BILL GATES was the sporting superstar of Spennymoor Grammar Technical School, captain of the English schools football team and watched by more scouts than a Baden Powell convention. Judith Curry was a more obviously studious type who reckoned that her best game was Scrabble.

Save for the school corridors, which headmaster Billy Sumner patrolled on his push bike while wearing an academic gown and carrying a cane, their paths might seldom have crossed – were it not for the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome.

Somewhat improbably, it was a school trip, steam train all the way. Young Gates – a miner’s son from Dean Bank, Ferryhill – rather had his eye on Pauline Blanch, a blonde fellow pupil from Shildon. Pauline insisted that she was going to Italy to watch the Olympics, not for a dilly-dalliance with lads.

The Northern Echo: Bill GatesBill Gates is the big lad at the back, in the centre, of this Spennymoor Grammar Technical School picture

So it was that Bill and Judith got it together, that they threw their three coins in the Trevi fountain, that he bought her a single rose – “quite romantic for a Ferryhill lad”, she recalls – and that, a year afterwards, she became pregnant.

By then they were 16 and 17, hard to know whether the shock was greater at her parents’ terraced home in Spennymoor – “we had a little balcony outside the bedroom window, people thought we were posh” – or in the corridors of pedal power at the school almost out the back.

Parentally urged to take hot baths with even hotter gin – “it was many years before I could enjoy a gin and tonic again”, says Judith – she was also pretty much obliged to leave school.

“It was just expected, there wasn’t any option. It was a bit like teenage pregnancy could be transmitted, like Covid,” she says. “People told me that my life and my aspirations were over. They said I’d have five kids by I was 21.”

Already playing Northern League football for Spennymoor United, one of that great cohort of shamateurs, Bill signed for Middlesbrough when he was 17, said to be Britain’s first £50-a-week footballer and put up in a club house without a telephone.

The Northern Echo: Bill GatesBill and Judith on their wedding day

“There we were, 16 and 17 and all on our own” says Judith. “I’d be ringing my mother from the call box at the end of the road to ask her how to make mince.”

Supported by her baby son’s grandparents, Judith started a teacher training course at Neville’s Cross, Durham, gave birth to a second son, gained a doctorate, became a head teacher at 29, a schools inspector at 36 and, in time, an internationally travelled visiting professor.

The Northern Echo: Bill GatesWith his goalkeeper beaten, Bill Gates clears a certain goal from the line

Bill prospered, too, made 333 first team appearances for the Boro – “rugged” it’s perhaps euphemistically recalled, and pretty short sighed, too. Dr Neil Phillips, the club medical officer, once cited myopia in Bill’s defence at an FA appeal after he’d been sent off for kicking a lump out of an opponent.

“You mean,” said the tribunal chairman laconically, “that he can’t see the difference between a ball and a leg?” Appeal dismissed.

The Northern Echo: Bill GatesBill Gates heads over

He studied accountancy in the afternoons, opened a sports shop in the Dundas Arcade in Middlesbrough at a time when young men were realising that trainers weren’t just blokes with a mucky towel around their necks and a cold sponge in their hands.

Monument Sports prospered monumentally. By 1987, when he and Judith sold the chain for a reputed £4.4m, there were 10 stores across the north. Tax exiles and philanthropists, they moved to a beach-side villa in the Cayman islands, owned a boat named after Judith’s dad, enjoyed adventures around the world and soon bought another luxury home in the United States.

Seeing his name, an air hostess wondered if he might be the Microsoft founder. Humbly, Bill denied it. “Well” she persisted, “might you be his dad?”

It’s a great story, a potential best seller, but it’s only half the story – and there, for the story teller, lies the challenge….

The Northern Echo: Bill GatesBill Gates treatment for what seems to be a head injury while playing for the Boro

Bill’s headaches had started while he was still playing, heading a football countless times each week in training and on match days, so crippling that sometimes he’d spend days barely able to get out of bed. By 2014 it seemed increasingly that his memory had also been affected – little things at first, misplaced car keys, but gradually, inexorably worsening.

Some form of dementia became clear, the likelihood of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) – a neurological disease caused by repeated head impacts but only able to be confirmed at post mortem – strongly suspected.

And Bill deteriorated. “Our Titan diminishes, every day a little bit of him slips away,” Judith once wrote, in no doubt that constantly heading a football was the cause of their shared agonies.

The Northern Echo: Bill GatesDr Judith Gates

At the start of 2021 she helped launch, and chaired, a charity called Head for Change, aimed chiefly at raising awareness of the dangers of football and of rugby and of campaigning at the highest level for greater safety.

“I want to shout out a warning to the young players of today. I want to tell them that they are not indestructible, that there’s a ticking time bomb. As you are, so once was Bill,” said Judith and barely a week passes without news of the death of another well-known player – former Newcastle United manager Joe Kinnear the latest – who has died with dementia and probable CTE.

She now leads a new and separate charity, Head Safe Football, with broadly similar aims and a logo of an elephant, representing the elephant in the room. It was launched last year, in the presence of a lifesize inflatable elephant, back in Neale Street, Dean Bank.

The Northern Echo: Bill GatesBill Gates in a Boro shirt spreading the word about football in Africa

Supposing my style to be “folksy”, Judith asked me in the spring of 2022 to write the story, an improbable marriage of warm and oft-emotional human interest with the necessary detail of medical research, concern and advance. The former was a little more in my comfort zone, shall we say, the arrangement that the book would be written pro bono, a legal phrase meaning that twice nowt remains nowt.

Bill was still ambulant back then, still able to live with a full-time carer in the magnificent family home near the Durham coast to which he and Judith had returned. He was, though, spending many waking hours gazing with declining comprehension at a television screen.

For almost a year before his death last October, he’d been resident in a private care home near Teesside Airport, increasingly devoid of speech and unaware of his surroundings.

For the book, I’ve travelled Britain to interview neurological professionals and families of former footballers – not least John Stiles, Nobby’s ceaselessly campaigning and increasingly angry son – and, usually closer to home, chatted with former work colleagues and old school friends like Keith Telford and Les Walker.

The Northern Echo: Bill GatesBill Gates wins another header

Did the young William Lazenby Gates – all five Gates boys, including English international Eric, had the middle name Lazenby – ever get into scrapes? “Oh come, on” said Keith, “Billy was the biggest catch at Spennymoor Grammar School. Don’t you think that getting Judith pregnant was a big enough scrape of its own?”

I also tracked down Pauline Blanch, the Shildon blonde, happy to suppose that time at Spennymoor Grammar – formally a mixed school – may not always have been the happiest days of their lives, not when the deputy head kept a list by the chemi lab blackboard of all the young ladies seen fraternising with the opposite sex and while the senior mistress was in the extraordinary habit of lifting the girls’ skirts as they left assembly to check that the regulation navy blue knickers were, shall we say, in place.

“It was supposed to be a modern school but that was in the 1960s and that’s how it was,” said Pauline.

The Northern Echo:

The 90,000-word book’s called No-brainer, sub-titled “For everyone who’s ever headed a football” and described by Daily Telegraph chief sports writer Jeremy Wilson as “a heart breaking but still inspiring insight into the biggest issue facing the world’s biggest sport”.

Intended not just to raise essential awareness but to provide an entertaining, nostalgic and perhaps even thought provoking read, is published on Thursday. Every penny profit will go to Head Safe Football and to that ever more vital campaign.


  •  No-brainer by Mike Amos, The Northern Echo’s former long-time columnist, is published by Haythorp Books, price £14 99 paperback. It’s available via Amazon or other websites or from the author at
  • A formal launch event will take place in the Legends Lounge at Middlesbrough FC’s Riverside Stadium at 10 30am on Tuesday, May 7, the 50th anniversary of Bill Gates’s testimonial match between Boro – newly crowned second division champions – and Leeds United, champions of the first. All are welcome.
  • Dr Judith Gates will speak about her husband and about Head Safe Football at the Sporting Memories session at Bishop Auckland FC’s Heritage Park ground at 10.30am on Thursday, April 18, when both she and Mike Amos will be happy to sign (and to sell) books. Again, all are welcome.

The Northern Echo: Bill Gates