Legacy Stories

Joseph Campigotto

Joseph Campigotto was an All-Ohio high school football player and went on to play for Otterbein University. He spent his career working for General Motors as a mechanical engineer. After a lengthy battle with memory loss and behavioral changes, he passed away in 2016 at 65. After his death, Dr. Ann McKee of the VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank diagnosed him with stage 4 (of 4) Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) despite only playing seven years of football. His family chose to share his story to advance CTE research so future CTE patients and families can live better lives.

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By Angela Campigotto Harrison, Joseph's daughter

Have you ever tried to hold on to a runaway train? Just grab ahold and not let go even though you know where it's headed? A year ago, I tried.

I got the call early Monday morning, April 25th. Angela, listen, she said, your dad stopped eating. It's time to come home. I broke out in a rash. I couldn't really breathe. I bought a plane ticket.  

I knew it was coming. There was no avoiding that the years of slow decline would one day speed up and then it would just hit. Hit him. Hit all of us. 

You think you are ready. For years I watched my funny, smart, creative, caring dad just drift away. I would catch glimpses of him every now and again. Even at his worst, I knew he was doing everything he could to protect me from what he knew was happening to him. We would talk as if it would someday just get better. We all know. It never got better. 

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I used to think...at least he is still here, if only physically. I can see him. I can call him, even if he really can't say much back to me. He is still here. But as years went on, and it got worse and I could see just how much he was suffering, I knew he really didn't want to be here anymore, my thoughts changed. 

So many days I just wished he had cancer. I wished he had anything that would spare his mind, and just take his body instead. Maybe he will just have a heart attack. Maybe there is another way to make it end better, faster, for him...because we all knew how much worse it was going to get. 

I never thought I would live on a planet where I would wish my dad a fast and unexpected death. But there I was. Wanting the man who I looked up and loved my whole life...to just die. It was so heartbreakingly painful. Absolutely devastating in every sense knowing there was nothing else I could do. That anyone could do.

I got to the nursing home and my dad's bed had been moved to the corner. Now on a dramatic angle into the middle of the room. Walls bare. His favorite Pavarotti CD playing on the crappy little CD player we got for him. The plant I bought him still blooming in the window that faced a sad courtyard. Wearing his favorite Ohio State t-shirt, eyes closed, covered with a quilt, struggling to breath, turning grey, still looking so strong, still so much like a football player. He was surrounded by our amazing family and his loving and devoted friends. The hospice nurses administered morphine while everyone explained to me that he wasn't in pain and the breathing sounded worse than it felt. He didn't know what was happening.

I got there at 9pm. My brother at 11:30. Dad passed a little after midnight. We all held on to his body, sweaty and on fire with death. We all just hung on like we could stop it somehow. It did...it felt like jumping on the side of a train that was going over a cliff and you knew there were not brakes but you did it anyway. He took one last big breath. Opened his eyes to look around the room as if to confirm everyone he needed was there...and then he was gone. Just like that. 

I still don't know where I found the strength to be in that room. I would have placed all bets against myself to be able to stand there and just watch someone I loved more than anything disappear. But I had been watching him disappear for years. 

Just slowly fading away, little by little with every phone call. Every visit there was a little bit less of him to visit. Every trip to the basement revealed more dust on his wood working tools. Slowly all his shoes replaced with Velcro. His shirts no longer had buttons. His vocabulary down to just a few words or sounds. 

This is what football did to my dad, and my family. My dad was an all-state player. A really tough guy on all accounts. But he could not withstand this final blow from the sport. 

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My grandparents, Dee and Jim, are still alive. My grandpa just turned 90. My grandma in her 80s.

Angela, we just didn't know. We didn't know he could get hurt like this. Damn, I wish we would have known. 

My grandpa and I suspected CTE as soon as dad's symptoms became more pronounced. We would talk about it a lot. My dad's doctors laughed me off the phone when I brought it up. Most didn't even know he had played until I called and insisted it went into his chart. 7 years? No NFL? No way this is CTE. 

But now we know. We know what my grandparents wish they would have known all those years ago. Every hit hurts. And in the end hurts more than just the player.

In a cab, on the way to the airport, I called the Boston University Brain Bank.

Hi there. My dad is going to die and I want you take his brain. 

Not a call I thought I would ever make and not a call I want anyone else to feel like they need to make. The woman on the phone was sympathetic and thanked me. They moved swiftly to get me paperwork and had someone ready to take my dad's brain the next day. 

His brain went to Boston and where, just like in life, in death, my dad proved to be an exceptional case. With an unusual presentation, my dad's brain is continuing to teach lessons to anyone who comes in contact with it. 

So now, one year later, I have learned a lot about myself, my family, CTE, the amazing group of people working SO HARD at the Concussion Legacy Foundation (and I am SO happy to be helping them), and about how to live my life without my dad, who for so many years validated every decision I made.

Hey dad, you think I should buy a TV?

Well hell yes! Let's go to Best Buy! 

God damnit, I miss you dad. 

I am who I am because you were who you were.

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I will never stop working to stop this from happening to other players and their families. So buckle up people. We have a long ride ahead of us and we need some cash to make it happen. I kicked off a fundraiser Concussion Legacy Foundation and all the amazing work they do. My belief is the work they are doing today won't only benefit those who have suffered repeated head injuries from contact sports, but also those who suffer from all types of degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer's, which has touched so many of our lives. 

Thanks for helping me remember my dad and thanks for helping to support the cause. Let's stop this from happening to anyone else.

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