The families of football and rugby players living with dementia have joined forces for the first time to create a new charity which will campaign for new scientific research and safer practice.
Head For Change, which has enlisted the family of Nobby Stiles to be ambassadors, reflects the wish of those whose sporting careers resulted in them having the disease to push for the changes highlighted by Sportsmail’s dementia campaign and be a part of the solution.
The driving forces are three women who have watched their relatives live with the illness: Judith Gates, wife of former Middlesbrough defender Bill Gates, Melanie Bramwell-Popham, wife of former rugby union player Alix Popham, 41, and Dr Sally Tucker, whose 71-year-old father Bill, a former professional footballer, was diagnosed eight years ago.
Alix Popham (right) has enlisted the support of hundreds of former rugby internationals
The charity’s fundamental aim is to deliver support to families through strength in numbers, as it emerges that hundreds of former players across the two sports are affected.
Mrs Bramwell-Popham described how Mrs Gates had helped her and her husband explain the nature of the illness to their young daughters.
‘There was no advice out there on how to talk to the girls about the diagnosis and dad’s five to 10-year management plan,’ she said. ‘When I contacted Judith, I found she had that experience of how to deal with it.’
Conversely, the presence of a younger generation of former sportsmen will bring energy to the older families of the footballers who are afflicted.
Popham has enlisted the support of hundreds of former rugby internationals, as well as 2018 Tour de France and Olympic cycling champion Geraint Thomas, for a 24-hour ride in conjunction with Zwift, the virtual cycling app.
Popham’s wife Melanie (left) is one of the driving forces of the dementia charity
The public will be encouraged to join in on the weekend of March 6-7. It is hoped sponsorship will boost the new charity’s coffers.
Another aim is to challenge, through new research, an influential conservative lobby within the scientific establishment which insists the only way to prove a link between dementia and sport is through post mortem examination of brains. That process would take at least 20 years.
Gates and Tucker, who is an NHS surgeon, have already helped to establish a parallel organisation, the Repercussion Group — a consortium of independent scientists who aim to establish an alternative conception of head injury.
The more conservative definition is an obstacle to change, including the designation of dementia within football as an industrial disease.
A specific Head For Change aim is to fund an academic review of the thousands of research papers into the link between sport and the illness.
Former footballer Bill Tucker, here tackling George Best, was diagnosed eight years ago
The ultra-conservative Consensus Concussion Group cited only around 40 when it concluded there was no ‘causal link’.
Dr Tucker said: ‘Our angle is do your best to ensure first no harm. If you are doing a drug trial, you would halt giving the drug until you get information that it is safe.
‘The ethos with football is, “We will carry on what we’re doing and then see what the research tells us”. Unless we introduce change now, we are exposing players to this.’
Mrs Bramwell-Popham said: ‘We decided from the start that this was not going to be a life sentence. Judith asked me what we wanted our legacy as a family to be.
‘We want to help others. We want to provide good care and support.’
Meanwhile, the virtual fundraising event Team Talk with Legends – Live, in aid of dementia research and involving Sir Alex Ferguson, Sir Kenny Dalglish, Gareth Southgate and Jurgen Klopp takes place on Friday at 7pm. To book, go to:
Head For Change has enlisted the family of Nobby Stiles to be ambassadors for the charity