The grim list of football players with CTE continues to grow

By Lisa Gutierrez

lgutierrez@kcstar.com

February 05, 2016 12:21 AM

Former Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler has been added to the growing list of NFL players afflicted by the brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Ben Margot AP file photo
Former Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler has been added to the growing list of NFL players afflicted by the brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Ben Margot AP file photo

The days leading up to Sunday’s Super Bowl 50 have been the usual spectacle of festive interviews, parties and celebrities. But now those three letters that have been haunting the NFL have popped up again.

CTE.

Former Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler, who died in July, was added this week to the growing lineup of NFL players afflicted by the brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, thought to be caused by repeated blows to the head.

Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall was bothered when he heard the news during his Super Bowl preparations.

“You’ve got to look after yourself because, really, nobody else will,” Marshall told The Associated Press, adding that he has heard about players walking away from football.

“The game is so much a part of who I am, so I can’t give up a big part of me. I just hope the game doesn’t one day take away a big part of me.”

In a study released in October, 87 of 91 former NFL players who donated their brains to science tested positive for the disease. Researchers have so far found CTE in men who played every position except kicker.

“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,” said Ann McKee, a neurology professor at Boston University who studied Stabler’s brain.

The death in 2013 of football player Michael Keck, a former star at Harrisonville High, threw a new spin on the increasingly loud CTE discussion — he was only 25 when he died and never played pro football. (Read Sam Mellinger’s story here.)

Here are just a few of the NFL players affected by CTE:

▪ A postmortem analysis of the brain of Jovan Belcher, the Chiefs linebacker who killed his girlfriend in December 2012 in a murder-suicide, found that the 25-year-old linebacker probably was suffering from CTE. He is among the youngest known players to have the disease. (Read more here.)

▪ New York Giants safety Tyler Sash, 27, died of an accidental overdose of medications in September. His mother, who had seen his irregular behavior and periods of confusion and memory loss, said her son knew something was wrong. It was CTE, which had advanced to a stage rarely seen in someone his age.

▪ Former New York Giants running back and broadcaster Frank Gifford, who died last August, had CTE, as his family had suspected.

▪ Ray Easterling, a former safety for the Atlanta Falcons, was depressed and suffering from apparent dementia when he shot himself in 2012. An autopsy found CTE in his brain. “It amazed me to think about what he dealt with every day inside his head,” said his widow, Mary Ann.

▪ San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau, who suffered from CTE, shot himself in 2012 at the age of 43.

This week, Bennet Omalu, the doctor played by Will Smith in the movie “Concussion,” said he believes that O.J. Simpson suffers from the disease. Simpson’s “trial of the century” for murder is playing out over the next few weeks in the FX miniseries “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.”

Omalu pointed to Simpson’s “irrationality, his impulsivity ... his sexual improprieties, his violent tendencies, domestic violence history” as signs of the disease.

Omalu has estimated that more than 90 percent of all NFL players have CTE. The disease, however, can only be diagnosed after death.

It’s not clear yet why the disease hits some players and not others. In the study released last fall by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University, researchers said their results didn’t necessarily mean that 96 percent of all NFL players are at risk.

The brains studied came from players who had concerns about CTE when they were alive.

After Stabler’s diagnosis was revealed on Wednesday, reporters at the Super Bowl asked former San Francisco 49ers legend Ronnie Lott whether he worried that he might have CTE.

“Everyone should think they have it and then work to slow it down by working to have a better life,” Lott said. “As far as symptoms, I don’t have anything.”

Scientists use words like “magnificent” to describe the human brain, a 3-pound motherboard floating in your skull that controls your emotions, your breathing, your movements and records every minute of every day of your life when it’s working well.

Like a computer, the brain doesn’t take kindly to hitting, dropping, slamming, banging, pounding or whacking, especially when it happens over and over and over again.

CTE, believed to be linked to repeated head trauma and concussions, makes the brain go haywire.

In a person with CTE, the brain gradually deteriorates. It loses mass. Parts of it atrophy, while other areas become enlarged, according to the Brain Injury Research Institute.

It was once called dementia pugilistica because it was thought to primarily affect boxers. But it’s now found in people involved in contact sports and members of the military who have suffered concussions and traumatic brain injuries.

Stabler’s family donated his brain to researchers at Boston University who spent months dissecting it and studying it, according to The New York Times.

His brain weighed just under three pounds. CTE was widespread throughout. Researchers said that the damage to the areas of Stabler’s brain that affected his memory and regulation of his emotions was “quite severe.”

Stabler reportedly told his family that he wanted his own brain studied after learning that Junior Seau had been diagnosed with CTE.

Reporters have noted that the Stabler diagnosis creates a sobering counterpoint to the festive run-up to Sunday’s game, especially since both the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos are known for hard-hitting, aggressive defenses.

“Stabler might be inducted posthumously into the Hall of Fame on Saturday,” wrote ESPN senior writer Ian O’Connor. “And if his legacy makes the journey to Canton, it will do so with the letters CTE attached.”