In November 1969, a fan greets the Redskins’ Rickie Harris after a game-winning 86-yard punt returnat RFK Stadium. (Matthew Lewis - The Washington Post)

We now know that, even after advances in football-helmet technology, repeated blows to the head can cause serious, permanent injury. And Rickie Harris, now 67, not only did the dangerous duty of running back kicks but also played defensive back at 5’11” and 180 pounds. His lawyer says Harris now appears to have dementia and may not be competent to stand trial for a third drunk-driving charge.

Fairfax prosecutors were suspicious that Harris’s lawyer, John Keats, was raising the dementia issue on the eve of a felony trial where Harris faces a mandatory minimum six months in jail. At an earlier preliminary hearing, competency wasn’t raised.

But on Tuesday, Keats handed Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Bruce White an evaluation of Harris done last week by a forensic psychologist that said Harris “certainly has serious memory deficits and possible additional cognitive impacts that preclude a rational and factual understanding of the charges against him and impair his ability to participate in the preparation of his defense.”

Over the prosecution’s objection, White ordered an independent evaluation of Harris’s competency to stand trial.

Head injuries in football have become a hot topic in recent years, particularly in the most recent season when a college player was paralyzed and numerous players were sidelined after violent hits to the head. Old-time players like to joke about their memory loss and problems finding their way around, and the overall toll of the violence in pro football has been documented to shorten the average life span of an NFL player.

But prosecutors wonder if this is simply the “defense du jour” by the defense bar, and a ploy to win lighter sentences for their clients. Fairfax Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Laura Riddlebarger told the judge, ”I have concerns. I’m not going to say Mr. Keats is making it up. But it’s suspicious to me that this is the first time I’ve ever heard about it.”

Rickie Harris after his arrest for drunk driving in December 2010. (Fairfax County Sheriff's Office)

Keats noted that Harris “was having difficulty even finding my office,” which is across the street from the courthouse. “On each and every occasion, he got lost. I discussed the case with him, he told me things that were important to his defense. As the case went on, I was unable to get him to tell me things he had already told me.”

Keats said Harris recalled being knocked out in games and being put back in, but didn’t remember playing.

“Mr. Harris has had problems remembering where he is, what he’s doing,” and because of that he no longer drives, Keats said.

Harris played for the Redskins from1965 to 1970. He erroneously told me Tuesday that he played one season for Coach George Allen, who took over the team in 1971. He is third all-time in punt return and kick return yardage for the Redskins, and he also had 12 interceptions as a cornerback and safety. He then moved to the New England Patriots for two seasons, and then the World Football League before retiring.

Previous stories show he had brushes with drug and alcohol abuse.

In October 2006, he was arrested for drunk driving in Prince William County and was convicted in January 2007. He was not given jail time but his license was restricted for a year, court records show.

In May 2007, he was arrested again for DWI in Fairfax. His blood-alcohol content was 0.13, well above the 0.08 definition of intoxication. For his second conviction, in December 2007, he was given 20 days in jail and his license was suspended for three years.

Last December 12, shortly after his three-year license suspension had ended, he was stopped again, and court records show his blood-alcohol content was 0.08. He was charged with a felony, for his third DWI in 10 years, and the case was certified to the grand jury after a preliminary hearing in January. He was indicted, and prosecutors now want to amend the charge to third DWI in five years, with a mandatory 90 days in jail.

Harris was driving a 2004 Ford Focus and working part-time as a security guard, living by himself in an apartment in the Fairfax area. Keats did not want him to be interviewed before the trial. He said he is trying to avoid a felony conviction for Harris so that he can keep working in security, and he is offering for Harris to do the same jail sentence, 90 days, if the conviction is recorded as a misdemeanor.

He also said that dementia may have an impact on how people perform in field sobriety tests.

No trial date has been set, pending the evaluation.