Rugby league icon Paul Vautin has refuted suggestions that Footy Show members mocked Mario Fenech after learning about the South Sydney great's health condition.
Fenech revealed his battle with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) - a type of dementia caused by repeated head knocks - on Channel 7's Spotlight program on Sunday night.
Fenech's name became synonymous with the South Sydney Rabbitohs across a professional career that spanned 15 seasons in the 1980s and '90s.
He then made regular appearances on the NRL Footy Show and became a TV icon in his own right.
But Fenech was diagnosed with CTE at the age of 53, which has had increasingly devastating effects on his life in the seven years since, leaving him with little memory.
"When I was playing football, I got smashed around the head all the time and it had a real bad effect on me," Fenech said on Sunday night.
"You feel like you're going pop and it affects your brain. There are times I get really bad, just anxiety stuff."
The Channel Seven special on Fenech was confronting, but it was an article that Vautin - the long-time host of the NRL's Footy Show - took offence to.
The headline read: 'Footy Show mocked cult hero Mario Fenech when it knew he was sick', which Vautin insists was "so far from the truth".
Speaking on Wide World of Sports Radio, Vautin said it was simply untrue that the Footy Show mocked Fenech while knowing of his diagnosis.
" I've never seen a more disgusting news headline," Vautin said.
"It's incredibly disappointing to see that.
"I did an interview with him (Fenech) at the SFS (Sydney Football Stadium) in a coffee shop in 2016 and he announced that he had early onset dementia and we were all shocked by that.
"I know for a fact that Mario was seldom, if at all, used on the show after that, so there's no possible way that we mocked him (while knowing his condition), none at all.
"I just want to reassure people who were fans of the show back in the day. That show has left a great legacy.
"I just want to tell them that we never ever mistreated Mario Fenech once we knew that he had dementia.
"We are all still great mates ... we all still think the world of each other. I just want people to know that. "
The explosive story about the Footy Show contained quotes from Fenech's wife Rebecca, who claimed her husband was frequently "pissed off" about how he was portrayed on the program.
Rebecca suggested the Footy Show continued to treat her husband poorly despite knowing his health was deteriorating.
“I mean, there’s been whispers around for a long time,” she said.
“They know, they saw his decline obviously in The Footy Show as well. It just hasn’t been talked about, it’s silent.”
— Rugby League Best Tries Hits and Biffs (@NBiffs) November 21, 2019
Mario Fenech 'never complained' to Footy Show about role
Fenech's character on the show was synonymous with acts of buffoonery , but Vautin insists he "never heard him (Fenech) complain once" and stressed that part of the program's charm was the way they all took the mickey out of one another.
"Mario was very good on the show, and he loved being on the show," Vautin added.
"He knew that we were taking the mickey out of him a hell of a lot, but he played the part so well.
"Once the show was finished it was back to, 'Hey mate, how you going?', and he'd always finish off with, 'Love ya Fat, see you next week', (and I'd say), 'Yes mate, no dramas'.
"We used to take the mickey out of him a bit, and he played the role well, but you know what, he wasn't the only one. On that show we all had the mickey taken out of us, no doubt about it. ..
"What's happened with Mario, I can't put into words how I feel about it, especially for his wife.
"Rebecca's been a great wife to him and a great person as well. I understand her frustration thinking that we did take the mickey out of him a bit too much, but he played a role and he loved it and he got paid.
"I hope a miracle happens with Mario, it's just very sad. He did cop a lot of knocks.
"Whether rugby league has had anything to do with it I don't know, but it's a travesty of justice that a guy like him with so much to offer in his life to his family and friends is struggling.
"It is with much love we say we are all feeling for you. "
Fenech's neurologist Dr Rowena Mobbs explained the rugby league great's brain was akin to that of an 80-year-old patient as a result of CTE, saying it won't be long before he needs full-time care.
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