TRIGGER WARNING: THIS ARTICLE WILL TALK ABOUT SUICIDE, HOMICIDE, AND TRAUMATIC NEUROLOGICAL INJURIES!
Over the years some professional sports have seemed to become “soft”. You can no longer watch a good old fashion hockey fight, you know the one, right? Gloves and helmets hit the ice as two or more players prepare for battle, blood spills onto the ice, some teeth get knocked loose, and it was usually called to an end when one or both of the players ended up on the ground. Incredibly hard hits are now frowned upon and most players are no longer sent out on the ice to be the “enforcer”. Whose job is to more or less spend the whole game picking fights and slamming bodies around. Well, I guess you still get a couple of loose cannons out there, like Tom Wilson on the Washington Capitals. But he’s ruthless and downright dirty. On some level I like it because it reminds me of the hockey, I watched growing up. But he has been suspended and fined numerous times by the league for his on-ice antics.
The NFL seems to be becoming more and more like flag football with all the new regulations in place. It feels like if you so much as lay a finger on one of the quarterbacks you get a penalty. Don’t take anyone out below the knees and by no means should you ever lead with your helmet. It is a far cry from the old game of football where players would almost kill one another out on the field. These new regulations aren’t to make the sports less exciting they are to protect the players from suffering repeated head trauma and athletes involved in contact sports are put in a position where they can suffer a lot of that. Research on the effects of repeated concussions and blows to the head have amped up a lot and new (sometimes scary) information has been brought to light. While both the sports I mentioned are high contact it only seems that one has been prominent in the controversy of protecting their players from neurological suffering and that’s football. There’s a good reason, out of all the sports this one has been shoved on the forefront for causing players life-altering injuries. One of which more often than not has a tragic outcome.
Mixed Martial Arts and boxing are two other sports that are insanely high contact but they still allow the carnage to continue, much to my entertainment, even though the great, late Mohammad Ali’s Parkinson’s had a direct link to his time spent in the ring. Life has a way of being cruel but sometimes that is the price you pay for greatness.
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, better known as CTE, is a neurodegenerative disease caused by repeated concussions or blows to the head. Symptoms of this disease occur in four stages that generally appear eight to ten years after an individual experiences repetitive mild traumatic brain injuries. First stage symptoms of CTE include confusion, disorientation, dizziness, and headaches. Second stage symptoms include memory loss, social instability, impulsive behavior, and poor judgment. Third and fourth stage symptoms include dementia, movement disorders, hypomimia (mask-like facial expressions, I had to look it up), speech impediments, sensory processing disorder, tremors, vertigo, deafness, depression, and suicidality. Other symptoms can include dysarthria (motor speech disorder), dysphagia (difficulty with swallowing), cognitive disorders, and amnesia.
Most documented cases of CTE have occurred in athletes with mild repetitive brain trauma (RBT) over an extended period of time. Although the exact amount of trauma requires for the condition to occur is unknown it’s believed that it takes many years to develop it. The physical appearance of CTE include a reduction in brain weight, associated with loss of the frontal and temporal cortices as well as the medial temporal lobe. Wow, I sound so smart right now but I’m not. I researched all of this. Okay, time for more smart sounding stuff. While there is atrophy in some parts of the brain studies have found that the lateral ventricles and the third ventricle are often enlarged. In rare cases dilation of the fourth ventricle have also been found. Don’t ask me to point out where all these things are on a human brain because I couldn’t do it. A small group of people suffering from CTE also have chronic traumatic encephalomyopathy (CTEM), which is characterized by symptoms that mimic amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease). Progressive muscle weakness, balance, and walking seem to be some early signs of CTEM.
A diagnosis of CTE cannot be made in living individuals, a definitive diagnosis is only possible during an autopsy. Which of course occurs after a person passes away. There are signs and symptoms some researchers associate with CTE but those signs are very similar to that of other neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s. Although tests can be conducted on a living individual to try and rule out Alzheimer’s and other neurological disorders. CTE cannot be seen in a living person is due to the lack of distinct biomarkers (measurable indicator of some biological state or condition, again, I did research people). Concussions do not show up on routine imaging such as CT or MRI since they are non-structural injuries and don’t result in brain bleeding. Differentiating between prolonged post-concussion syndrome (PCS) which can last weeks, months, or years and CTE symptoms can be very difficult. As of 2017 99% of tested brains of NFL players, 88% of CFL players, 64% of semi-professional players, 91% of college football players, and 21% of high school footballs had various stages of CTE. Of course, living players are not able to be tested and given a definitive diagnosis.
As I mentioned before out of all the contact sports the one that’s in the forefront of the news the most is football. More and more reports of players having CTE are coming out and unfortunately, I don’t feel like that’s going to stop anytime soon. Let’s talk about a few football players who tragically suffered from this disease.
Junior Seau – From 1990-2009 Tiaina Baul “Junior” Seau Jr tore up the football field. During his nineteen-year career, he was a star in his own right. Most of his career was played while I was a kid but I did get to catch the tail end of it and watching him was fun. Seau was known for his passionate playing style, including a fist-pumping dance he performed after big plays, which he had a lot of. Coach Norv Turner said, “The No. 1 thing about Junior was that he was such an explosive player he’d defeat one-on-one blocks and he was a great tackler.” He was praised by teammates for his work ethic and leadership. He would play when hurt and often refused to leave games. They weren’t as strict about that stuff way back when. On May 22, 2012 (I remember this news coverage) Junior Seau’s girlfriend found him lifeless in his Oceanside home from a gunshot wound to the chest. He left no suicide note, but did leave a piece of paper in his kitchen with lyrics from his favorite country song, “Who I Ain’t”. During his initial autopsy, no illegal drugs or alcohol was in his system and no signs of brain damage were reported. But upon further studies of his brain, Junior Seau was found to have suffered from CTE in 2013. On September 16, 2012, the Chargers retired Seau’s number fifty-five during a ceremony at the regular-season home opener against the Tennessee Titans. On January 13, 2015, the same year he became eligible Seau was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He is the first player of Polynesian and Samoan descent to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. At the time of his death, Junior Seau was forty-three years old.
Dave Duerson – David Russell Duerson played in the NFL from 1983-1990. I must admit that I’ve not seen Duerson play since I was only alive for about a year of his career and believe it or not, I wasn’t paying attention to sports at that time in my life. Dave Duerson was selected in the third round of the 1983 NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears. He won two Super Bowl championship rings, with the Chicago Bears (1985) and the New York Giants (1990). In 1986 Duerson set an NFL record that stood for nineteen years for most sacks in a season by a defensive back, with seven. In 1987, Dave Duerson was the recipient of the NFL Man of the Year Award. On February 17, 2011, Duerson was found dead at his home in Sunny Isles Beach, Florida. He died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. Exactly like Junior Seau had a year later. He sent text messages to family members saying he wanted his brain to be used for research at the Boston University School of Medicine, which had been researching CTE. One of the text messages asked a family member to, “PLEASE, SEE THAT MY BRAIN IS GIVEN TO THE NFL’S BRAIN BANK.” On May 2, 2011, neurologists at Boston University confirmed that Duerson had suffered from CTE most likely caused by repeated concussions. At the time of his death Dave Duerson was fifty years old.
Aaron Hernandez – I went back and forth about whether or not I should mention this one because I already did an entire article on this player and well…. yeah, he’s a murderer. But at the end of the day, I decided to go for it since he did have a case of CTE and a severe one at that. Aaron Josef Hernandez played a brief two-year stint in the NFL after being selected in the fourth round of the 2010 NFL Draft by the New England Patriots. His college and professional career were riddled with bad behavior, fights, and run-ins with the law. But it all came to a head when he was arrested for the murder of Odin Lloyd in June 2013. He was released by the Patriots and was put on trial. He was found guilty of murder in the first degree and was sentenced to life in prison without any possibility of parole. Hernandez was later put on trial for the 2012 murders of Daniel Jorge Correia de Abreu and Safiro Teixeira Furtado and was acquitted of both. On April 19, 2017, Aaron Hernandez was found hanging from a window in his jail cell at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Lancaster, Massachusetts. No suicide note was left behind. Shampoo was found covering the floor, cardboard was wedged under the cell door to make it difficult for someone to enter, and there were drawings in blood on the walls. His death was later ruled hanging by suicide. After his death researchers at Boston University studied Hernandez’s brain and diagnosed him with stage three (remember there are only four stages) of CTE, which had never been found in a brain younger than forty-six years old. Researchers claimed he had the most severe case of CTE they had ever seen. Sam Gandy of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York released a statement saying, “It’s impossible for me to look at the severity of CTE and Mr. Hernandez’s brain and not think that that had a profound effect on his behavior.” At the time of his death, Aaron Hernandez was twenty-seven years old.
Mike Webster – Michael Lewis “Iron Mike” Webster played in the NFL from 1974 to 1990. He is thought to be one of the greatest centers to ever play the game. His toughness on the football field earned him the nickname “Iron Mike”. He was selected in the fourth round in the 1974 NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers and would go on to win four Super Bowls with them (IX, X, XIII, and XIV). Webster and Terry Bradshaw formed one of the best-known center-quarterback pairs in history. Webster became a free agent after the 1988 season and was initially signed by the Kansas City Chiefs as an offensive line coach before allowing him to return to his position as starting center. On March 11, 1991, Mike Webster announced his retirement from the NFL. At the time of his retirement, he was the last active player in the NFL to have played on all four Super Bowl winning teams of the 1970s Steelers and had played more seasons as a Steeler than anyone else in franchise history. In 2018 Ben Roethlisberger tied Webster’s record and broke it in 2020. Webster was proven to have been disabled before retiring from the NFL. After retirement, Webster had amnesia, dementia, depression, and acute bone and muscular pain. He lived out of his pickup truck or in train stations between Wisconsin and Pittsburgh, even though his friends and former teammates offered to rent apartments for him. Terry Bradshaw regularly covered expenses for Webster and his family. Webster would disappear for weeks at a time without explanation and contact with friends and family. He began to show unusual changes in behavior and became so agitated and restless that he used electroshock weapons on himself to induce sleep. He passed away from a heart attack in 2002. After death, Mike Webster was diagnosed with CTE making him the first former NFL to be diagnoses with the illness. Webster played during an era when protective equipment (especially helmets) was inferior, and head injuries were simply considered part of the game. At the time of his death, Mike Webster was fifty years old.
Chris Henry – Chris Henry played four years in the NFL from 2005 to 2009 after being drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in the third round of the 2005 NFL Draft. During his rookie season, he accumulated thirty-one receptions for 422 yards and six touchdowns. His second season with the team was a good one. Henry totaled 605 yards on thirty-six receptions for nine touchdowns, with an average of 16.8 yards per catch. On December 15, 2005, Henry was pulled over in Kentucky for speeding. During a search, marijuana was found in his shoes. He was also driving without a valid driver’s license or valid insurance. He pleaded guilty and avoided a jail sentence. January 30, 2006, he was arrested in Orlando, Florida on multiple gun charges including concealment and aggravated assault with a firearm. He pleaded guilty to this charge and avoided jail time. On April 29, 2006, Henry allowed three females under the legal drinking age (ages 18, 16, and 15) to consume alcohol at a hotel in Covington., Kentucky. One of the three girls, accused Henry of sexually assaulting her but later retracted her story and was charged with filing a false police report. Henry was pulled over in Ohio on June 3, 2006, for suspected drunk driving. He voluntarily submitted to a breathalyzer at the Milford Police Department and registered a .092 blood-alcohol level, .012 above the level permitted in the state of Ohio. On October 6, 2006, Henry was suspended by the NFL for two games for violating the league’s substance abuse and personal conduct policies. On January 25, 2007, Henry pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor violation of a city ordinance referred to as a “keg law.” He was sentenced to 90 days in jail. In April 2007, Henry was suspended for the first eight games of the 2007 NFL season for violations of the NFL’s personal conduct policy. His suspension came with a stern warning that future misconduct may result in the end of his career with the NFL. On November 6, 2007, Henry allegedly assaulted a valet attendant at Newport on the Levee in Newport, Kentucky. He was arrested for a second time in Orlando on December 3rd for violating his probation. On February 21, 2008, he was found not guilty. On March 31, 2008, Henry punched a man named Gregory Meyer, 18, in the face and threw a beer bottle through the window of his car. Henry was waived by the Bengals the next day and served house arrest. On December 16, 2009, Henry sustained injuries when he fell out of the back of a moving pickup truck driven by his fiancée Loleini Tonga, while they were engaged in a domestic dispute. On December 17, 2009, Chris Henry passed away at 6:36 a.m. ET at Carolinas Medical Center from the injuries he had sustained. On December 20, 2009, three days after Henry’s death, the Bengals faced the San Diego Chargers and a moment of silence was held before kickoff. In June 2010, the Brain Injury Research Institute of West Virginia University released a report that Henry had developed CTE during his playing career from head trauma sustained on and off the field. While several former NFL players had been found to have the disease after their deaths, Henry was believed to be the first still-active NFL player to have it. Following Henry’s death, his Bengals teammate, Adam “Pacman” Jones, adopted his three children. Vowing to raise them the way Chris would have wanted to. At the time of his death, Chris Henry was twenty-six years old.
Bubba Smith – Charles Aaron “Bubba” Smith played in the NFL from 1967 to 1976. That was way before my time. He was a large man standing at 6’7” and weighing 265 pounds. Smith was selected number one overall in the 1967 NFL Draft by the Baltimore (Indianapolis) Colts. Smith played defensive end and appeared in the Super Bowl twice (III and V) with the Indianapolis Colts in the first five seasons of his career, walking away with one Super Bowl ring. He was injured in the 1972 preseason when he collided with a solid steel pole the NFL was using at the time to mark yardage and would go on to miss the whole regular season. In July 1973 the Colts traded him to the Oakland (Las Vegas) Raiders and he would later finish his career with the Houston Oilers (Tennesse Titans). After his retirement in 1976, Bubba Smith began acting in small movie and television roles. He is best known for his role as Moses Hightower in the Police Academy movie series. Hightower was a gentle giant of a man with a heart of gold who had to rip out the front seat of a car and sit in the back just so he could drive it. Trust me, I’ve seen the movie at least 8,000 times. He stared in the short-lived television show Blue Thunder and appeared in numerous Miller Lite commercials. Smith made appearances in Good Times, The Odd Couple, Taxi, Hart to Hart, MacGyver, Married… with Children and Family Matters. He was also the longtime spokesman of Baltimore-area law firm Cohen, Snyder, Eisenberg & Katzenberg. In 1983, Smith published the autobiography entitled Kill, Bubba, Kill, in which he stated he felt Super Bowl III might have been rigged in favor of the New York Jets to ensure the AFL–NFL merger proceeded without a hitch. On August 3, 2011, Smith was found deceased in his Los Angeles home by a caretaker. He died from acute drug intoxication and heart disease. Phentermine, a weight-loss drug, was found in his system. His heart weighed more than twice that of an average male his same age and build. On May 24, 2016, Boston University and the Concussion Legacy Foundation released to the public that Smith suffered from CTE. Smith is the 90th player former NFL player found to have had CTE by researchers at Boston University. They have examined a total of 111 former professional players. Smith suffered from stage three CTE, with symptoms including cognitive impairment and problems with judgment and planning. At the time of his death, Bubba Smith was sixty-six years old.
- Ken “The Snake” Stabler
- Frank Gifford
- Jovan Belcher (Publicized in the news for shooting himself in the head at the Kansas City Chiefs training facility in front of Chiefs general manager, Scott Pioli and head coach, Romeo Crennel)
- Lew Carpenter
- Dwight Clark (Well known for making “The Catch” against the Dallas Cowboys in the 1981 NFC Championship game)
- Ray Easterling
- Tom McHale
- Paul Oliver
If I discussed every case of CTE found in former NFL players we would be here for weeks so sadly I can’t include them all in this article. I’m in no way saying or insinuating that these players’ cases are more important than others. These are just the ones I decided to mention. The tightening of rules and “softening” of play in football and other sports can seem like a letdown to our entertainment but fans and organizations need to start putting players’ safety first. They put their bodies on the line for us to watch and be amused but at the end of the day, they are humans with the same impending mortality as the rest of us.
“What is CTE?” – Concussion Foundation
“Chronic traumatic encephalopathy” – Wikipedia
“Football Players Diagnosed with CTE” – People
“Athletes Who May Have Suffered From CTE” – Oxygen Network