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Families of dementia-stricken rugby and football stars unite in sport charity launch

Nobby Stiles: England World Cup winner discusses career in 2014

And ‘Head For Change’ has enlisted the family of the late Nobby Stiles, himself stricken with Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia, to be their ambassadors. The landmark organisation was initially dreamed up by campaigning Judith Gates, the wife of former Middlesbrough defender Bill Gates. Last year British sport was rocked by the revelation that World Cup 1966 legend Sir Bobby Charlton had been diagnosed with dementia. But then followed news that Rugby World Cup winner Steve Thompson, 42, and ex-Welsh rugby ace Alix Popham, just 41, also have dementia.

Now Mrs Gates, Alix’s wife Melanie Bramwell-Popham and Dr Sally Tucker, whose footballer dad, aged 71, has dementia – have created Head For Change.

Their aim is to power research into causal links and suggest changes to the two sports, as emerges hundreds of former players are affected.

Judith Gates exclusively told the Daily Express: “The light in my husband’s eyes dims every day.

“I hope no player or family in the future has suffer what we are experiencing.

“He’s losing his sense of self and we, his wife, sons, granddaughters and great grandsons, are losing a life partner, a caring dad and an indulgent grandad.

Nobby Stiles suffered from Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia (Image: PA)

“My two year-old great-grandson recently gently touched his baby brother’s forehead. “Delicate” he said. We need to learn from that.

“I want everyone to recognise the fragility of the brain. I want to tell young players they are not indestructible.

“I want people to work with us to ensure families of tomorrow do not endure ‘the long goodbye’ we’re living through.”

While NHS surgeon Dr Sally Tucker, of London, told us: “Dementia is something people usually associate with the elderly but that’s not the reality.

“Some players in impact sports like rugby are developing symptoms far younger, like Alix Popham who is only 41.

Sir Bobby Charlton

World Cup 1966 legend Sir Bobby Charlton was diagnosed with dementia last year (Image: PA)

“Being ex-sports people they are used to being physically fit and active and that can be very difficult to manage as the disease progresses. 

“The charity aims to set up local support groups for those affected at the moment and support independent research into dementia in sport.

“This is not about blame, it’s about the medical world and sports governing bodies working together to make the sport safe.

“We are sporting families who love the game, and have spent hours on the sidelines.

“Neither we, nor supporters wants to see their favourite players coming to harm.”

Mrs Bramwell-Popham said Mrs Gates had helped her and her husband explain the nature of the illness to their young daughters.

She said: “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.

“When I contacted Judith, I found she had that experience of how to deal with it.”

Meanwhile Alix has enlisted the support of hundreds of sports stars, such as 2018 Tour de France champion Geraint Thomas, for a 24-hour virtual cycle ride.

The public will be encouraged to join in on the weekend of March 6-7

 via cycling app Zwift hoping sponsors and the public give financial support.

Steve Thompson

Rugby World Cup winner Steve Thompson was diagnosed with dementia at just 42 (Image: Getty )

They also have the support of prominent Labour MP Chris Bryant, currently chairing the cross-party committee investigating sports brain injuries.

Another charity aim is to challenge sports scientists who insist only decades of further research can prove the link between dementia and sport.

They hope to fund an academic review of the thousands of research papers into the link between sport and the illness.

Mrs Bramwell-Popham added: “We decided from the start 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.”

*To donate to Head For Change go to www.gofundme.com/f/head-for-change-be-part-of-the-solution.

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