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Soccer star Brandi Chastain to donate brain to science

Brandi Chastain, whose penalty kick gave the United States the 1999 Women's World Cup title, has pledged her brain for concussion research.

The 47-year-old Chastain announced her donation to the Massachusetts-based Concussion Legacy Foundation on Thursday. Upon her death, her brain will go to the VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank, a joint project with the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University School of Medicine.

"It is really about: How I can help impact soccer beyond scoring a goal in 1999 in the World Cup final. Can I do something more to leave soccer in a better place than it was when I began this wonderful journey with this game?" she said.

"I would really like to leave something beyond that," she told CBS News.

Researchers are studying the postmortem human brain and spinal cord tissue in hopes of diagnosing and treating chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative condition caused by a blow or blows to the head.

Brandi Chastain "heading" the ball. CBS News

The research team last month announced that it had found signs of CTE in the brain of former Oakland Raiders quarterback and NFL MVP Ken Stabler. But of the 307 brains in the bank, just seven are from women and none has been found to have CTE.

"We currently know so little about how gender influences outcome after trauma," said Dr. Ann McKee, director of the brain bank program. "Her pledge marks an important step to expand our knowledge in this critical area."

Brandi Chastain of champion U.S. Women's World Cup team talks soccer 02:40

Chastain isn't sure she's had concussions, but suspects she has had at least a couple. In her playing days, there wasn't the knowledge about concussions that there is today.

"I know there are two specific incidents when I was in college that today would definitely be considered a concussion," she said, adding that after those injuries in which she had "had my bell rung" or had "seen stars."

"You just shook it off back then," she said.

Chastain played for the U.S. national team from 1988-2004. She was on the team that won the inaugural Women's World Cup in 1991, as well as its second in 1999. The iconic image from that second title came moments after Chastain's left-footed penalty kick against China when she ripped off her jersey in celebration at the Rose Bowl.

Today, Chastain is a youth coach and mom living in the San Francisco Bay Area. She believes awareness is growing, and has partnered with the Concussion Legacy Foundation's Safer Soccer Initiative, which calls on youth coaches to eliminate headers in practice and in games for those under 14.

"It's been a journey about education for me," she said. "I've been involved in sports for a long time, only up until recently, have people been talking about concussions, and then concussions specifically related to soccer. It's been mostly a football problem or a football issue. But it's not."

The NFL has garnered the most attention for its handling of the concussion risk among players. Earlier this year, the league reported an alarming 58 percent increase in concussions, from 115 concussions during the 2014 season to 182 in 2015.

A study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine in 2012 showed that football had the greatest incidence of concussions among high school athletes. Girls' soccer was second. More recent studies show boys' ice hockey and lacrosse to also have high rates.

Brandi Chastain talks to Ben Tracy of CBS Evening News

When it comes to soccer, a recent study found more than 1 in 4 concussions studied occurred when players were trying to head the ball. But more than half of these heading-related concussions were caused by collisions with another player rather than with the ball itself. To address the risk in younger players, the U.S. Soccer Federation recently banned headers for kids 10 and under in its teams and academies.

The Concussion Legacy Foundation was involved in identifying the first case of CTE in a soccer player after examining the brain of Patrick Grange, an aspiring pro known for his headers who died in 2012 at 29.

Chastain hopes she'll inspire other female athletes to pledge their brains to science. Fellow former national team player Cindy Parlow Cone and decorated swimmer Jenny Thompson have also done so.

When Chastain told her 9-year-old son about the donation, she said: "Well, I won't need it anymore, so I might as well put it to good use."

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