A number of high-profile former NFL players, including stars Frank Gifford and Ken Stabler, have been diagnosed with CTE - a debilitating disease associated with head injuries - after their deaths. They are among a vanguard of pro athletes to have donated their brains to science in order to advance the research on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
Evidence is mounting that football players risk more than bruises and broken bones; the repeated head injuries and concussions many pro athletes suffer can lead to (CTE). The debilitating disease is marked by depression, dementia, and other Alzheimer’s-like symptoms.
In 2015, researchers at Boston University confirmed CTE in the brains of 87 out of 91 deceased former NFL players tested. It affected players including Junior Seau and Frank Gifford. “While we know on average that certain positions experience more repetitive head impacts and are more likely at greater risk for CTE, no position is immune,” Dr. Ann McKee, a professor of neurology at Boston University, told the AP.
Former Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler, the late NFL and Super Bowl MVP and a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, had the brain disease CTE, Boston University researchers said February 3, 2016.
Stabler, who died of colon cancer at age 69 in July 2015, had Stage 3 chronic traumatic encephalopathy, Dr. Ann McKee told The Associated Press. The former football star told his family he wanted his brain studied after learning that former NFL linebacker Junior Seau was diagnosed with the disease. Seau shot himself in the chest and died at age 43. The disease can only be diagnosed after death.
“What is interesting about Ken Stabler is that he anticipated his diagnosis years in advance,” Chris Nowinski, the founder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, told the AP. “And even though he’s a football icon he began actively distancing himself from game in his final years, expressing hope that his grandsons would choose not to play.”
Former Iowa football star Tyler Sash, who later played two seasons as a safety for the New York Giants, was found dead at his home of an accidental overdose of pain medication at the age of 27 on September 8, 2015.
His family announced, January 27, 2016, that representatives from Boston University and the Concussion Legacy Foundation found Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in his brain.
According to the New York Times Sash had been cut by the Giants after what was at least his fifth concussion and the disease had advanced to a stage rarely seen in someone that age.
NFL Hall of Famer and TV sports commentator Frank Gifford, who played for the New York Giants for 12 years beginning in 1952, died in August 2015 at the age of 83. Gifford became one of the highest profile former NFL players to be named as having CTE.
His family revealed in November 2015 that Giffford suffered from concussion-related brain disease. Gifford's family said they suspected he'd been "suffering from the debilitating effects of head trauma" while he was alive.
"Iron Mike" Webster helped the Steelers win four Super Bowls in the 70's. After leaving the game, he suffered depression and dementia, dying in 2002 at the age of 50. He became the first apparent case of "footballer's dementia" for Brain Injury Research Institute (BIRI) pathologist Dr. Bennett Omalu (who was later portrayed by Will Smith in the movie "Concussion"). Webster's brain was said to have been through the equivalent of "25,000 car crashes" over his 25 years of playing football in high school, college, and the NFL.
Safety Dave Duerson won a Super Bowl as part of the 1985 Bears defense. In February 2011, Duerson, 50, texted to his ex-wife Alicia an odd request: "Please, see that my brain is given to the N.F.L.'s brain bank." When Duerson's body was found, there was a handwritten suicide note repeating the request. "I think David knew that inside of him there was something wrong," Alicia told the New York Times.
Duerson's family complied with his last request, donating his brain to the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE). In May 2011, doctors at the CSTE confirmed Duerson had "indisputable evidence" of CTE.
Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry's death - after falling from a truck during a domestic dispute in 2009 - shocked football fans. An autopsy by the BIRI found that the 26-year-old had chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
"I was surprised in a way because of his age and because he was not known as a concussion sufferer or a big hitter. Is there some lower threshold when you become at risk for this disease? I'm struggling to see if something can come out positive out of this," Dr. Julian Bailes of the BIRI grimly told the New York Times.
Strzelczyk was an offensive lineman with the Steelers for eight seasons. In 2004, he died in a car crash after taking police on a high-speed chase, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. Toxicology reports showed no evidence of drugs or alcohol in the 36-year-old's body. So what caused his erratic behavior?
Strzelczyk's family donated his brain to the Brain Injury Research Institute. Dr. Ronald Hamilton of the University of Pittsburgh told the New York Times, "If I didn't know anything about this case and I looked at the slides, I would have asked, 'Was this patient a boxer?'"
Long played right guard for the Steelers from 1984 to 1991. In 2005, when he was 45, he killed himself by drinking antifreeze, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette reported.
The Brain Injury Research Institute examined his brain and saw evidence of damage that might well have contributed to his suicide. "Terry Long committed suicide due to the chronic traumatic encephalopathy due to his long-term play." Dr. Bennet Omalu told the newspaper.
Waters was regarded as one of the league's hardest-hitting defensive backs during his career with the Philadelphia Eagles. He committed suicide in 2006, at the age of 44.
An autopsy showed that his brain tissue to be similar to that of an 85-year-old's Alzheimer's patient, Dr. Bennet Omalu told the New York Times. "If Waters had lived another 10 to 15 years, he would have been "fully incapacitated," Omalu said.
When former Houston Oilers linebacker John Grimsley died in 2008 at the age of 45, his wife donated his brain to the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. An autopsy revealed brain abnormalities typically seen in elderly Alzheimer's patients. The site compares slides of Grimsley's brain tissue to those of a 73-year-old ex-boxer.
Junior Seau, one of the NFL's best and fiercest players for nearly two decades, had a degenerative brain disease when he committed suicide in May 2013, the National Institutes of Health revealed.
Results of an NIH study of Seau's brain revealed abnormalities consistent with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The NIH, based in Bethesda, Maryland, conducted a study of three unidentified brains, one of which was Seau's. It said the findings on Seau were similar to autopsies of people "with exposure to repetitive head injuries."
Atlanta Falcons safety Ray Easterling, who helped lead the team's vaunted defense in the 1970s and later filed a high-profile lawsuit against the NFL targeting the league's handling of concussion-related injuries, committed suicide on April 19, 2012, in Richmond, Va. He was 62.
After his career, he suffered from dementia, depression and insomnia, according to his wife, Mary Ann. An autopsy in 2012 revealed that Easterling suffered from CTE.
Ralph Wenzel, who played guard for the Pittsburg Steelers and San Diego Chargers for seven seasons in the 60s and 70s, died in June 2012 from complications of dementia, according to his wife, Eleanor Perfetto. He was 69. According to the New York Times, Wenzel started having signs of early-onset dementia - memory lapses and other cognitive problems - at age 52 in 1995. The former player's condition became so severe he stopped working as a teacher and coach and was institutionalized in 2006.
Wenzel's brain is among more than 100 that have been donated to the Boston University brain bank. His case was discussed at a October 2009 House Judiciary Committee hearing.