The 1961 Chamberlain High football team still ranks as one of Hillsborough County's greatest. Two players went to the pros. Others starred on college teams.
In the middle of the field, time and again, a towering sophomore threw off defenders like mild annoyances. Offensive tackle Forrest Blue anchored the Chiefs' undefeated season that year, culminating in a state championship.
Mr. Blue went on to Auburn University, where he became an All-American center; then to the San Francisco 49ers, where he was named to four consecutive Pro Bowls.
He later founded a successful development company in California. Mr. Blue, considered one of the all-time best football players in the state, died July 16 at an assisted living facility in Carmichael, Calif. He was 65.
He first began showing signs of dementia in the 1990s. Though no cause of death has been announced, his family is cooperating with researchers who are exploring a linkage between blows to the head in sports such as football or boxing and long-term cognitive impairment.
The 6-foot-6, 260-pound college star was selected in the first round by the 49ers and started in 1968. Teammates called him "Tree."
"He was always on top of things intellectually," said former 49ers offensive lineman Len Rohde, who played alongside Mr. Blue as the team won three division titles from 1970 to 1972. "He was a leader type of person."
Brittney Blue remembers her father as a "teddy bear," quick to come up with a punch line but also to trust others. "He thrived on the camaraderie with teammates," she said.
Mr. Blue started every game with the 49ers from the 1969 season to 1974, when he underwent surgery for a broken nose and a fractured bone under his eye. "The doctors at St. Mary's Hospital took a look and told me to forget about football, but I'd like to play this week," he said then.
Mr. Blue went to the Pro Bowl from 1971 to 1974. He spent the last four years of his career with the Baltimore Colts, retiring after the 1978 season.
In the meantime he raised a family with Anne, his wife of 18 years before a divorce.
The son of an Army captain, Mr. Blue was born in Marfa, Texas. The family moved to Tampa, where Mr. Blue excelled in football, basketball and baseball and made the National Honor Society.
"He was before my time, but I sure heard a lot about him," said Billy Turner, Chamberlain's retired football coach of 30 years.
Bob Adams, who played for rival Hillsborough High when Mr. Blue played for Chamberlain, recalled the difficulty Mr. Blue presented to defenders.
"Forrest was just so big, when he started moving down the field you couldn't get around the guy," said Adams, 66. In 1999, the St. Petersburg Times ranked Mr. Blue the sixth-best football player ever from Hillsborough County.
After the NFL, he moved to California and started Forrest Blue Properties, a commercial contracting and development company in Penryn. He worked out at the gym twice a day and enjoyed scuba diving, mountain biking and skydiving, logging more than 1,000 jumps.
"To be as big a guy as he was, he was quite good at skydiving," said Ray Ferrell, who owns SkyDance Skydiving in Davis, Calif. "His biggest challenge was getting in and out of little airplanes."
In the mid 1990s, his family began noticing symptoms of memory loss in Mr. Blue, as well as apparent hallucinations. The family entered him into an assisted living facility in 2009.
The family suspects that the pounding he took in his playing days contributed to his dementia. They have allowed Boston University researchers to examine his brain, part of their study of traumatic encephalopathy, a condition linked to memory loss and repeated blows to the head.
Rohde, 73, shares those concerns. He wonders whether improved helmets in the modern era have led to a false sense of security.
"You look back at 1950s teams, they had no protection and as a result they blocked differently," said Rohde, who played 15 years for the 49ers. "They used shoulder blocks, not their head so much.
"You trade off bloody noses and broken teeth to a concussion to your brain. You didn't realize it at the time, but it's possible that all the hits you took from blocking people and getting hit on the head were cumulative."