When Mansfield Town legend Kevin Bird left the club after 11 seasons as a hero back in 1983, no one could have expected his story to have turned out the way it has.
Bird, 65, is now one of a number of footballers suffering from dementia with science starting to establish a link to their problems with years of heading footballs.
A special charity game at One Call Stadium on Sundaywill see him honoured as Kevin Bird’s Mansfield Town Legends & Guests take on the Once Upon a Smile team of soap stars and other celebrity names in aid of Once Upon a Smile and the Alzheimer’s Society.
Kevin’s wife of 40 years, Susan, 66, said: “It’s very humbling to think that people think so much of Kevin that they will go out of their way to do this for him.
“It’s not just Kevin that is suffering with this dementia – it affects the whole family.
“He can remember 40 years ago with his illness and football but he can’t remember 40 seconds ago.
“The worst thing is that it gets worse not better which makes it even harder to cope with.
“I had cancer 17 years ago and that’s gone away. Kevin looked after me then so it’s my turn now.”
Susan recalls when the nightmare began for the family.
“Five years ago this August I found him in the corner with his head in his hands just in a mess,” she said.
“He couldn’t go to work and he’s not been to work since then. But he wasn’t actually diagnosed until the following January.
“A couple of years before that our two daughters kept saying to me there’s something wrong with dad – take him to the doctors. But, of course he wouldn’t go. Men won’t go to the doctors.
“I don’t know if it’s a man thing or not but Kevin hardly ever went to the doctors. He had worked nights at Tesco for 18 years and I was thinking that, with working nights for so long, it was down to stress. But it wasn’t. It was all coming onto him at the time.”
With dementia it’s now just a long, slow painful path with no light at the end of an ever-darkening tunnel.
“He has deteriorated since then,” she said. “It is a slow deterioration, though he doesn’t seem to have got any worse since last year at the moment which is something I am hanging onto.”
Heading the ball is something Kevin was an expert at and Sue recalled: “Kevin scored 63 goals and I dare bet 90 per cent of them were with his head – I don’t know for sure.
“But he always used to go up for corners and score with his head. He didn’t score many with his feet.
“The players also used to get cuts on their head, get stitched and go back on.
“He got his leg cut once and had 26 stitches in the front of it on the Saturday and he played on the Tuesday night. I said ‘why the hell are you playing and he said I’ll be all right, they will pad me up’.
“Now Kevin and others from that era – they’ve got bad knees, bad legs and you wonder if it was all worth it.”
The heading footballs and dementia link is now big news – and Sue believes it’s not before time.
“There is research going on now at last because Jeff Astle’s daughter Dawn has pushed it, and Ernie Moss’ daughter too,” she said.
“Dawn is brilliant – she just won’t let it go and I don’t blame her. Her dad died and it’s heartbreaking.
“The PFA and the FA don’t seem to want to know at the moment.
“Whether they will have to in the end I don’t know.
“They did help us initially when he was diagnosed. We were struggling for money while he was waiting for a diagnosis and the waiting list was six months for an MRI scan.
“I saw Graham Brown (former Stags keeper) at a funeral and he told me ring the FA and they paid for him to go private, which meant we got a diagnosis much quicker which was a great help, and a cheque for £2,000. I’ve not heard from them since.
“At the moment it just seems like they don’t care at all and it’s sad isn’t it?”
Kevin has a suite named after him at the One Call Stadium and it is watching the Stags where he is really in his element still at the club where he played 377 times in his 11 years.
“He loves going to the football – the football keeps him going. Everyone looks after him at the club,” said Sue. “The love everyone is showing for him is quite humbling.”
Tickets are on sale for the Phil Walker-organised charity game on Sunday, 14th May (3pm).
They are priced adults £5, children and concessions £3 and a family ticket (two adults, two children) £12.
There are two playing places up for grabs for the winners of an auction, two winners each getting to play for 45 minutes.
Highest bidding currently stands at £200 - anybody who would like to bid to play should email Sue at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tickets can be bought from the One Call Stadium or via www.stagstickets.co.uk.