Final Days of Razorback Legend Ronnie Caveness

Final Days of Razorback Legend Ronnie Caveness

After battling Parkinson's disease, dementia and cancer, one of the greatest Arkansas athletes of all time, Ronnie Caveness, recently died at the age of 71. The Caveness family takes us through the final days of a Razorback legend.
LITTLE ROCK, AR - 50 years ago, he was the heart and soul of the Razorback defense. An All-American middle linebacker who led Arkansas to an undefeated season in 1964. His 155 tackles that year rank third all-time in University of Arkansas history. It's those statistics that eventually earned him a spot in the College Football Hall of Fame.

Now, Ronnie Caveness is a part of another statistic.

The rapidly growing number of former players who've paid a heavy price for their careers in football.

"The science and the data is overwhelming that---it's kind of play hard, die young," said his son, Ronnie Caveness Jr.

In 1984, 14 years after he retired from the NFL, Caveness showed his first signs of dementia. He became depressed, had trouble controlling his anger, and struggled with short-term memory. His daughter Sheri recalls one incident back in 2003.

"The big one for me was about 11 years ago. I built a one-story gray brick house, and he's lived in Little Rock since 1970 and he never could find his way to my new home. He would go to the house next door that was a two-story red brick with a wrap around porch that looked nothing like my one-story gray brick. And when your parents start getting older you think that's just their memory. You don't associate it with being anything serious.”

But it was serious.

Caveness was officially diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2011. He was also diagnosed with a rare sleep apnea and dementia.

"It's when my step-mom had a stroke when I was pregnant,” said Sheri. “That's when I saw the decline of my dad. How serious it was, how bad he was."

Last year, Caveness, along with nearly 5,000 former NFL players sued the league for head injuries suffered during their playing days. A settlement was reached worth 765 million dollars. However, the settlement was rejected by the presiding judge because she felt the players should receive more money.

"It shifted momentum I would say to the players at that point,” said Ronnie Jr. “When there's a judge saying, 'Hey there's not enough money here.'"

With the lawsuit still in negotiations, the Caveness family depended on the NFL's "88 plan." Named after the late hall of fame tight end John Mackey, the "88 plan" was created in 2007 paying up to 100 thousand dollars of medical expenses for players who spent at least five years in the league, and suffer from diseases such as Parkinson's or Alzheimer’s disease. The only problem... Hardly anyone knows about it.

"I would like to be an advocate for the 88 plan and get awareness out there,” said Sheri. “Because there's no telling how many men have fallen through the cracks.  It's just heartbreaking... It's just heartbreaking."

In January 2014, the Caveness family received more heartbreaking news.

Ronnie had cancer.

Doctors discovered melanoma in his bones, kidney, spleen, and his brain. They gave him less than two months to live.

"It's just hard for anyone that sees their mom or dad slowly dying,” said Ronnie Jr. “It's hard to---it's hard to deal with."

Especially when your loved one has no idea they're dying.

"His dementia, short-term memory, he can't remember he's been diagnosed with melanoma," said Sheri.

On May 10th, Ronnie Caveness passed away.

Ronnie’s final day, fittingly, a Saturday. The same day he spent building a Razorback legacy that will live forever.

A memorial will be held for Ronnie on Thursday, June 5th at 2 p.m. at Fellowship Bible Church in Little Rock.


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