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Fenech’s fighting spirit strong as ever but CTE decimating ex-league star

Rugby league legend Mario Fenech and his wife Rebecca have opened up about his battle with early onset dementia in the hope that his plight will alert younger sportspeople in contact sports to the dangers of repeated concussions.

In an interview aired on Sunday night on Seven’s Spotlight program, the 60-year-old former star bravely spoke about his battle to stave off the insidious condition.

His memory capabilities have been reduced dramatically in recent years to the point where his wife is virtually his full-time carer.

Fenech struggles to remember simple tasks and repeatedly tells the same stories to friends and family because of his condition.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 05: Mario Fenech looks on during a South Sydney Rabbitohs NRL training session at Redfern Oval on September 5, 2018 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

“There are times I get real bad anxiety stuff,” he said, after being prompted on the correct word to use by his wife. “It’s not much fun having brain damage, mate, because literally I forget things like that,” he added with a click of his fingers.  

His neurologist, Sydney dementia specialist Dr Rowena Mobbs, said Fenech was in an advancing stage of early onset dementia and would soon need to be put into full-time care.

Dr Mobbs said Fenech presented as a classic case of Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) due to the many knocks to the head he suffered on the football field. 

“He’s in advancing CTE. It won’t be long before he needs care,” she said. “CTE is a type of dementia so gradually your neurons wither away in the brain, there’s a loss of brain tissue due to the head knocks, the head injuries. 

“Over time it will get worse and eventually he will end up needing care and dying from it.”

She said scans showed Fenech’s brain was similar to a dementia patient in their 80s rather than someone who turned 60 late last year.

1993 NSWRL - North Sydney Bears

Mario Fenech with North Sydney teammate Sean Hoppe in 1993. (Photo by Getty Images)

When asked if his light-hearted demeanour was a coping mechanism, Dr Mobbs said that was not the case..

“He’s not using anything (to cope) because he’s not aware of anything,” she said. “He’s in a constant repetition.”

Fenech worked with the NRL in an ambassadorial role but retired a few years ago due to his health struggles. 

Given the nickname of “Test match” during his playing days because that was the intensity he brought to every game, Fenech copped many concussions during his career.

He played 275 matches in a first-grade career which kicked off with South Sydney in 1981 and also included a four-year stint with Norths and a final season with the South Queensland Crushers before he retired at the end of 1995.

Fenech, represented NSW in two Origin matches in 1989, was renowned as one of the toughest competitors in a rough era for the sport and was known for putting his body on the line with big hits or thunderous charges into the defensive line. 

“Rugby league in this generation is a lot more safer than when I played,” he said. “In those days you could do anything. It was kill or be killed in our era. 

“But in saying that I wouldn’t change a thing. I really enjoyed my 15-year challenge of playing rugby league and enjoyed my time at Souths and it was brutal in those days, but that’s the way it was.”

After retiring, he was a regular member of The Footy Show on Channel Nine for a decade and his wife revealed in the Spotlight interview that she and the rest of the Fenech family were unhappy with the way he was portrayed on the show.

Often the butt of jokes and pranks, he would often return home in a foul mood after recording shows due to how he was treated.

Rebecca said she thought he was singled out and “they took the mickey out of him” because he wasn’t one of the boys as someone who didn’t gamble or hang out with the crew for a beer after the show.

She also said his condition had put them under significant financial pressure and sadly, she was unsure what the future would hold for her husband. 

“The latest scan with Rowena showed an incredible deterioration, she said she hadn’t seen a brain like it so that’s where we’re at,” she said.

“His jokes we’ve heard a million times. They’re funny but it’s not funny when he’s got CTE.”

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