Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a progressive brain disease believed to stem from repeated head trauma in contact sports, including football, hockey, professional wrestling and boxing, a sport in which the malady is also known as pugilistic dementia.
Brains afflicted with CTE develop protein plaques, known as tau protein, similar to the protein tangles that clutter the brain tissue of Alzheimer’s patients and others with dementia. Symptoms include memory loss, confusion, loss of impulse control, headaches and dementia in late-stage patients.
At least 18 former NFL players have been identified as suffering from CTE since laboratories at the University of Pittsburgh and Boston University began studying the brains of deceased players a decade ago. As with Alzheimer’s, a conclusive diagnosis can be made only during an autopsy.
Notable football players confirmed to have suffered from CTE include:
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Pro Football Hall of Fame center who played 17 years in the NFL, winning four Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers. After his retirement in 1991, Webster slid into bankruptcy, homelessness and mental problems, along with deafness and headaches so crippling he sometimes Tasered himself to sleep. Died in September 2002 of a heart attack, age 50.
Offensive lineman for Pittsburgh from 1984 to 1991, and a teammate of Webster, was suspended for steroid use in his final season and attempted suicide. After two divorces and an indictment for allegedly burning his chicken processing plant for the insurance money, Long, 45, killed himself in July 2005 by drinking antifreeze.
An NFL safety for 11 years and a four-time Pro Bowler, the Notre Dame graduate at first found post-football business success, but then filed for bankruptcy in 2006, a year after an alleged domestic battery incident cost him his Notre Dame board of trustees seat. Shot himself in February 2011, at age 50; left behind a note stating he pointed the gun at his heart so that his brain might be donated to Boston University for research, which produced a CTE diagnosis three months later.
Spent 12 years in the NFL, mostly with the Philadelphia Eagles, as one of the league’s hardest-hitting safeties before coaching at several colleges for a decade. Shot himself in November 2006, at age 44, after bouts of depression. Boston University analysts compared Waters’ level of brain damage to that of an 85-year-old with early-stage dementia. Waters, during his last pro season in 1995, estimated he had sustained at least 15 concussions.
Offensive lineman who played nine years for the Steelers, his retirement years were marred by a divorce, drug abuse and worsening bouts of depression and hearing voices. Strzelczyk was 36 when he was killed on Sept. 30, 2004, after plowing his pickup into a tanker truck at the end of a 40-mile police chase in central New York.
A defensive tackle in the NFL for 10 years on three teams, Dronett, a husband and father of two girls, later descended into paranoia and violence that included pointing a gun at his wife and his mother. Killed himself by gunshot in January 2009, at age 38.
A talented but troubled wide receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals, Henry was arrested five times in 28 months and was suspended for half of the 2007 NFL season. Died in December 2009 of head injuries after he jumped or fell from a pickup driven by his fiancée while arguing with her. At 26, he is the youngest NFL player to be diagnosed with CTE, although at least one college football player, 21-year-old Owen Thomas of the University of Pennsylvania, was diagnosed with the condition after his suicide in April 2010.
Played 15 NFL seasons as a linebacker, including 12 years with the Minnesota Vikings. Although he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also called Lou Gehrig’s disease) before dying at age 66 in September 2008, Boston University researchers published a report in 2010 attributing his paralysis and death to repeated head blows during his football career, suggesting the trauma could cause physical rather than mental disability in some patients.
Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy
(Sources: ESPN, Associated Press, New York Times, GQ, CNN, Chicago Tribune, Beaumont (Texas) Enterprise, Boston University)