Mentioned in this episode: www.caringkindnyc.org




Shiv Gaglani: Hi, I'm Shiv Gaglani. We've had the pleasure of speaking to an amazing array of accomplished people on Raise the Line in the 300 episodes we've done, but never an elite athlete like our guest today, Leonard Marshall. Leonard is a former All-Pro defensive end in the NFL, who spent most of his career as a standout player for the New York Giants, including making key contributions in two of their Super Bowl victories. In 2013, Leonard was diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE for short, a degenerative brain disease detected in a growing number of retired NFL players. He has since been involved in spreading awareness about the issue and has become involved with CaringKind, New York City's leading expert on Alzheimer's and dementia caregiving, which is the main reason we're speaking with him today. Caring Kind has a more than forty-year history of working directly with community partners to develop the information, tools, and training to support individuals and families affected by dementia, including a helpline, family counseling sessions and safety programs. 


Our former board member, longtime adviser, friend, and investor in Osmosis Alan Patricof, ands his assistant Gordon Gostin are the reason we are connected to Leonard. So, Leonard, thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to be with us today.


Leonard Marshall: You're quite welcome. You're quite welcome.


Shiv Gaglani: So a lot of people are probably already familiar with you and your name. But, we like to start every episode by letting the guests in their own words explain their background. What are some of your career highlights beyond what I already shared in the intro? What are you most proud of?


Leonard Marshall: Well, I think the one thing I'm proud of, I come from a small little town on the Bayou in the depths of Louisiana. I come from an area that's probably one of the most southern points of recognition in America. We are the land of crawfish, catfish, bayous and hurricanes, as I call it.  So it's just amazing that so many athletes have been produced from my local area. 


So, in keeping with that, I attended Louisiana State University as an undergraduate football player, a scholastic athlete. I'm one of those guys who went to class. I finished my four years at LSU, and while playing for LSU, I got recognized by the National Football League and its scouting department, and I was fortunate enough to be drafted by the New York Giants in 1983. I was the second player drafted in my draft class in ‘83, which produced probably the greatest draft in the history of the NFL, because it produced so many Hall of Fame football players. You had John Elway, Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, Eric Dickerson, and a host of others, including myself. I was elected to play with two of the greatest linebackers in the history of the NFL -- Harry Carson and Lawrence Taylor -- coached by two of the greatest coaches in NFL history -- Bill Belichick and Bill Parcells. And I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about Romeo Crennel a bit because Romeo Crennel had a lot of early dealings in my career and a lot of encouragement was offered as a player -- not only because he played the position in college, but because he wanted to see as many guys as he possibly could succeed in the game of football. He has been a major contributor to my career, both in and out of football. 


After moving out of football, I moved into the postgraduate stint of college, graduating at Fairleigh Dickinson. I moved into serving as an executive in residence at Seton Hall University for six years, while teaching in the Stillman School of Business. I mentored and taught over 300 kids in that department over a six-year stint. I've also been involved in several business ventures outside of football.


I think one of my greatest accomplishments, and something I rarely talk about, is the raising of my son. My son is a Florida graduate, attended law school in New Jersey and Florida and got his LLM from Georgetown University and has now been practicing law in four states. So, I'm very proud of what he's been able to do and what we've been able to help him do. Aside from that, I think that the other great feat that I look back on is the winning of two Super Bowls, and to play for Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick in those Super Bowls, and win, because not every guy wins the game. And then probably the most successful thing of all, I'm married to Lisa Ann Marshall, formerly Lisa Ann Norcia. She has been a great spirit and inspiration, and has been a great friend and mentor to me, in terms of trying to be the best that I possibly can, since I have all this time on my hands, and not very much to do.


Shiv Gaglani: Well, that's an amazing array of accomplishments, and obviously, you've had quite a life both on the NFL field as well as off of it. One more accomplishment we were talking about right before we started the podcast, you just became a grandfather, right?


Leonard Marshall: Yes, that's right! Matthew Robert is now ten weeks old, and I'm all excited. I think I got a picture of Matt, wait, I will share with you guys. His father just this morning, turned around and said to me, “You’re going to like these pictures, dad.” So that's my little man Matthew Robert right there. 


Shiv Gaglani: Very cute. Congrats. 


Leonard Marshall: Oh, yeah. Thank you. 


Shiv Gaglani: So you've obviously gone a little bit into what's kept you busy in your post-NFL years and I’m happy to dive further into that, but, you know, we've heard a lot about CTE, especially among great NFL players like yourself. Do you mind going a bit into how that's affected your daily life and how that's an influential relationship to Alzheimer's and dementia?


Leonard Marshall: Sure, well, I can tell you this: in 2007, I started having some problems, and I noticed some cognitive issues.  At that time, I was in a crazy space and trying to determine what's going on with me and why. The why became quite prevalent because I noticed a major change in my behavior and my attitude. I started getting phone calls from players and friends. They started telling me different things that were going on with them. I was doing comparisons and then talking about myself. Three guys I talked to are now deceased -- David Little, Reggie Roby, and my dear friend, Dave Duerson, and all three had chronic traumatic encephalopathy. 


In 2011, I get a phone call from my little brother who tells me, "Len, you need to look into this. This is what's going on with players. I know Rocky’s looking into it, Otis is looking into it, I know Lance is looking into it." Okay. You know, I'll look into it. Now, I didn't want to tell my little brother what was going on with me because I didn't think I needed that to be spread out to my family. So, I kind of kept that hush hush. In the meantime, I called the attorney, and I started looking into this further. He suggested that I take some time, and started to get some treatment. 


I started doing a lot of reading. I started reading about hyperbaric chamber treatment. I started reading about CBD, the use of marijuana. I started reading about all these different nutraceutical treatments that you can get. I started doing some blood work, intensive blood work with a company called Cenegenics to try to turn around and reproduce better cells in my body, thinking that the cell deficiency was probably some of the costs of my brain being injured. Unbeknownst to me, I came to find out some of that was attributable to blows to the head from football and severe blows. I mean over 30,000 blows, to be honest with you. 


So I started taking a real, real, real, real strong position against it. My attorney came across a group of guys out of Chicago. One of the guys attended LSU during the time I was at LSU, a doctor by the name of Julian Bailes -- who became a team doctor for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Julian had been treating Mike Webster, the center from the Pittsburgh Steelers for a long time, and it just so happened that right before I met Julian, Mike Webster committed suicide. Julian suggested that I fly out to California, go to UCLA, put myself in this study along with three other players -- Tony Dorsett, Joe DeLamielleure, and Mark Duper. We do it in conjunction with ESPN traveling and following us, and going to the different appointments with us. I did a PET scan, a CAT scan, MRI, a series of MRIs. I did it with contrast and without contrast. I wanted to find out just what was happening in between my ears, and what could be a major cause of it. I did it over a four-day period. 


When I got back to New Jersey, they had called my attorney and had a conversation with him. He turns around and tells me, "Leonard, you have chronic traumatic encephalopathy. And unbeknownst to you, and to me, there is a case that could be made for diagnosing CTE in the living, and it just so happened that the doctors that you saw are able to do that." I mean, when I heard the news, I was severely affected by it because, you know, I knew what I signed up for when I started to play pro football. I knew there was a very strong chance I could end up getting a knee injury, back injury, neck injury, maybe a concussion or two. But nowhere in that fine print did it say you could end up with chronic traumatic encephalopathy. No one ever talked about it in my locker room, off the football field, in the training room, no one. So when I got the news, I was very much affected by it. 


Shiv Gaglani: Yeah, I can imagine. That's a remarkably difficult story, Leonard. Thanks for sharing that, and, you know, listening to you in this interview, I wouldn't even recognize anything as being wrong. How has it affected your daily life, and also, what's the relationship between CTE and the work that you started doing with CaringKind on Alzheimer's and dementia? 


Leonard Marshall: Well, one leads to the other. One leads to early-stage dementia, and early-stage Parkinson's, and from that, Alzheimer's could be derived. The work I do with CaringKind… because I'm scared. I don't know. Fear is the greatest motivator, fellas. I mean, it motivated me to be an athlete, and motivated me to return to society. It's motivated me now to come to understand what I'm walking around with every day. Am I a ticking time bomb ready to explode or can I deal with it and treat it the way I have, in which I've used the following: CBD, cannabis, heavy blood work, and hyperbaric chamber treatment for a couple of hours a week. That improves the flow of oxygen into the brain and my ability to breathe when I when meditate or when I take it down a notch.


Shiv Gaglani: You also mentioned Cenegenics. 


Leonard Marshall: The work that Cenegenics did early on helped me to see the value in terms of hormonal and cell regeneration, and it's really how to pay attention to bloodwork and pay attention to bloodwork often. So that's been really good. I guess I can say that's the reason why, at sixty years old, I feel that I kind of have this thing under control a little bit. It could be this way today, and something way out of left field tomorrow. But today, I think I got it under control.


Shiv Gaglani: Definitely appears that way. And so can you tell us a bit about how your relationship with CaringKind began and how long you've been a supporter of theirs? 


Leonard Marshall: Sure. I came to know CaringKind by some of the people that work internally. But the main person that contacted me from CaringKind was Courtney Dawson, and Courtney and I maintain a friendship for a number of years. We share a few mutual friends. One of them happens to be a doctor who is the head of the ER at Lenox Hill Hospital by the name of Robert Glatter, and I respect Robert. Robert was a sideline doctor for a long period of time for the New York Giants, and he also worked for the Jets for a minute. But aside from that, Dr. Glatter and I maintain a friendship and a very respectful friendship, and one where I could go to him in the strictest confidence or whatever it might be, and get a true definition of what's happening, what I'm concerned about, and come to understand exactly how to deal with it from a medical standpoint. I respect him for that. No matter what it is, if I go to him with it, he'll just shoot it to me straight.


Shiv Gaglani: That's great, and we think the world of Courtney as well. She's wonderful, and Alan Patricof has been working with her for a long time and speaks very highly of her as well. So, you know, CaringKind does a lot for the community. I know you were just there at the major gala they had over the summer. What among the CaringKind support services resonates most with you, and how come?


Leonard Marshall: Carol Berne and Eleonora Tornatore-Mikesh, from the moment I got involved with them, they wore their heart on their sleeve and they laid it out for me. They made it really easy for me to understand what they do. The people I met from CaringKind…I’ve been like “wow”… I'm blown away. I don't know where Alan found the time to do this, but he took the time from his co-chairmanship of his business and his eyeballs off of that business, and onto this event. That alone speaks volumes. 


I mentioned some people that just blew me away at their ability to give, just to give and just to be concerned about someone's mental health, someone's brain health, all cognitively speaking. I met a doctor from California who treated Muhammad Ali by the name of Sheldon Jordan. He treated Ali for 25 years. I would have never known this man if I had not gone to that event. I will never have had the conversation, the depth of the conversation with someone who had dealt with someone on that level, like Muhammad Ali, who lived out his life with Parkinson's. Hell, I was diagnosed with early-stage Parkinson's by a group out of Virginia. So, that touched me man, that touched me big time. I said to myself, 'Okay, Leonard, this is the here and now.' So, dive into the here and now, and what you get out of it, take it back, and hopefully it'll help you. That night was such a special night because I've met so many people that are so dedicated to this cause.


Shiv Gaglani: Absolutely, and it unites people of all backgrounds because it can happen to anyone, really. So, you know, Alan’s passion is for supporting caregivers, now with his new company, Primetime Partners. It's not just the person who has dementia or Alzheimer's disease or these issues, but the people around them who also have to be there to care for them, like Alan did for his wife, Susan, before she passed away. I'm curious, what are some developments to support caregivers you'd like to see happen over the next decade?


Leonard Marshall: I think just to take their hand and say, "I recognize why you're here. I want to recognize what you do, and how you do it.” Just help. Just let the help come from the gift that you've been blessed with. Whatever walk of life you may come from, whether it be you're a politician, you're an architect, you're a financial advisor, you're a construction worker, or whatever it may be, if you have dealt with people in this space, and if you understand what it is that families go through, when dealing with someone that's ill, whether it be mental illness, or physical ailment, just continue to be that person. Just continue to learn what it means to stick a hand out and help somebody up. Because it means a lot.


Shiv Gaglani: It's very special people who are called to that as their job and obviously, we need a lot more of them as people are living longer and getting these conditions. Now, when you meet someone who is affected by dementia or Alzheimer's, what advice do you give them?


Leonard Marshall: Try to continue to live your best life. Despite the challenge and the hurdles you have to overcome, try the best to live your best life. Understand that there are people that are around you that love, care and understand what you're going through. And if they don't, then you don't have to be around them. If they do, and you can gracefully embrace them, do that with no angst, no animosity whatsoever, just do it, and understand their blessing. Because until they've walked in your shoes, they won't really truly know what it's like. 


Shiv Gaglani: So, I know we're coming up on time and we want to be respectful of yours. My last question is, on the topic of advice, what's your general advice to the people in our audience about meeting the challenges of this moment and approaching their careers in healthcare?


Leonard Marshall: I can tell you that some of the finest people I know work in healthcare. People that have taken care of me when I was in dire need of assistance. So, I say this to professionals, real professionals in the industry that take pride in what they do: never stop doing what you love, and never let that love stop you from what you want to do. Always continue to give yourself and always know that there's someone that will appreciate what you do and they will show you how much they appreciate it someday.


It might not be at the moment that you expect. It might not be the moment that you want. But there's someone that gives a damn about you and that person will remember to pay it forward, because someone gave a damn about them. That's what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to pay it forward. Someone cared enough about me in 2013 to enable me to live my life. They knew my thing was not over yet. They knew it just wasn't my time, and because God was willing to let me do that, I've now been able to pay it forward. I bless so many people's lives by educating them and making them aware of what CBD and cannabis can do to change the faculties associated with traumatic brain injury. Marijuana has changed at least fifteen NFL players that I know, it has changed their lives. CBD, cannabidiol has changed their lives. 


I have a teammate right now -- I won't name his name -- but I will say he's had a thyroid brain surgery, where he's had a tumor removed above his eye. I've been feeding him CBD for the last seven, eight, nine years. He's still living. He's six foot six and 300 pounds, and he's still living and I'm happy as hell because he was a member of the 1986 Super Bowl team with me and a guy I respect and love like a brother. He's going to be sixty years old here in a few weeks. 


So, I practice what I preach. I ask other people to do the same. If you love people, you love life, and you have the ability to touch someone else's life, do it. Do it. Because that guy -- at the end of the day when you go stand up at the Pearly Gates --  that's the only guy that really matters, that cat upstairs. All those others that you got pats on the back from and tell you how great you were, they won't be around when you meet the pearly gates - they won't be there. He will, but they won't be there.


Shiv Gaglani: Well, that's great advice and obviously well-suited for our audience who are dedicating their lives to being professional caregivers and working with people who have Alzheimer's, dementia, CTE and the other conditions we talked about today. So, Mr. Marshall, I really appreciate your time and obviously the passion you have for this community and these conditions.


Leonard Marshall: And I appreciate, respect what you and the rest of your team are doing. And Courtney, if you hear this podcast, it was you who told me just how great this organization was, and I'm so proud of what we've been able to accomplish. Thank you very much.


Shiv Gaglani: Thank you again, and thanks again to Courtney and Alan and everyone else who's involved with CaringKind. With that, I'd like to thank our audience for checking out today's show. I'm Shiv Gaglani. Remember to do your part to flatten the curve and Raise the Line. We're all in this together. Take care.