The wife of former rugby league tough man Mario Fenech has revealed how former TV colleagues lost touch and left him after his devastating health passing, despite seeing early signs.
The South Sydney Rabbitohs legend, now 60, suffers from memory loss and has the brain of an 80-year-old after being diagnosed with early-onset dementia seven years ago.
He now has advanced chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressively debilitating brain disorder caused by repeated blows to the head and prolonged episodes of concussions.
After calling full-time in his 274-game career in the 1990s, Fenech became a fixture on Channel Nine’s long-running NRL Footy Show, where he was relentlessly taunted and became the constant subject of jokes and pranks from the panel.
Rebecca Fenech has opened up about the personal pain the backstage taunting and taunting on the show has had for her husband, 30.
Only three former stars of The Footy Show – Paul ‘Fatty Vautin, Peter Sterling and Steve ‘Blocker’ Roach remain in contact with Mario, although they revealed early stages of his demise while still on the show.
Mario Fenech (pictured with his wife Rebecca and children) has opened up about his battle with dementia
“He talks to Fatty very occasionally, or to Sterlo, sometimes to Blocker, that’s three who he talks to maybe once or twice a year,” Ms Fenech told 7News Spotlight.
“But no, we don’t hear from anyone.”
She insists all of her husband’s former co-stars are aware of his battle with dementia.
“Of course they are, it’s been whispered about for a long time. They know they saw his decline on The Footy Show as well,” she said
“It just wasn’t talked about, it’s quiet.”
She suspects many other retired players have not come forward because her husband could be a mirror they find difficult to look in as she made a plea for them on the future of rugby league.
“He played this game with a lot of passion, he loved it,” said Ms. Fenech.
‘I really don’t know what to tell you.’
‘Just help, help this game become safer.’
Rebecca Fenech says her husband doesn’t hear from many of his former Footy Show castmates after being diagnosed with early-onset dementia seven years ago
Peter Sterling and Paul Vautin (pictured together) are among the few former Footy Show stars to have stayed in touch with former colleague and opponent Mario Fenech
Ms Fenech recalled how her husband revealed he would come home “p***** off” after being constantly taunted on The Footy Show and how upset he was at his treatment on the show as comedic figure and as an object of ridicule.
She said the show continues to poke fun at her husband despite being fully aware of his devastating condition.
‘She [The Footy Show] threw him off where he really is a very intelligent man – but that’s how it went,” Ms Fenech added.
“He wasn’t a boy because he didn’t act, he didn’t go for a beer after the show. I suppose it isolated him a bit from those people.’
She added that Mario would be returning home from the show upset and that his parents were “certainly not happy” with the way their son was portrayed on the show.
Mario Fenech pictured with wife Rebecca – who has revealed her husband is annoyed by the constant ripping on The Footy Show. The Footy legend was diagnosed with early-onset dementia at the age of 53
Fenech had a long career in the NRL in the 1980s and 1990s – captaining the South Sydney Rabbitohs for five seasons. He also played 82 games for the North Sydney Bears (pictured above) and 11 games for the South Qld Crushers
Fenech still plays golf regularly, goes to the gym and remains involved with his beloved Rabbitohs.
He still attends games and was pictured at Souths practice last week ahead of Saturday night’s big elimination win over Cronulla.
Souths are now a win away from the NRL Grand Final but face a daunting task against defending Premier Penrith.
Fenech himself spoke of the shattering effect his declining health had on him.
“I remember being hit in the head all the time while playing football and it had a really bad effect on me,” recalled Fenech.
“You feel like you’re about to burst and it’s affecting your brain. It affects your brain.
“There are times when I get really bad, just anxiety attacks. It’s no fun having brain damage, mate, because I literally forget things like that.
“I tell myself, enjoy every day that I can. I want to have a good time, not a bad time.’
Despite his deteriorating memory, Fenech can still recall being bullied at school and being called a ‘wog’, which motivated him to do well in rugby league.
Former boxing champ Jeff Fenech (no relationship) says it was “scary” to see the long-term effects of concussions on his awesome pal.
Mario Fenech (far right) was the constant butt of jokes and pranks on The Footy Show
His wife believes the 274 games he has played at the highest level have taken an irreversible toll on his brain.
His condition has deteriorated to a point where there is now almost no memory left and it won’t be long before the former footy star will need full-time care.
The couple celebrated their 30th anniversary this year and have been together for 36 years.
Describing the condition as a “silent lonely killer” Ms Fenech has come to speak about it for everyone else affected and families, “and for future generations of children who love rugby league”.
“He’s such a beautiful man and person and we’re losing him,” she said.
“I’m doing this because people don’t realize the suffering he went through.
“Every day now he wakes up and says, ‘I’m confused, I don’t know why I don’t feel great.
“He can’t really act or think for himself and I’m sure there are other families, wives, husbands, children and parents who live in silence and can’t tell their story.
“So I’m doing this for them and future generations who love rugby league as much as we do our family and how we can protect them from these fatal long-term injuries.”
Mario Fenech (right) remains involved with the Rabbitohs despite his deteriorating health. He is pictured training with Souths star Cody Walker this week
In early September, former NRL star James Graham revealed the enormous toll repeated head injuries had taken on his life.
The former England international revealed he has suffered more than 100 concussions and 18,000 collisions and the damage has left him with mental health issues.
Symptoms of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) – a neurodegenerative disease associated with repeated head injuries – include memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment and problems with impulse control.
Significantly, CTE can also lead to depression and anxiety, and eventually progressive dementia.
Fenech, 60, pictured with son Joe, wife Rebecca and daughter Bonnie, will soon require full-time care with dementia