SANTA MONICA (CBS13) – There are many who try, but few who reach such prominence in sports.
Terry Tautolo is one of them.
A Rose Bowl champion in 1976 with UCLA, then it was onto the NFL.
In 1981, Tautolo played for the 49ers – the year they won their first Super Bowl.
But after 9 years in the NFL, concussions ended Tautolo’s career. Life after football left him homeless.
When I first met him, he showed me the tunnel where he once stayed.
“Do you think I’m … something’s wrong with me?” Tautolo said.
His old teammates put out a call for help.
Help arrived with Dick Vermeil – the coach who recruited Tautolo to play UCLA football in 1974 and drafted him into the NFL. Vermeil found Tautolo again 40 years later to make the comeback of a lifetime.
“Well, I got reconnected to him by a story that was done on your station,” Vermeil said. “And people started calling me about it, ‘Did you see this, did you see this?’”
This is Terry Tautolo today: More muscles, clean shaven and sparkling new teeth. The before and after photos are striking.
Terry is now living in a recovery house in Santa Monica.
“I’m here now and I’m grateful,” Tautolo said.
His view of the world has changed considerably – from a tunnel beneath a freeway to beachfront.
The house director is Luke Chittick, who monitors Tautolo’s routine.
“Yeah, I mean coming into a recovery community for Terry was kind of like going to the moon,” Chittick said.
Tautolo admits now what he wouldn’t then.
“You remember the day we spoke in the tunnel,” I ask. “Yeah. Yeah,” Tautolo said.
Drug addiction dominated his life.
“You were using drugs every day?” I ask.
“Yeah,” Tautolo said.
“It’s such a bad word: Addiction. Alcoholism. But it really isn’t. That’s my truth,” Tautolo said.
Tautolo’s truth emerged only after our interview in the tunnel, when Vermeil and a host of others teamed up to help him.
A documentary crew took Tautolo to doctors specializing in traumatic brain injuries. MRI’s showed several spots in his brain that could be concussion related.
“I just said wow, it’s a picture of my brain on a screen; two dots on it. And the doc says, ‘These are your concussions,’” Tautolo said.
But Tutolo still won’t say concussions led to his homelessness.
“They haven’t,” Tautolo said.
I surprised Tautolo and Vermeil with a snapshot from the year they met. The response was instant.
“That picture just depicts him,” Vermeil said. “But yeah, he’s a special guy. And to me, he’s still a kid.”
Old photos are everywhere in Vermeil’s life.
“I’m 77 now and that was 1976, so what’s that make me,” Vermeil said.
Vermeil’s friendships in football stretch decades – and Tautolo has always held a special place in his heart.
“Well, he came into UCLA with me. We were both rookies in big-time football,” Vermeil said.
When he learned Tautolo was in trouble, Vermeil tracked him down. The reunion instantly re-kindled their connection.
“And you see him, and it startled me, and my wife Carol was with us and she had a great relationship and you see him and it startled us,” Vermeil said. “And right away you’ve got to say we’re getting involved in this thing, Terry. And we spoke that night, not a lot, but I said we’re getting involved and we’re going back to being what you used to be.”
Along with a scholarship from the Transcend sober living house, Vermeil helped pay for Tautolo’s treatment and he got the NFL Players Association to pay for part the tab, despite Terry’s belief football head injuries have not led him to a life of addiction.
“I asked him about that, ‘Are you involved with the NFL lawsuit?’ He said, ‘No, football wasn’t my problem,’” Vermeil said. “I do believe it was part of it, because he did experience a number of concussions. But he didn’t want to use that as a crutch.”
Vermeil is out of coaching now and spends some of his time running his Calistoga winery – which doubles as a football shrine.
“Sometimes, to a fault, we get really close to our guys and Terry was very easy to get close to,” Vermeil said.
Now, four decades later, the bond between this coach and his player are proving unbroken.
“At my age, now I think back that, wow, he’s still with me. And I’m not playing any more ball. He still calls me up,” Tautolo said.
A week after I sat down with Tautolo and Vermeil, they had a visit themselves.
“Oh you look great!” Vermeil said to Tautolo. “I’m proud of you.”
A special bond formed by big-time football showing its true strength, now that the game is over.
“What down is it? That’s how I treat it,” Tautolo said.