L’eague great Paul Vautin has emphatically shot down his and his colleague’s claims The Footy Show cast mocked Mario Fenech while aware of his dementia diagnosis.
Fenech’s sad decline in health due to the condition was exposed on Seven’s Spotlight on Sunday, and while Vautin praised the show for providing insight into Fenech’s struggles, he was left angry by an article written in the aftermath.
Vautin, who hosted The Footy Show from 1994 to 2017, an article on news.com.au headlined “Footy Show mocked cult hero Mario Fenech when it knew he was sick,” saying it was “so far from the truth.”
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“I’ve never seen a more disgusting news headline,” he told 4BC’s Wide world of sports radio.
“It’s incredibly disappointing to see that.”
“I did an interview with him at the SFS (Sydney Football Stadium) in a coffee shop in 2016 and he announced that he had early stages of dementia and it shocked us all,” Vautin added.
“I’m sure Mario was rarely used in the show after that, if at all, so there’s no way we mocked him (while knowing his condition), not at all.”
“I just want to reassure people who were fans of the show at the time. That show left a great legacy.
“I just want to tell them that we never mistreated Mario Fenech when we knew he had dementia.
“We’re all still great friends…we all still think the world of each other. I just want people to know that.”
The story includes quotes from Fenech’s wife Rebecca, who claimed her husband often returned home from the show “pissed” about his portrayal, but Vautin claimed he “never once heard him (Fenech) complain”.
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“Mario was very good on the show and he loved being on the show,” he said.
“He knew we were turning him down a lot, but he played the part so well.
“When the show finished, it was back to ‘Hey mate, how are you?’, and it always ended with ‘Love ya Fat, see you next week’, (and I’d say), ‘Yeah mate, no dramas’ .
“We used to take the mickey out of him a little bit, and he played the part well, but you know what, he wasn’t the only one. On that show, we all had the mickey out of us, no doubt about it.”
“One of his roles was he was the straight guy, and we gave him sway, and frankly it was really funny stuff. I never once heard him complain.
“There were things we all did that we didn’t want to do, but for the sake of the entertainment for the show, we just went ahead and did it and had fun.
“Mario Fenech is one of the best people I’ve ever met. Telling a man you love him is a big deal and we often said that to each other when he left.
“Don’t worry about Falcon, he gave as good as he got on the show. He was great. He was a great work partner, we had a lot of fun together. That was it: a lot of fun.”
Nevertheless, Vautin said he understood Fenech’s wife’s frustrations with her husband’s portrayal on the show.
“What happened to Mario, I can’t put into words how I feel about it, especially for his wife,” he said.
“Rebecca has been a great woman to him and a great person too. I can understand her frustration because she thought we messed him up a little too much, but he played a part and he loved it and he became paid.
“I hope a miracle happens to Mario, it’s just very sad. He has taken a lot of blows.
“Whether rugby league has anything to do with it I don’t know, but it’s a mockery of justice that a man like him, who has so much to offer his family and friends, struggles.
“It is with much love that we say that we all sympathize with you.”
Vautin has personal experience with dementia, where the disease claimed his mother’s life, and he remembered her last days.
”I saw my mother die of dementia, it’s no fun,” he said.
“I went upstairs and gave my mom lunch the day before she died. She had dementia for 10 years, so her feeding was kind of mechanical, it was spoon to mouth before eating.
“At about the fifth spoon she closed her mouth and she looked at me and she gave me the most beautiful biggest smile I had seen in a long time.
“I thought, ‘Oh no, she really recognizes me, she knows who I am’, but it only lasted 10 seconds and then the mechanical side came back.
“Only 10 seconds she remembered who I was, and sadly she died the next day.”
Fenech is far from the only player to have suffered brain injuries in their post-game days, and Vautin praised the NRL for its efforts to protect players’ minds.
“I often got concussions and you just kept playing,” he said.
“I’m glad it’s all changed now. I’ll say I think they went a little overboard with a few accidental punches being penalized when they probably shouldn’t, but I’m all for it to protect.
“We don’t see a lot of cheating now, there was a lot more cheating back when we played.”
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