The preliminary diagnosis for his death at the age of 66 was Lou Gehrig's disease. But two years later, doctors in Boston, where Hilgenberg's brain was studied and still sits in storage, suggested something else: that Hilgenberg instead died from repetitive brain trauma brought on by more than 20 years of high school, college and pro football.
Now, his family, which owed so much to football, is deeply conflicted by it.
"Football is bad. It's really, really bad," said Eric Hilgenberg, who played football, as his father did, at the University of Iowa.