Mario Fenech is a giant of the South Sydney Rabbitohs.
He played 181 of his 274 first-grade games with Souths and is still adored by Rabbitohs fans as one of the NRL club’s all-time greats. He’s synonymous with the crash and bash of rugby league in the ’80s and ’90s, and has been lauded for the lack of regard he had for his own safety when he crossed the white line.
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One of the undisputed greats of the game, Fenech – who was also a keen boxer – has given more to rugby league in Australia than most.
The problem is, Fenech barely remembers it.
Fenech was diagnosed with early onset dementia at the age of just 53, when specialists said he was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
CTE is a progressively debilitating brain condition caused by repeated blows to the head and consistent episodes of concussion. It’s irreversible and, at worst, fatal.
Now 60, Fenech has the brain of an ’80-year-old patient’.
He – and many other ex-athletes like ex-Essendon Bombers ruck John Barnes and the late St Kilda great Danny Frawley – has had to swallow the sobering reality of the condition.
“To be honest, I remember when I was playing football, I got smashed around the head all the time and it had a real bad effect on me,” Fenech told 7NEWS Spotlight.
“You feel like you’re going pop, and it affects your brain. It affects your brain.
“There are times I get really bad, just anxiety stuff,” he said. “It’s not much fun to have a brain damage, mate, because I literally forget things like that.”
A grim situation
The former Rabbitohs star’s ailments are a direct result of the weekly trauma his head suffered when he put his body on the line to win games of football.
“In the ’80s and ’90s when we played, mate, you could do anything,” he said.
“In those days, it was kill or be killed. You could smash blocks around the head.
“See, now, if I just tapped you on the chin, mate, I’d be sent off”.
And the game is the better for it, Fenech said.
That’s hardly any solace for the 60-year-old though, whose CTE symptoms are as inexorable as they are insidious.
Mario’s best mate and former sparring partner, Jeff Fenech – who shares his surname but is no blood relation – is an International Boxing Hall of Fame member, having held world titles in three separate weight divisions.
He received hundreds, maybe thousands, of blows to the head over his decorated career – so it’s perhaps no surprise that Jeff is also showing signs of the complex brain condition from which his best mate Mario suffers.
Jeff’s condition is nowhere near as deteriorated as Mario’s, but he has his fears.
Neurologist Dr Rowena Mobbs leads a team of doctors caring for Jeff and Mario’s brain health, but it’s Mario she’s most concerned about.
“(Mario’s) in advancing CTE. It won’t long before he needs care,” Dr Mobbs said on Spotlight.
“So, gradually the neurons wither away in the brain. There’s a loss of brain tissue due to the head knocks, due to the head injuries.
“Over time, people get worse and eventually they end up needing care and dying from it”.
An inspection of Mario’s brain scans is grim viewing, Dr Mobbs said.
“It’s showing too much fluid and not enough brain,” she said, while looking at the scan.
“As we go up to the memory areas here, those temporal lobes, or the side bits of the brain, it’s not quite looking as full as I’d like to see it.
“I look at it and go, ‘That’s even too shrunken for my 80-year-old patients.’
“If I gave you a normal brain and I gave you Mario’s brain, it’d be lighter. And you would see that it’s not as big. Right in front of you”.
Jeff speaks to Mario at least twice a week, and the pair catch up for dinner about once a fortnight. Jeff has noticed a decline in Mario’s mannerisms even since his last scan.
Jeff estimates that Mario suffered around 16 concussions per year.
Mario’s son, Joe, remembers his dad picking him up from school when he was little. Even then, Joe recalls Mario struggling to remember how to navigate himself back home.
“We would have family dinner together, every night, and just him forgetting things, not remembering how old I was turning, forgetting what subjects I was studying in school, that sort of thing,” Joe said.
“And that just started to become worse and worse, until the stage where I felt like, my whole family, we didn’t really know what was happening. ‘Is he distant for some reason? Is it because he doesn’t care about us?’”
Before CTE, Mario was a charismatic funny guy with an enormous personality. He still is, but he’s just not the same.
Mario’s wife, and now carer, Rebecca Fenech, battles with Mario’s lack of memory and comprehension daily.
“He does not remember the moment because the next moment is the new moment,” she explained.
“For example, when my son got married in April, I couldn’t even tell him until (the day of it).
“He knew, but on the morning of it, I said, ‘Today’s the wedding’, and even during the day, I’d say, ‘We’re going to the wedding today… The wedding today’.
“And I wanted to make that a special day because it was probably the last time that maybe we’ll all be able to celebrate”.
Mario made a speech at the wedding, alongside Rebecca, and it was a special night for the entire family.
“But the really sad part of this story,” Joe explained, “is that when my parents woke up in the morning, the day after the wedding, my dad turned to my mum and said, ‘Oh, I’m really excited for the wedding, when is it?’”
The pain of living with CTE
Mario recently lost his health and life insurance – something he needs, now more than ever – because of his condition.
Rebecca found six months’ worth of bills in a drawer which were never paid. It wasn’t because Mario didn’t have the financial means to pay them – he did.
It was because he simply couldn’t remember that he had to.
He stopped paying the bills, so his insurance was cut off, and now he can’t get it back.
“That’s what’s the saddest thing that it’s such a silent, lonely, lonely killer,” Rebecca said.
“Brain damage isn’t much fun,” Mario said.
“There are times I get anxious. There are times I don’t feel well. How many times have I said to my wife, ‘I don’t feel that good today?’”
“Every day,” Rebecca answered.
Rebecca said she wanted to share Mario’s story to shine a spotlight on the greatest issue facing Australian sport right now: the long-term effects of concussion.
“I am doing it because people don’t realize the suffering that he’s going through,” she said.
“Every day he wakes up now and says, ‘I’m confused. I don’t know why. I don’t feel great.’ He can’t really do or think for himself.
“And I’m sure there are other families, husbands, wives, children’s parents, that are living in silence and not being able to tell their story. So, I’m doing it for you. And for future generations of children who love rugby league”.
Despite his increasingly grim plight, Mario chooses to put a smile on his face each day and enjoy the moments he has.
“I enjoy every day I can, mate. It’s the way it goes,” he said.
“You’ve got to help other people, brother. Because people are going to learn from what we’re saying here today.
“Why wouldn’t I want to help someone else, mate, who’s got brain damage like me?”
You can watch the full story on 7plus.