5 NFL Athletes Who Had CTE


NFL players Aaron Hernandez, Frand Gifford, and Andre Waters were all diagnosed with CTE.

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease thought to be caused by repeated head trauma, can currently only be diagnosed after death through a brain autopsy.

However, in a new study, researchers discovered a possible biomarker in cerebrospinal fluid that could allow doctors to diagnose CTE while the patient is still alive.

According to the study, the biomarker is a protein called tau. Previous research has linked tau to CTE, and researchers discovered elevated levels of the protein in the cerebrospinal fluid of more than half of the study participants, who were former professional athletes who had multiple concussions.

(Multiple concussions are associated with an increased risk of CTE, but because the disease cannot be diagnosed while a person is still alive, it is unknown whether the athletes had CTE.)
“We are optimistic that we are getting closer to finding a biomarker for CTE, which will allow researchers to study how [tau] affects brain function,” said senior study author Dr. Carmela Tartaglia, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Tanz Centre for Research in Neurodegenerative Diseases. [5 Things to Know About Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy]
CTE patients are more likely to develop dementia, personality disorders, or behavioral issues, though the exact mechanism by which CTE affects the brain is unknown.

The new study included 22 Canadian men with an average age of 56 who were all former professional athletes.

They had all suffered multiple concussions. Non-athletes were also included in the study: 12 people with Alzheimer’s disease and five healthy people who served as controls.

The participants’ cerebrospinal fluid was tested for tau levels, and brain-imaging scans and neuro-psychological exams were performed, including tests of executive function.

Here are their stories:

1. Aaron Hernandez

Aaron Hernandez, a tight end for the New England Patriots, suffered from CTE.

On April 19, 2017, around 3 a.m., a correction officer at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley, Massachusetts, discovered former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez hanging from a bedsheet in his prison cell.

Many people were surprised by the suicide of the infamous football player, who had just been found not guilty of a double homicide in 2012. What compelled the 27-year-old to commit suicide?

Hernandez had the degenerative brain disease CTE, according to a postmortem brain scan. The scan, conducted by Ann McKee, PhD, the CTE Center’s lead researcher, revealed evidence of brain atrophy, frontal lobe damage, and large areas of black spots caused by tau protein.

“We’ve never seen this in our 468 brains, except in people 20 years older,” Dr. McKee said in a New York Post article published on November 9, 2017.

Throughout his life, Hernandez displayed all of the typical symptoms of CTE, including:

  • hanges in mood, such as depression, aggression, irritability, impulsivity, and anxiety
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Memory problems

Following the CTE diagnosis, Hernandez’s family sued the New England Patriots and the NFL for $20 million. The lawsuit claims that both the league and the team “were fully aware of the damage that could be inflicted from repetitive impact injuries and failed to disclose, treat, or protect him from the dangers of such damage,” according to an article published on September 21, 2017, in USA Today, which obtained a copy of the 18-page filing.

The family has since dropped the lawsuit but has left the door open to re-filing it in a different court. We’ll have to see what happens.

2. Frank Gifford

Frank Gifford, a halfback and flanker for the New York Giants, suffered from concussion-related brain injury.

Frank Gifford was a versatile offensive and defensive player for the New York Giants, who won five NFL championships in the 1950s and 1960s. Despite dying naturally, Gifford’s family issued a statement in 2015 confirming a postmortem diagnosis of CTE.

According to WABC-TV, the family’s statement continued, “We… find comfort in knowing that by disclosing his condition, we might contribute positively to the ongoing conversation that needs to be had; that he might be an inspiration for others suffering with this disease that needs to be addressed now; and that we might be a small part of the solution to an urgent problem concerning anyone involved with football.”

Though Gifford was hit numerous times during his career, a devastating tackle by Eagles linebacker Chuck Bednarik in November 1960 most likely contributed to his CTE.

After being knocked unconscious by the blow, Gifford spent 10 days in the hospital and was unable to play for two years as a result of one of the most infamous concussions in NFL history. Tingling fingers, confusion, and short-term memory loss were some of the long-term effects of his deep brain concussion, spinal concussion, and eventual CTE.

Gifford spent his post-football career as a television sports commentator and worked to help the NFL impose helmet-to-helmet rules. “It’s difficult to do,” Gifford said in a New York Times article. “You have to start in high school and teach them how to play properly.”

It’s also difficult for officials, whether on the field or in the league office, who must act as judge and jury.”

3. Ken Stabler

Ken Stabler, who was a quarterback for the Oakland Raiders, Houston Oilers, and New Orleans Saints, suffered from the brain disease CTE.

Ken Stabler, a native of Foley, Alabama, threw for 27,938 yards in 15 seasons with the Oakland Raiders, Minnesota Vikings, Houston Oilers, and New Orleans Saints. He was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in 1974, and he led the Raiders to a Super Bowl victory in 1977.

Kim Bush, Stabler’s long-term partner, told ESPN’s Outside the Lines (OTL) that Stabler had severe headaches, as well as disorientation and forgetfulness. “We discussed head injury extensively,” Bush told OTL. “He was certain that he was suffering from the aftereffects of football.”

Stabler died of colon cancer at the age of 69, and his brain was donated to the Boston University CTE Center for research.

McKee of the Boston CTE Center confirmed Stabler’s CTE diagnosis after reviewing his brain scans, telling The Associated Press that the disease was widespread throughout his brain, with severe damage to areas involved with learning, memory, and emotion regulation.

The founder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, Chris Nowinski, told The Associated Press that it was interesting that Stabler predicted his diagnosis years in advance. “And, despite being a football legend, he actively distanced himself from the game in his final years, expressing hope that his grandsons would not choose to play,” he said.

The case of Stabler broadened the scope of positions at risk for CTE. He was a quarterback, a position thought to be less likely to be tackled in the open field. In fact, the NFL has rules in place to protect quarterbacks from being sacked too aggressively, such as the “Brady Rule,” which prohibits players from hitting a quarterback below the knee without being penalized.

“While we know that certain positions experience more repetitive head impacts and are more likely to be at greater risk for CTE on average,” McKee said in a KRON article published on February 3, 2016.

4. Andre Waters

Andre Waters, safety for the Philadelphia Eagles and Arizona Cardinals, suffered numerous concussions during his 11 year career with the NFL.

Former Philadelphia defensive back Andre Waters, 44, committed suicide on the pool deck of his Tampa home in November 2006, armed with a.32-caliber Smith & Wesson pistol.

“Football killed him,” Omalu said in a Palm Beach Post article after examining Waters’ brain, adding that Waters’ brain tissue resembled that of an 85-year-old in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. “If Waters had lived another 10 to 15 years, he would have been completely incapacitated,” Omalu wrote in The New York Times.

Waters had hundreds of tackles in 12 seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles and Arizona Cardinals, and the effects of repeated head trauma had taken their toll.

Waters was dubbed “Dirty Waters” on the field for his aggressive tackling style, which often began with his head.

“He used his head a lot,” Antoine Russell, Waters’ former high school coach, told the Palm Beach Post. “I tried so many times to stop him in school because I knew our insurance wasn’t very good.”

Off the field, Waters was known as a brother to his teammates, a generous friend to those he cared about, and a loving son to the mother he thanked God for every day. Waters developed depression after leaving the NFL, which drove him to commit suicide.

5. Junior Seau

Junior Seau, a linebacker for the San Diego Chargers, told reporters he had 1,000 concussions during his career.
Police in Oceanside, California, responded to a phone call from Junior Seau’s girlfriend in May 2012, and discovered him unconscious with a gunshot wound to the chest. Seau’s death came on the heels of the 2011 suicide of former Chicago Bears player Dave Duerson, who also had CTE and shot himself in the chest.

With a 20-year career as a lead force for the San Diego Chargers, Miami Dolphins, and New England Patriots, Seau was one of the NFL’s fiercest linebackers. His professional accolades include being a 10-time All-Pro selection, a 12-time Pro Bowl selection, a 1990 All-Decade Team selection, and a 2015 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee.

Seau’s family insisted on having his brain examined for signs of CTE after he committed suicide. His brain was donated to the National Institute of Health by his family (NIH). According to an autopsy report published in the journal World Neurosurgery in February 2016, Seau’s brain showed abnormalities consistent with CTE and similar to autopsies of people who had “exposure to repetitive head injuries.”

The NFL responded to the NIH findings in a statement, saying that the report “underscores the recognized need for additional research to accelerate a fuller understanding of CTE.” The NFL then gave the NIH a $30 million research grant to investigate CTE and promote the long-term safety of athletes at all levels.

Meanwhile, researchers at Boston University’s CTE Center are committed to studying donated brains of former athletes in order to learn more about CTE and the long-term effects of contact sports.

“Our goal is to better characterize what CTE looks like in the brain, what causes it, and the various risk factors that may play a role, such as genetics or lifestyle,” Dr. Alosco says.


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