Sports

NFL’s dark side: Haunted by husband’s death, widow takes CTE fight to Super Bowl

On May 3, 2012, Junior Seau, a star linebacker with the San Diego Chargers for 20 seasons, shot himself in the chest and died. He was 43. Fifteen months earlier, Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson, a four-time Pro Bowl selection, ended his struggle the same way at age 50. He left a note.

Tormented, Duerson wanted his family to donate his brain to the Concussion Legacy Foundation in Boston.

The autopsy of Duerson’s brain revealed he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, now commonly known as CTE, the degenerative brain disease related to repeated blows to the head. Immediately it was speculated that Seau, one of the NFL’s most punishing players, had secretly been succumbing to CTE, too.

As Seau’s death reverberated across the league, two former NFL players — and likely many more — trapped within their own mysteriously deteriorating minds and coping as best they could with depression, sleeplessness, motor impairment, irritability, fits of aggression and dementia, suddenly realized the truth as sure as the white spots that flashed before their eyes after a jarring hit.

“We were watching TV that night and he just said, ‘Man, you know, that’s what’s going on,” said Kim Bush, repeating the words of her longtime boyfriend and former Raiders quarterback Kenny Stabler, who was hearing near-constant ringing in his ears.

Bush said Stabler, who was later diagnosed with Stage 3 CTE, was “lucky” to die from prostate cancer in 2015 at age 69, before CTE could unleash its full horror.

That same night, in a spacious Colleyville home, former Seattle Seahawks center Grant Feasel, once a mountain of man, 6 foot 7 and 278 pounds, sat as he usually did at this point, in a darkened bedroom, drinking, with a purpose.

Feasel grew up in Barstow, Calif., and followed his older brother Greg to play football at Abilene Christian, married his college sweetheart Cyndy and delayed medical school as his NFL career unexpectedly flourished.

But after hearing the news of Seau’s suicide, he would soon tell Cyndy, who divorced him only months earlier while on the verge of her own breakdown after years of struggling to make sense of his increasingly erratic and inebriated behavior: “You know, I think I’ve got what Mike [Webster] and Junior and Keli [McGregor] and all these guys have. There’s something wrong with me.”

On July 15, 2012, two months after Seau’s suicide and one month after 62-year-old former Falcons star safety Ray Easterling shot himself, Feasel, 52 and a father of three, was dead.

Cirrhosis of the liver was the official cause of death. But his ex-wife believes it only masked the true killer, the same one that drove Duerson, Seau and Easterling to pick up a gun.

Cyndy kept a journal during their struggles with CTE, which evolved to the November release of her book, After the Cheering Stops: An NFL Wife’s Story of Concussions, Loss and the Faith That Saw Her Through. She also co-founded a new support group called Faces of CTE, and on Monday at the St. Regis hotel in Houston — in the shadow of Super Bowl LI — Cyndy and co-founder Kimberly Archie will lead a news conference to shed more light on football’s dark side. The group’s website, FacesOfCTE.com, launched Saturday.

Dr. Ann McKee, the pioneering neurologist in the study of CTE at Boston University, who sliced into the brains of Duerson, Easterling and Seau before Feasel, and Stabler and many others after him, discovered that Feasel had Stage 3 CTE. Affecting the brain’s frontal lobs, key in governing impulse control, CTE almost assuredly made it near-impossible for Feasel to resist the urge to self-medicate with vodka.

“I really do believe that if these individuals could see what was happening to them at the end of their lives, and see how it’s destroying their family, they never would have played football,” McKee said.

Over the past decade, multiple concussion lawsuits have been filed against the NFL and NCAA. Thousands of former NFL players who have been diagnosed with brain injuries linked to repeated concussions will soon begin collecting on a $1 billion settlement with the league. The NCAA settled a $75 million lawsuit with former players providing medical monitoring.

A Fort Worth law firm this month filed a concussion lawsuit in Indianapolis against the NCAA and Big 12.

‘He wasn’t the same person’

Cyndy lost everything: Her husband, her house, the family savings and even her relationship with her three children, now ages 22 to 31. Her two sons and recently married daughter stopped speaking to her after she left their father and did not want to her write a book, which they contend includes some accounts that are not entirely true.

An art teacher at Fort Worth Christian School, she lives alone in a duplex in North Richland Hills.

Until the brain autopsy revealed CTE, Cyndy was desperate to understand what was happening to the soft-spoken, intelligent and highly organized man she married in 1983. She wondered why Grant hid alcohol all around the house; why he had become increasingly verbally abusive and short-tempered; why he made one poor financial decision after another, eventually resulting in the foreclosure of their home and the loss of life insurance; and why he detached from friends and family and retreated to a darkened bedroom.

“He wasn’t the same person,” Cyndy said. “He was sweet and kind. He was awesome. He was a Renaissance man. But slowly over the years we started getting this giant divide between us and I didn’t know what was in the house with us.

“After a while, the alcohol started taking over his personality and just changing him. It seems so clear now that he had CTE, and I understand all the symptoms.”

The CTE revelation in many ways unlocked her own prison door. In those final years, in which her own depression hit rock-bottom, she started keeping her journal. She also met Archie — who lost her son Paul at age 24 from effects of CTE caused by football — on Twitter after they started retweeting each other, and together they co-founded the support group.

They’ll be joined at Monday’s news conference by Debbie Pyke, who lost her son Joe at age 25, plus Mary Seau, Junior Seau’s sister, who also heads the Mary Seau CTE Foundation.

Faces of CTE is designed to show how the disease affects athletes of all ages — and not only NFL players — and to serve as a resource for families who have lost a loved one with CTE or who believe a family member has CTE. They also will announce the first CTE Awareness Day, which they will commemorate each year during the week of the Super Bowl.

One of Feasel’s former teammates, quarterback Dave Krieg, described him as “very intelligent, witty, personable and smart.” He said during their playing days he never knew Feasel to be much of a drinker. Krieg said he does not experience symptoms associated with brain damage, though he admits sometimes if he’s feeling especially sluggish or fatigued, a moment of paranoia creeps in.

“When you got a concussion back then, nobody really knew too much what the long-term effects were,” said Krieg, whose two sons play hockey and have each experienced concussions. “The team, their goal was to keep you on the field and play. And as a player, in order to get paid, you had to be out on the field. They don’t have the testing that they do now.”

As a center and deep snapper over 10 seasons and 117 NFL games from 1983 to 1992, plus college, high school and before that, Feasel was literally a battering ram after every snap.

“I want people to understand that it’s a real disease,” Cyndy said. “I think that there are certain people that still think that maybe this is just a random thing, that it’s made up. It’s not, it’s for real. I want athletes, administrators, parents, I want people to know that it’s real.”

‘It makes you angry’

Cyndy said she would love for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to attend Monday’s news conference, but she knows he likely won’t. She said the league has been informed of the press conference, but no one has made contact. Two NFL spokesmen this week did not reply to emails sent by the Star-Telegram requesting comment.

Families of CTE victims want the NFL to be consistent in acknowledging the correlation between repeated blows to the head and brain disease.

Last year, the NFL cut funding to Boston University’s research into diagnosing CTE in patients before they die. Currently, CTE can only be detected in a brain autopsy after the player dies, and a family member must donate the brain.

The NFL has long been accused of withholding information regarding brain injuries. The PBS documentary League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis makes the case that beginning in the late 1990s, the NFL ignored mounting evidence about long-term dangers of concussions and attempted to rebut emerging science with questionable research of its own.

Just a year ago at a news conference during Super Bowl week in San Francisco, a member of the league’s head, neck and spine committee, Dr. Mitch Berger, would not acknowledge a link between repetitive hits to the head caused by football and CTE.

His comments came the same week that it was announced that CTE was found in Stabler’s brain. Chris Nowinski, co-founder of Concussion Legacy Foundation and who has engaged with Stabler’s longtime partner Bush, Mary Seau and Cyndy on CTE awareness efforts, was there and became enraged.

“It’s outrageous,” said Bush, who was in San Francisco last year during Super Bowl week waiting to hear if Stabler would be inducted into the Hall of Fame. (He was, six months after his death.) “I remember talking to Chris and going, ‘Can you believe this bulls---?’ It makes you angry and, again, the league has done a very good job of slip-sliding around it and trying to push it under the rug. But it’s too late now.”

On Thursday, the NFL released its annual injury data results and reported 244 concussions in 2016, including preseason and regular-season games. The league says concussions are down from 275 in 2015, but up from 206 recorded concussions in 2014.

The NFL’s count can be taken with some skepticism. On Wednesday, the league announced that its concussion protocol wasn’t strictly followed by the Miami Dolphins after quarterback Matt Moore was treated for a hit to the chin and mouth in a wild-card playoff game. The concussion protocol is an evaluation process designed to ensure that a player does not re-enter a game if he exhibits signs of a concussion. Moore re-entered the game and said afterward he felt fine when he returned.

Bush recalled a game Stabler told her about in which he got hit so hard on the previous play that when he broke the huddle for the next play he was facing the wrong way. But Bush insists, as do concussion experts, that the danger is not just about concussions, but the accumulation of blows — sub-concussive hits — to the head.

“And that is where the damage occurs, and that is the whole point of this movement and what has to be done,” Bush said. “It’s the repetitive blows. They are not giving the brain time to recover from a blow and you go back in and it’s just insult to injury.”

‘It’s very depressing’

The most current data from researchers at Boston University confirmed CTE in the brains of 91 of 95 deceased former NFL players tested. McKee said researchers are working to develop a test for CTE for players still living. That could come in the “next few years,” she said. The next goal is coming up with ways to treat CTE.

She said more brain donors are needed — especially the brains of deceased NFL players who did not show symptoms of CTE.

Even as the scientific side makes significant progress, McKee fears the numbers of players who will have CTE will spike dramatically as recently retired players and current players grow older.

“We’re seeing a lot of it in our brain bank, and even though it’s not representative of the general population, the number we’re seeing is really getting quite disturbing,” said McKee, a former NFL and Green Bay Packers fan. “I, for one, don’t watch football anymore because I can’t. I can no longer sort of reconcile what I’m seeing at my work and watching the game on television.

“It’s been a long road, and it’s depressing,” McKee said. “It’s very depressing.”

The same can be said for the family members living with a loved one suffering with destructive symptoms of CTE.

“I noticed in the last five years of his life when I attended family barbecues or get-togethers, I saw much more sadness in his eyes and I couldn’t figure it out,” Mary Seau said of her brother. “And now I know it was part of his depression. This is what they go through — they’re trying to kill whatever is going on in their mind. It’s where the alcoholism comes in, and then there’s just times where they want to drive off the freeway.”

Seau did just that in 2010, careening off a cliff. He survived and later told his sister in the hospital that he had simply fallen asleep at the wheel. She had her doubts, but she also had no basis for understanding that Seau’s brain was gradually turning on him.

Cyndy once knew every noseguard her husband went up against. She also once thought that him getting a concussion was better than a broken leg — at least he’d be able to play the next week.

Now she watches football with one eye closed, she said. Unable to bear the thud of crashing helmets, her lone mission on Sundays is to document head injuries on her Facebook page.

“When I look back on it and the facts that I know now and the science that I know now, repetitive hits to the head cause brain trauma,” Cyndy said. “It’s just scientific evidence now and for people to sit and watch the games every week and act like this is not happening, that’s a joke.”

Jeff Caplan: 817-390-7705, @Jeff_Caplan

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