What are the most famous CTE cases in NFL history?

When tragedy strikes, it’s important to get a handle on the how and why of it all. Join us as we take a look at the sad stories of some of the most famous players in NFL history who have suffered from the degenerative brain disease called CTE

What is CTE?

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, also known as CTE, has been affecting boxers since the 1920s, according to Boston University’s CTE Center, but it became known to a much wider audience in 2007 after a New York Times article revealed that the former player had Andre Waters suffered brain damage from playing soccer, which led to his depression and eventual death by suicide. The degenerative brain disease is directly linked to repeated blows to the head and has been found in the brains of more than 315 former NFL players, including about 24 who died in their 20s and 30s.

What makes the disease all the more cruel is that it can only be identified during a post-mortem autopsy, however, symptoms of the condition can be observed for years before death, as we will learn below. The symptoms themselves were described by Michael Alosco, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher at Boston University’s Alzheimer’s Disease and CTE Center. “Often with CTE, memory problems, difficulty multitasking, behavior problems such as aggression, and mood problems including depression worsen over time. If they live to old age, those with CTE will develop dementia.

How was CTE first observed?

Former American football player Mike Webster died of a heart attack in 2002 at the age of 50. The legendary Steeler’s center, nicknamed “Iron Mike,” had won the Super Bowl four times and yet enjoyed unprecedented success. Webster’s life went on a downward spiral when he lost his memory, got divorced, stopped eating, and even slept in his car. A sad end to what could otherwise have been a happy and fulfilling life. Unfortunately, the description of what happened in his life became so common among former players that it soon became an issue that demanded an explanation, and that’s exactly what Webster’s autopsy would offer.

Small brown and red dots were scattered across the brain of the former center. Known as tau proteinsthey are the main drivers of dementia as they slowly spread across the brain killing cells in the process. The results of Webster’s autopsy were later published in a journal of neurosurgery, where they were first dubbed “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy” (CTE).

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Which Famous NFL Players Have Suffered From CTE?

To date, researchers have diagnosed CTE in 110 of the 111 former NFL players who donated their brains to studies. This group includes five of the league’s most legendary players, which we’ll break down for you:

Aaron Hernandez

Around 3 a.m. on April 19, 2017, the former New England Patriots tight end was found hanging from a bed sheet in his jail cell in Shirley, Massachusetts. Hernandez was recently found not guilty of a double murder in 2012, so one can imagine his suicide came as a complete shock. A postmortem brain scan would later reveal that Hernandez had suffered from CTE. The scan, conducted by Ann McKee, PhD, senior researcher at Boston University’s CTE Center, showed evidence of brain atrophy, damage to the frontal lobe, and large patches of black spots created by tau proteins. “We’ve never seen that in our 468 brains, except in people who are about 20 years older,” said Dr. McKee in 2017.

The late Aaron Hernandez, who played for the New England Patriots

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The late Aaron Hernandez, who played for the New England PatriotsJARED WICKERHAMAFP

It should be said that Hernandez also displayed all of the typical signs of CTE throughout his life, including: mood swings, depression, aggression, irritability, impulsivity, and anxiety. He also suffered from constant headaches, migraines and memory problems. Incidentally, Hernandez’s family filed a $20 million lawsuit against the New England Patriots and the NFL following his CTE diagnosis. The lawsuit denied that the league and franchise “were fully aware of the harm that could be caused by repetitive impact injuries and failed to disclose, treat, or protect against the dangers of such harm.”

Frank Gifford

A versatile player for the New York Giants, Gifford won five NFL championships in the 1950s and 1960s. Although he died of natural causes Gifford’s family released a statement in 2015 confirming a postmortem diagnosis of CTE. According to a 2015 article, the family’s statement continued, “We … find comfort in knowing that by disclosing his condition, we can positively contribute to the ongoing conversation that needs to be held; that he could be an inspiration to others suffering from this disease that needs to be addressed in the present; and that we may be a small part of the solution to an urgent problem that affects everyone involved with football, at every level.”

Some will recall that it was actually Gifford who suffered one of the most infamous hits in NFL history when he was subjected to a brutal tackle by Eagles linebacker Chuck Bednarik in November 1960. Gifford was in hospital for 10 days and would walk for two years after that before playing again. He suffered from confusion and short-term memory loss. “It’s hard to do,” Gifford once said when lobbying for the NFL to introduce better helmet protection for players. “You have to start in high school and get them to play properly. And it’s tough for officials, whether on the field or in the league office, who have to be judges and juries.”

Ken Stabler

With 27,938 passing yards during his 15-year NFL career with the Oakland Raiders, Minnesota Vikings, Houston Oilers and New Orleans Saints, Stabler was a legend. A native of Foley, Alabama, the player was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in 1974 and led the Raiders to a 1977 Super Bowl victory. Stabler’s longtime partner Kim Bush explained after his death that the former NFL great suffered from severe headaches in addition to disorientation and forgetfulness. “We’ve talked extensively about head injuries,” Bush said at the time. “He was sure that he was suffering from the consequences of playing football.”

Ken Stabler during his time with the then Oakland Raiders

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Ken Stabler during his time with the then Oakland Raiders

Stabler, who died of colon cancer at the age of 69, asked for his brain to be donated to Boston University’s CTE Center. After examining his brain, it was confirmed that he did indeed suffer from CTE and, moreover, that the disease was widespread throughout his brain, with severe damage to the areas involved in learning, memory and the regulation of emotions. Stabler’s case remains intriguing because he more or less understood what he was suffering from before he died. Chris Nowinski, the founder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, said it’s interesting that Stabler anticipated his diagnosis years in advance. “And despite being a football icon, in his final years he began to actively distance himself from football and expressed hope that his grandchildren would choose not to play,” he said. Stabler’s plight was also unique because he was a quatrback, a position that doesn’t typically get the amount of tackle that others do. “Although on average we know that certain positions are subject to more repeated headbutts and are more likely to have a higher risk of CTE, no position is immune,” said McKee of Boston University.

Andre Wasser

In November 2006, former Philadelphia Eagles defenseman Andre Waters walked onto the pool deck of his Tampa home with a .32 caliber handgun and committed suicide at the age of 44. “Football killed him,” Dr. Bennet Omalu quoted at the time after examining Waters’ brain. Omalu added that Waters’ brain tissue resembled that of an 85-year-old in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. “Had Waters lived another 10 to 15 years, he would have been completely disabled,” Omalu said an article published in the New York Times.

Waters has made hundreds of tackles in his 12 seasons with the Eagles and Arizona Cardinals. On the field, Waters earned the nickname “Dirty Waters” for his aggressive tackling style, which unsurprisingly often involved using his head. “He used his head a lot,” Antoine Russell, Waters’ former high school coach, told the Palm Beach Post. “When we were at school I tried so many times to stop him because I knew our insurance wasn’t too good.” Known as the brother of his teammates, generous friend and loving son to his mother, the former great player sadly developed and eventually succumbed to severe depression later in life.

Junior Seau

It was May 2012 when Oceanside, California police responded to a call from Seau’s girlfriend, who found him unconscious with a gunshot wound to the chest. Seau’s untimely death came just a short time after the 2011 suicide of former Chicago Bears player Dave Duerson, who also had CTE and incidentally also shot himself in the chest.

The late NFL icon Junior Seau

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The late NFL icon Junior SeauGetty Images

One of the most brutal linebackers in the NFL, Seau played over 20 league seasons with the San Diego Chargers, Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots. When it comes to awards, his list of accolades is extensive. A 10-time All-Pro select, 12-time Pro Bowl, 1990 All-Decade Team member and inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2015, Seau was a legend. After his suicide, Seau’s family requested that his brain be checked for signs of CTE. According to the autopsy report Published in the journal World Neurosurgery in February 2016, Seau’s brain showed abnormalities consistent with CTE and similar to those found in autopsies of people with “repetitive head injuries.”“Interestingly, the NFL responded to the journal’s findings by stating that the report “underscores the recognized need for additional research to accelerate a more comprehensive understanding of CTE.” The league subsequently awarded the NIH a $30 million research grant, so it can research CTE and promote the long-term safety of athletes at all levels.

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