Greg Ploetz defied the stereotype of a defensive tackle, the run-stop specialist who failed or succeeded in the muck at the line of scrimmage often on brute strength alone.
And in the case of the undersized Ploetz, grit and resolve.
To be sure he was all that as an all-conference performer and member of Texas’ 1969 national championship team.
But Greg Ploetz left his mark on this world reinforcing and strengthening lines as an artist, a man who had mastered the expression of the human imagination and creativity through works of abstract art, and who as a teacher passed along the tools of his craft.
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Life is full of cruel ironies. Ploetz died from the effects of frontal lobe dementia, a disease likely caused from his work on the football fields of Sherman High School, Austin and all the other locales of the former Southwest Conference.
Football ultimately probably robbed him of his genius.
“Greg loved teaching his kids,” Deb Ploetz, Greg’s widow, said with an emotion in her voice that best articulated the stages of her grief that she and her children have endured for the better part of six years.
“His students loved him because they knew he truly loved teaching them. He was so creative and gifted he could easily have 30 students engaged at the same time.
“That was his gift. And one of the first things he lost was his language. Not being able to express himself. That was what was so painful.”
Ploetz, 66, who was diagnosed in 2009, died on May 11. A celebration of his life will be held from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday at The Gardens Restaurant at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden.
To an outsider, the location seems perfect for a man appreciated for the beauty he created on canvas.
“He loved coaching and sharing what he knew about football,” Deb said. “He had no idea that football may someday hurt him and others.”
Repeated head injuries from football were likely the cause of Ploetz’s disease, according to the opinion of three neurologists. That won’t be known conclusively until the results of an autopsy conducted at Boston University are in. The Ploetz family donated Greg’s brain to the Sports Legacy Institute, the organization best known for the study of the effects of concussions and brain trauma on NFL players.
Specifically, the doctors and researchers at the institute have focused on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. CTE is a neurodegenerative disease that has been found in a number of former NFL players.
The results won’t be known for six to nine months, Deb Ploetz said.
Ploetz had two known concussions, though as a defensive tackle he likely was subjected to a number of blows to the head.
While he was at Texas under coach Darrell Royal, the No. 1 Longhorns defeated No. 2 Arkansas in the “Game of the Century” in 1969 and capped the season with their 20th consecutive victory over Notre Dame and quarterback Joe Theismann in the Cotton Bowl that sealed Texas’ second national championship.
Ploetz decided not to play the next season, but he returned in 1971 and was All-Southwest Conference. His last game was a 30-6 loss to Penn State in the Cotton Bowl.
He imparted those experiences as a coach, including at Trinity Valley in Fort Worth, where he coached the defensive line.
Ploetz was widely known on the practice field and sidelines for his pluck and enthusiasm.
One of his former players at Fort Worth Trinity Valley, Colin Murchison, recalled a time Ploetz jumped into a sled drill to demonstrate the proper technique some of his players had failed to grasp.
“He said, ‘Boys, this is how you do it,’” Murchison said. “He did it and wound up ripping half his ear off. He was bleeding like a stuck pig. But he just put a towel on it and coached the rest of the practice.
“He was so passionate about it. He made it fun. He had this enthusiasm and toughness and love for the game and love to make us better at what we did. That was the kind of guy he was.”
Ploetz never expressed any regrets about playing football, his wife said, though he quit watching in 2012. That was likely because watching television programming of any sort became trying.
“I wouldn’t want to hold anybody responsible because he chose to play football,” said Deb, who plans to become an advocate for measures to help patients of dementia, particularly as it relates to legislation to legalize medical marijuana. “We’re all going to die, but he suffered … suffered a lot.
“I feel for anybody that has this.”
Ploetz earned a bachelor’s and a master’s in fine art from Texas.
Ploetz and his wife met at a Texas-Arkansas game-watching party in San Antonio in the late 1970s and married only months later. They were both teachers. He was teaching art at San Antonio College. As self-described free spirits, the young couple quit their jobs and moved to Europe for six months. It was a trip that Deb Ploetz now cherishes, considering they have lost their golden years together.
The Ploetzes had two children, Erin and Beau.
“I not only loved him, I liked him,” said Deb. “He never met a stranger.”
Ploetz also taught at Arkansas and, after moving to Fort Worth, UT Arlington and Tarrant County College.
In addition to Trinity Valley, he taught and coached football at Country Day and spent 11 years at Fort Worth Trimble Tech. He was teaching at Aledo High School when he was diagnosed and forced to take a medical leave of absence.
“It crushed him. He was so depressed,” Deb said. “He was a gifted teacher. He was recognized as the best. He didn’t understand what was happening to him.”
Ploetz was also an award-winning artist, most recently seven years ago beating out 400 other submissions in a contest at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center.
The progression of the dementia was reflected in his art, Deb said. Change in his pieces was clear to see. His pieces morphed from accomplished sophisticated descriptive art. “It became more immature.”
Ploetz essentially stopped his art in 2010, though there is one piece from 2012, and “it’s really good, but people in the art world will understand where it came from. He changed.”
Former teammates at Texas are organizing a benefit for Royal’s Alzheimer’s Auction in Ploetz’s name by using one of his paintings — a depiction of a play at the line of scrimmage. Billy Dale, head of the Letterman Support Network, is trying to secure the signatures of every player under Royal, nearly 500, for the piece.
The hope is that it will bring in thousands for the Alzheimer’s Association.
While his family grieves for their husband and father, they mourn, too, for what the world lost: A good man who even up to the last few weeks of his life was in and out of lucidity.
“He would not let go,” Deb said. “They say people with dementia don’t know what is going on, but in my husband’s case they are wrong. That is what was so painful to watch and painful for him. He wanted to express himself so badly and could not.”
Greg Ploetz memorial
A celebration of the life of Greg Ploetz will take place from 4-7 p.m. Sunday at The Gardens Restaurant at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden.
The family has asked that in lieu of flowers donations be made to the Greg Ploetz Art Scholarship at the University of Texas at Austin.
Donations can be mailed to Andrea Keene, The University of Texas at Austin, Department of Art and Art History, 2301 San Jacinto Blvd., D1300, 78712.