February 21st, 2011
06:54 PM ET
The toll of repeated head blows and injuries loomed over football after the death last week of former NFL player, Dave Duerson.
Duerson, a former Chicago Bears safety who was a key member of the team's legendary defense, was found dead Thursday in Florida. He was 50. Duerson shot himself in the chest, which kept his brain intact for examination for a debilitating brain injury called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, known as CTE.
His son, Tregg Duerson said, "There was a text message the night before that was a bizarre text message that he sent to my mother saying that he loved her and he loved my family and that to please get his brain to the NFL brain bank. My mother called me at work. We talked about it and it was bizarre text. You can't make sense of it."
They tried to reach him, but "no one could get in contact with him," Tregg Duerson said, with his voice trembling.
"When I'm getting up at 1:30 in the morning and I'm letting the police in, you know, the first thing on my mind is, 'I think they're about to tell me my father died.'"
It is unclear whether Duerson had the brain damage that can cause bizarre behavior and severe depression. It is impossible to determine whether a person has CTE without examining his or her brain after death.
The NFL has been criticized for being too lax in dealing with the consequences of head blows. Last year, the league's new medical committee members vowed to change that culture and step up efforts to prevent head injuries.
“We have no idea whether he had the disease,” said Dr. Robert Stern, a co-director of Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. The center has a brain donation registry for athletes to study effects of trauma on the brain and spinal cord.
BU's researchers are expected to examine Duerson’s brain. The process could take months.
Duerson never mentioned health problems or concerns, said his friend and former teammate, Emery Moorehead.
“It caught everybody off guard,” said Moorehead, about his friend’s death. “Everybody saw him at the 25-year reunion," of the Super Bowl-winning 1985 Bears.
“Everyone saw him. He never mentioned anything. He was quite upbeat, speaking of getting married in April. It just came out of the blue,” Moorehead said.
Duerson’s death left Moorehead to join other players who have previously expressed worry about the punishment their bodies have endured from the repeated blows and grueling tackles.
“It makes me concerned,” Moorehead said. You’re kind of conditioned to block with your head. You lead with your head. After playing 20 years, there’s a concern.”
Athletes are increasingly aware of those risks, said BU's Stern.
“I hear frequently from former players,” he said. “It’s a combination of joking and serious discussions of them being aware of their memory slipping or behavior changes that they're now becoming more and more concerned about because of awareness of CTE.”
CTE has also been called the punch-drunk syndrome and dementia pugilistica, because career boxers who have suffered repeated blows to the head have been known to develop the syndrome. It is believed largely to affect aging boxers and football players who have experienced crushing blows to their heads.
Many of the aging players struggle with brain injuries and appear as shells of former selves.
Former linebacker Fred McNeill, 58, virtually lost his memory after his glory days ended in the mid-'80s. Former San Francisco 49ers lineman George Visger has to scrawl the minutiae of his daily life in yellow notebooks or else he forgets what he did minutes ago. His is another case of ex-NFL athletes struggling with memory loss, depression and sudden, frightening bouts of rage.
Recent studies suggest the reason may be blows to the brain the players suffered on the football field. CTE's effects are mainly neurobehavioral. These symptoms include poor decision-making, behavioral problems, failure at personal and business relationships, use of drugs and alcohol, depression and suicide.
Traces of the disease has been found in the brains of several late NFL football players, including John Grimsley, Mike Webster, Andre Waters, Justin Strzelczyk, Terry Long, Tom McHale and Chris Henry.
Grimsley died of an accidental gunshot wound to the chest. Webster, Long and Strzelczyk all died after long bouts of depression, while Waters committed suicide in 2006 at age 44. McHale was found dead last year of an apparent drug overdose. Henry died at age 26 after falling from a moving truck during a fight with his girlfriend.
Recent research shows that even high school and college players have accumulated brain damage. The syndrome is believed to be caused by large accumulations of tau proteins in the brain that kill cells in the regions responsible for mood, emotion and executive functioning. Tau proteins are also found in the brains of patients with Alzheimer's disease and dementia.
Just because a player experiences several concussions throughout his career, it does not mean that the syndrome is inevitable.
“As often in the case of medicine, there is probably an underlying susceptibility, due to a set of genetic makeup that is in conjunction with multiple injuries that could lead to CTE,” said Dr. Robert Stevens, associate professor at Johns Hopkins University, who takes care of people with brain injuries.
Duerson’s death comes shortly before the NFL’s labor deal is set to expire March 3. Players and team owners are in conflict over the split of billions of dollars of revenue and the number of regular season games. The owners want to expand the season to 18 games from 16.
Dr. Bennet Omalu, neuropathologist at the Brain Injury Research Institute who was first to describe CTE in an American football player, vociferously opposes extending the season.
“We should not sacrifice the lives of the players," he said. "It reminds me of ancient Rome."
“This is an epidemic. I have not met a retired NFL player who is not having problems.”
From around the web
About this blog
Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.