Ex-Loyola football player Sal DiMucci: Another tragedy linked to CTE

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Sal DiMucci, who died in a car crash in 2016, played football at Loyola and was a scholarship player at Wisconsin. | Sun-Times file photo

The modern stone and glass house in Barrington Hills is gorgeous.

The day is warm and sunny, all the snow is gone, and the vaulted rear window in the living room on this five-acre estate gives a view of the oak forest that sweeps down to the lake where geese and mallard ducks gather.

The solitude mixed with the portent of spring awakening under the leaves of winter is exhilarating.

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But there is little joy in this place of beauty.

Less than two years ago, Sal DiMucci, the 35-year old owner of the home (with wife, Lisa) died instantly in a car crash less than a mile from the front driveway. He was driving at a high rate of speed, and a toxicology report showed he was slightly above the legal blood-alcohol limit.

Lisa DiMucci holds a photo of her husband, Sal, when he was an 8-year-old on his youth football team. | RICK TELANDER/SUN-TIMES

Lisa DiMucci holds a photo of her husband, Sal, when he was an 8-year-old on his youth football team. | RICK TELANDER/SUN-TIMES

In the car with him were two former Bears, quarterback Caleb Hanie and linebacker Joey LaRocque, both 30 at the time. Hanie suffered a broken wrist in the one-car accident, while LaRocque was banged up but quickly released from the hospital.

The three men were returning from dinner at a Ruth’s Chris Steak House in South Barrington, where they had discussed the possibility of DiMucci investing in Hanie’s and LaRocque’s fledgling “soft helmet’’ company, an entity making flexible, facemask-free helmets for flag football games and tackle football practice.

DiMucci, a 6-1, 225-pound former star fullback and team captain at Loyola Academy in Wilmette and a scholarship player at Wisconsin, whose career was cut short by injuries, came from a wealthy family in Barrington. His father, Sal DiMucci II, had died suddenly when Sal was a teenager, and it devastated his son.

Though he was left with money, he soon began to worry about his own health — in time, mostly about his brain, which he felt was no longer functioning properly.

“He said to me, ‘Do you know how many times I used my head — over and over and over again — just in practice,’ ’’ says Lisa now, as her two boys, Salvatore IV, age 3, and Rocco, 17 months, play in the next room.

“We got married in 2013, and when I’d bring up the future, he didn’t want to talk about it. He’d always say, ‘I’m going to die young.’ And I’d say, ‘What? Why? Let’s get to the bottom of this.’ But he always just said, ‘I know I’m going to die young.’ ’’

Sal had gotten his law degree at John Marshall in Chicago, passed the Illinois bar exam easily, and then swiftly tumbled downhill. When the couple went to see the movie “Concussion,’’ about the start of CTE research and the terrible brain damage done to star players like Mike Webster, Sal sobbed openly in the theater.

“I don’t want to be that man!’’ he cried.

“I had already noticed a big change in him,’’ says Lisa. “I was pregnant with our first boy, and I knew law school was stressful, but Sal came out and said, ‘I think I have brain damage. I think there’s a dead spot in my brain from football.’ ’’

He made one thing clear: Upon his death, he wanted his brain donated to the Boston University CTE Center, the neurology research group that has analyzed hundreds of former football players’ brains and found the disease in many of them.

But that was for later. The immediate distress of seeing her husband go downhill with the early symptoms of CTE —memory loss, lethargy, sleeplessness, depression, mood swings — took its toll on Lisa. As many wives of longtime football players had found out before her, the game of head-banging has no splendor when it’s over and only the ailments remain.

Sal died when Lisa, now 36, was five months pregnant with Rocco. Family members worried that she was so distraught and physically ill that she would lose the baby.

When Hanie promptly sued DiMucci’s estate for millions of dollars, it only fueled Lisa’s despair.

In the months before the crash, Sal could only sleep if he drank himself to near unconsciousness. During the day he would sit for hours alone in Lisa’s home office, doing nothing. “It was dungeon-dark, just the TV on.’’

The regression, Lisa says, “was horrible, the ups and downs. He started unraveling so fast. He had a memory that I’ve never, ever seen — beyond photographic. And then he started forgetting the simplest things.’’

Lisa sent Sal’s brain to the Boston research group, and, indeed, Sal did have stage 1 CTE damage.

Lisa needed help and comfort, and she found it in the Concussion Legacy Foundation, headed by Chicago native and former Harvard football player Chris Nowinski. She is now on the Chicago advisory board for that association.

She will be traveling to Springfield on Thursday with a number of other concerned wives and supporters of a bill to be presented to the state legislature calling for the abolition of tackle football for anyone under age 12. It is called the Duerson Act, for Dave Duerson, the former star Bears safety who killed himself in 2011 and was found to have CTE.

“The more years you play, the greater the risk of CTE,” says Nowinski simply.

Lisa DiMucci, who still cries every day over her loss, holds a photo of her deceased husband, then in third grade in a youth tackle football uniform.

“I am convinced he was creating his brain damage at age 8,’’ she says, near tears again.

Was he?

We will never know.

But the anguish is there forever.

Follow me on Twitter @RickTelander.

Email: rtelander@suntimes.com

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