The Middlesbrough footballer's widow trying to save future players

An older couple on their 50th wedding anniversary smile at each other
Bill and Judith, pictured on their 50th wedding anniversary, had been together since they were teenagers [Judith Gates]

Judith Gates spent years watching her ex-professional footballer husband Bill disintegrate, his brain damaged by the game he loved. As a new book tells their story, the BBC spoke to Judith about her fight to save future footballers.

When Bill Gates realised his brain was failing, he implored his wife Judith to make him a promise.

"It's too late for me," he told her, "but do everything you can to stop this happening to others."

The former-Middlesbrough and England youth defender had not headed a ball since he retired from football a day before his 30th birthday in 1974.

Players in a penalty area jostle for the ball
Judith Gates reckons her husband Bill (wearing number five) headed a football thousands of times before the age of 30 [Judith Gates/Larry Ellis]

But, decades later, the effect of all those impacts revealed itself as the footballer-turned-businessman succumbed to a neuro-degenerative disease.

It is hard to say exactly when the symptoms first started. Different people have different accounts of noticing things not being quite right with Bill.

For Judith, it was in about 2010 when Bill was in his mid-60s and she was making plans with him, only for him to ask again soon afterwards where they were going and when.

"Those things are nothing when they are a one-off, but it just escalated from that," she says.

Bill Gates as a young teenager
Seeing this picture of a young Bill motivates Judith to stop other youths getting his illness [Judith Gates]

By 2014, Bill was unable to remember what he had done even two hours before and a memory clinic in London diagnosed him with amnesic mild cognitive impairment.

Judith can remember leaving that meeting with some hope for her husband, doctors having told her there was still a chance he may recover.

Hours later, those dreams were dashed when, having got the train back north, Bill could not remember where he had parked their car at Durham station.

"I realised then he was not going to get better," Judith recalls from the comfort of the sunroom at the couple's home in Castle Eden, County Durham.

Old black and white picture of young footballer players posing in rows
A young Bill Gates (holding the ball) captained a team in his home town of Ferryhill, County Durham [Judith Gates]

Their 63-year-long relationship had a somewhat scandalous start with Judith falling pregnant at just 16.

The two Spennymoor Grammar School pupils got together on a class trip to the 1960 Olympics in Rome and had been inseparable since, but they certainly had not been planning to start a family so soon.

"It was before the swinging '60s so there was shock, horror, shame, all of those things," Judith says.

But both she and Bill were "extremely strong and mature" beyond their years and, with the support of their families, they welcomed their son David, while also working to ensure a solid future.

Black and white picture of a young couple on their wedding day
Bill and Judith married in their teens [Judith Gates]

Seventeen-year-old Bill, a talented defender from the County Durham coalfields, agreed to sign for then second division-side Middlesbrough FC on the condition they helped him study chartered accountancy at a local law firm alongside his football.

Judith completed her schooling and went into teaching, becoming, at the age of 29, the youngest headteacher in the country when she took the helm of a new primary school in Middlesbrough.

She became a school inspector and esteemed academic in the sphere of education, gaining a doctorate in the process and winning awards for her campaigns on issues including domestic abuse.

Tough-tackling Bill plied his trade on the football pitch, becoming a stalwart in Boro's central defence and reportedly the first player in the country to be paid £50 a week.

Black and white picture of Bill sliding into to challenge a player
Bill Gates played 333 games for Middlesbrough after making his debut at the age of 17 [Judith Gates]

He suffered a double broken jaw in a game at Manchester United and numerous other injuries in a 13-year career, including fractures in his spine, toe and ankle, but it was excruciating migraines at 29 that ended his time as a player.

"I think that there was a deep sadness at leaving a sport and a game that he had loved so much," Judith says, "but he was also looking forward to the future.

"Bill was extremely intelligent and far-sighted."

He had already started planning for life after the game by opening a sport shop, Bill Gates Sports, in the centre of Middlesbrough.

An old football cap and white England shirt
Judith still has the cap and shirt worn by Bill when he played for the England youth team [BBC]

"He was ahead of his time," Judith says with obvious pride, recounting how he foresaw the booming market for sportswear as fashion, the elevation of trainers from practical footwear to style statements, as well as the need for modern marketing.

The couple's business became Monument Sports, a chain of 10 stores ranging from Nottingham to Liverpool, Manchester to the newly-opened Metrocentre, which they sold for more than £4m in 1989.

They moved to the Cayman Islands for what Judith calls "tax reasons and sunshine", and then embarked on seeing the world.

An old photo of a young couple sitting on a boat
Judith and Bill had a boat in the Cayman Islands named after her father [Judith Gates]

"We were travellers, not tourists," Jill says, as she lists some of the 115 countries they visited, retelling their encounters with sharks, tigers, and mountain gorillas, adventures in the Galapagos and hiking to Machu Picchu in Peru.

"I'm so grateful that we did all that given his untimely death," Judith says.

Bill sits on a hill overlooking old ruined buildings with a mountain beyond
Bill and Judith travelled the world, including trekking to Machu Picchu in Peru [Judith Gates]

After realising his memory was getting worse, Bill went to another clinic in Toronto, Canada.

Advanced scans showed no signs of Alzheimer's but, given his "employment history", it was suggested he may have chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease linked to repeated impacts on the head, such as those inflicted in sports including rugby, American football and football.

Judith put her academic skills to work and threw herself into the research behind CTE, concluding it was the impact of heading a ball that had caused the damage.

Old photo of Umbro jumpers on a rack in a sports shop
Bill Gates started a successful chain of sports shops... [Judith Gates]
Black and white picture of the outside of an old sports
... after opening his first store in Middlesbrough's Dundas Arcade [Judith Gates]

Her efforts and the people she met, including many former sports stars and their families, as well as scientists researching CTE, are told fully in No-brainer, a new book by renowned North East journalist Mike Amos.

Judith founded Head for Change with former Wales international rugby player Alix Popham, then set up Head Safe Football to focus specifically on changing attitudes in the game Bill played.

A study found professional footballers were three-and-a-half times more likely to get dementia than non-players and there were high profile diagnoses of Bill's contemporaries, including England 1966 World Cup winners Nobby Stiles and Bobby Charlton.

Dawn Astle, daughter of West Bromwich Albion striker Jeff Astle, was already speaking out about the dangers of heading after her own father's tormented final years.

Head for Change made global headlines with two exhibition matches at Spennymoor Town where heading was banned, and all the while they were campaigning, Judith and her sons David and Nick were also caring for Bill.

The hardest moments were when he was aware of his loss, Judith says.

"He knew he was bewildered but didn't know why," she says. "That was like a knife in my heart because I couldn't protect him from the recognition that he could no longer think and do and respond in the way this bright, confident and competent man previously had."

He developed obsessions, such as picking up litter or piling up twigs, which Judith speculates was his "disordered mind actually looking for, and trying to create, order".

He began walking, his brain compelling him to continuously trek and his family had to work shifts accompanying him while "literally pouring water down his throat" to try and keep him hydrated.

Judith could see the love of her life was tormented in his mind.

"I can't describe the horror of the wildness of his eyes," she says.

"It was like they were looking in vain for tranquillity but we couldn't help him find it."

Bill Gates as an old man plays football with African children
Bill Gates did a lot of work with his son Nick's charity Coaches Across Continents [Judith Gates]

He would ask for drugs or a gun to kill himself, Judith says.

"Clearly the wildness of what was going on in his head was very disruptive to him and it was very heart-breaking for us," she says.

At night he would scratch his eyes relentlessly, and Judith thinks he thought he was trying to remove the thick contact lenses he had worn back in the 1960s.

Judith is keen to stress Bill never showed any violence towards her or the family, but says others have not been so lucky, as previously "mild mannered men" have been known to start lashing out because of their disease.

Bill spent his final months in a care home near Darlington before dying at the age of 79 in October.

A man smiles at the camera
Bill Gates died in October at the age of 79 in October [Judith Gates]

Although it seems to affect older people, Judith says CTE is really a "disease of youth".

"Bill never headed a ball after he retired at 29, that's 50 years before he died," she says. "The damage was done then, though the disease spread through his brain in the intervening years.

"What we really want to get across to young players is they are in danger, this is a problem for them now."

The only current solution is prevention, says Judith.

"Every day there is a kid somewhere heading a football and that's what we need to be focusing on."

A book lies on grass
No-brainer by Mike Amos tells the story of dementia in footballers like Bill [BBC]

As well as campaigning to raise awareness and support families of those afflicted, Judith also wants the professional game to make changes.

There have been steps in that direction, for example banning heading at youth ages or introducing concussion protocols, but Judith wants more.

Old picture of Bill in an England kit with an opposing player and referee doing a coin toss
Bill Gates played a youth tournament for England [Judith Gates]

What about those who say removing heading would ruin football, it would change the beautiful game too much?

"That has to be balanced against the destroyed lives," Judith says, clearly reciting a well-worn response.

"Football is a game created by humans and played by humans and the rules have been modified before," she adds, likening the situation to the stopping of smoking or introduction of seatbelts.

"We tend to assume that things we have taken for granted will never change, but they can be," Judith says.

She says a change to heading would be an "evolution" in football and, as evidenced by the two no-heading games, it would promote new tactics and skills.

"You'd be hard pushed to say those matches weren't as exciting as any that allowed heading," Judith says, citing a newspaper reporter who said the ban meant a more skilful game with the ball on the ground.

"We want to talk about how we can seek to maintain the game but safeguard the players," she says.

Young Bill and Judith on a beach
After selling their business, Bill and Judith Gates bought homes in the Cayman Islands and Florida and travelled the world [Judith Gates]

She is also keen to fight back against the argument that the older, heavier balls were more damaging than current lighter ones.

"The velocity is so great that the impact on the head is as dangerous as it was in the '60s."

Judith wants CTE recognised as an "industrial disease" which would enable affected families to get financial support, as well as change the wider "attitude" towards the condition.

She also knows Bill's thoughts on changing the game he loved.

While watching a documentary by Alan Shearer on the subject in 2017, she asked her husband if, knowing everything they did now, he would do it all again.

Bill Gates scuba diving with rays
Judith Gates has fond memories of Bill's encounters with wild animals [Judith Gates]

"He said 'I would've stopped in a heartbeat'," Judith says. "So even with the adulation, the delight of the game and excelling at something that interested him, he would have stopped immediately.

"That actually was quite a painful recognition for me."

With her 80th birthday looming next year, Judith is conscious she can only do so much.

Her family is taking on the fight and Judith says she will continue to do whatever she can to be useful, while also splitting her life between their homes in Cayman, Florida and Castle Eden and spending time with her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Judith Gates
Judith says she will keep campaigning for as long as she is useful [BBC]

When it comes to remembering her husband, she has two conflicting feelings.

"I watched him deteriorate and disintegrate and become a shell of the man that he was," Judith says.

"My immediate memories are of somebody who couldn't walk or talk but who had moments of understanding.

"I love the fact that he knew he was loved and we had glimpses of his kindness and his nurturing even when his brain was shot."

A young couple hold a baby
Judith and Bill had their first son David in their teens [Judith Gates]

But, she says, "for his sake I would not have wanted him to live for much longer and get much worse.

"When I think of that Bill, then there is an element of relief he can't get worse."

When she thinks of the "Bill before", though, she says: "The loss is immense, there is such a chasm in my life.

"I have lost my partner and companion, a vital, intelligent, dynamic man who added so much to my life.

"There is grief and there is gratitude. I'm seeking to acknowledge the grief and enhance the gratitude."

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