Gridiron football has never been more popular. Unquestionably the most popular sport in the United States, professional football is a ten billion dollar a year industry, and high-level college football brings in billions more. The sport is at the top of its game, and with Super Bowl XLVII coming up on Sunday, it’s easy to think that football can only continue to get more popular.
Behind the scenes, though, there is increasing concern that football could be in trouble. The sport is violent by its very nature, and that has long been understood to lead to long-term physical damage. Increasingly, however, it’s becoming apparent that there is a far worse trauma being inflicted on players — serious, irreversible, devastating traumatic brain injuries.
Until very recently, players routinely returned to games with concussions, so long as they were physically able to play – literally risking imminent death. While the NFL has taken steps over the last six years to try to prevent that, even one concussion can have serious, lifetime effects. Even if players fully recover from a concussion, they are still at risk of severe damage should they sustain another one — and that is always a danger for players in a sport where violent hitting is not just expected, but encouraged.
After players leave the game, many suffer from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. The incurable, degenerative disease has a number of pernicious effects, including depression, memory loss, and difficulty controlling emotion. Repeated concussions damage the brain’s executive function — the part of our mind responsible for rationality and goal-oriented behavior.
Needless to say, being emotionally unstable, unable to plan for the future and incapable of remembering things is a hard and painful way to live, and sadly, many are simply unable to bear up under the strain. A recent spate of suicides among former football players have been linked to CTE. Other former NFL players have sued the league for covering up what it knew about damage caused by concussions.
That may just be the tip of the iceberg: at the college and high school level, concussion protocols are less rigorous and lightly-enforced, and a high school football player who suffers multiple concussions is no less in danger of lifetime problems than a pro who does.
So as gridiron football prepares for the highlight of the year, the 47th Super Bowl, it’s worth remembering some of the men who literally gave everything they had to the game, including their memories, their stability and ultimately, their lives.
9. Nathan Stiles
Nathan Stiles isn’t a household name. He wasn’t a pro. He wasn’t even a college player. Stiles died in 2010 at age 17, collapsing at halftime of a game during his senior season in high school. He had suffered a concussion earlier in the season, and sat out for three weeks following it, but he wasn’t fully healed. He ultimately died of a brain hemorrhage — while he’d been cleared to play, he was not fully healed. Like many players, he tried to hide the pain, so he could get back on the field for his final game. (He admitted to his girlfriend that he was dizzy the day before the game, but told neither his parents nor coaches.) A hit in that final game caused bleeding on the brain. An autopsy of his brain done by Boston University showed Stiles was already suffering from early signs of CTE.
8. Mike Borich
Mike Borich died at 42, committing suicide after overdosing on medication. The former college wide receiver had suffered from depression and out-of-control behavior. Borich played football in the 1980s, before the effects of concussions were widely known. His father says he may have suffered from nine or ten over his career. A post-mortem autopsy showed Borich was afflicted with CTE.
7. Owen Thomas
Owen Thomas committed suicide at age 21, hanging himself after suffering from “emotional collapse.” The Penn University junior never complained of a concussion during his time playing football, though his family allowed that he may have chosen to ignore symptoms in order to stay on the field. Despite that, an autopsy showed clear signs of CTE — raising the concern that even hits that aren’t severe enough to cause concussions could still do long-term damage.
6. John Mackey
John Mackey was a Hall of Fame tight end for the Baltimore Colts and San Diego Chargers, and later served as the first head of the NFL Players Association, the league’s union. Mackey suffered from frontotemporal dementia, which made him confused, paranoid and angry. He ultimately entered an assisted-living facility at 65, and died at age 69. An autopsy of his brain showed clear evidence of CTE.
5. John Grimsley
When John Grimsley died of what was classified as an accidental gunshot wound in 2008, it wasn’t national news. The linebacker for the Houston Oilers and Miami Dolphins had a good career, making a Pro Bowl in 1988, and lasting in the league for ten seasons. He began exhibiting signs of dementia around the age of 40, including all the classic hallmarks of CTE. The diagnosis was confirmed post-mortem.
4. Lou Creekmur
Lou Creekmur lived to be 82, so one might think that his death, at least, can’t be attributed to brain trauma. Unfortunately, that death came after 30 years of cognitive decline, from memory loss to angry outbursts and aggression. The eight-time Pro Bowl offensive lineman for the Detroit Lions played from 1950 to 1959, famously breaking his nose 13 times in an era before facemasks were required. A post-mortem autopsy showed Creekmur had full-blown CTE.
3. Ray Easterling
Ray Easterling played safety for the Atlanta Falcons from 1972 to 1979, and after retiring, suffered from a series of impairments, from a depression to a loss of memory and organization to difficulty relating to other people. In 2011, he joined other players in suing the NFL over concussion-related damage; in 2012, he shot himself. A study of his brain showed clear evidence of CTE.
2. Dave Duerson
Dave Duerson’s suicide may well be the point at which CTE could no longer be ignored. The safety for the Chicago Bears, New York Giants, and Phoenix Cardinals was a four-time Pro Bowler and two-time Super Bowl champion, and at one time held the record for sacks in a season by a defensive back. In retirement, Duerson was at one point successful in business, but over time grew despairing of his declining cognitive abilities. In 2011, Duerson committed suicide, shooting himself in the chest. In a text message to his family, he said he did so in order that his brain could be studied for CTE. Duerson’s suspicions were confirmed post-mortem. His method of suicide finally and compellingly drew national attention to the plight of players like himself.
1. Junior Seau
Junior Seau was a wildly popular linebacker for the San Diego Chargers, Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots. A 12-time Pro Bowler and near-certain future member of the Hall of Fame, Seau killed himself in May of 2012. Like Duerson, Seau shot himself in the chest, and while he did not leave a suicide note, the similarity was clear. The story of Seau’s decline is by now horribly familiar — his once-photographic memory was shattered, his ability to handle numbers gone, his temper suddenly sharp and violent. Like the other eight men on this list — and countless others — Seau suffered from CTE, confirmed by autopsy