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Junior Seau

A Tribute to the NFL Players Who Suffered CTE Brain Injury

by Kirk Fox

Linebacker Junior Seau spent nearly 20 years in the NFL, earning many honors before his retirement after the 2009 season. His high-energy performances earned him the nickname “The Tasmanian Devil.” He was voted to the Pro Bowl 12 times.  

Three years after he retired, Seau died by suicide in 2012, a tragic end to an extraordinary life and career. An examination of his body revealed brain damage caused by chronic traumatic encephalopathy, known as CTE: a degenerative brain disease found in people who have suffered repetitive head trauma. 

In a study published in the medical journal JAMA in July 2017, CTE was found in 99% of deceased NFL players’ brains that were donated to scientific research.  Doctors believe CTE contributed to Seau’s suicide and to other behavioral and medical issues players have suffered after experiencing repeated head trauma while playing football. 

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Last April, ex-New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez was serving a life sentence in jail for first degree murder when he was found dead in his cell by hanging. Afterwards, he was diagnosed with severe CTE damage for someone his age. CTE can cause aggressive, impulsive behavior. His fiancee and daughter have sued the NFL in a wrongful death lawsuit based on the CTE diagnosis. 

In November, news broke that researchers had finally identified CTE in the brain scan of a then-living patient. Dr. Bennet Omalu confirmed that ex-NFL linebacker Fred McNeill was the subject of that research. McNeill had been examined at UCLA before he passed away in 2015 after showing signs of the disease.  Dr. Julien Bailes, who participated in the study, told ABC News, “The importance of this one today is that this is the first time to have a scan which shows brain degeneration of CTE in a living person and then to have that person die and it correlates with the autopsy.” 

The list of former NFL players with CTE is long, and many former professional football players have announced their plans to donate their brains to science after they die. Hall of Famer Warren Sapp announced in June 2017 that, when he dies, he will donate his brain to the Concussion Legacy Foundation—because “I wanted this game to be better when I left than when I got into it.”

Here are the stories, and the obituaries, of 20 former pro football players, including Hall of Fame members Junior Seau, Ollie Matson, Tommy Nobis, Frank Gifford, and Ken Stabler, who were found after their deaths to have been suffering from CTE.

Tommy Nobis (1943–2017)

Football player Tommy Nobis
Getty Images / Focus on Sport

Called “Mr. Falcon,” Nobis was one of the most storied players in Atlanta Falcons history. The hard-hitting linebacker was the NFL rookie of the year in 1966 and was selected for five Pro Bowls. After his playing career ended, Nobis moved to the Atlanta Falcons front office. He suffered from severe mood swings and other cognitive issues. In January 2019, the Boston University CTE Center confirmed that Nobis had the most severe form of CTE. His daughter, Devon Jackoniski, told the Associated Press how much her dad loved football, even with the damage it caused him, but would like to see changes. “He told me before he became very ill he would never turn his back on football or do anything different. But he would educate kids a little different in the game. There’s something very wrong with slamming your head against a brick wall over and over and over again.”

Read Tommy Nobis’ obituary


Dave Duerson (1960–2011)

Getty Images / Owen Shaw

Duerson was a four-time Pro Bowl safety for the Chicago Bears. He helped lead the 1985 Bears and their 46 defense to a Super Bowl victory. Duerson died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest in 2011. He sent a heartbreaking last text to members of his family: “PLEASE, SEE THAT MY BRAIN IS GIVEN TO THE NFL’S BRAIN BANK.” “He was looking for an answer,” his son Tregg Duerson said. “And he was hoping to be a part of an answer.” Researchers at Boston University determined that Duerson had CTE.

View Dave Duerson’s obituary


Frank Gifford (1930–2015)

Getty Images / ABC

Gifford was an All-American running back at USC. He played offense and defense for the New York Giants, and was a Pro Bowl selection at three positions: running back, flanker, and defensive back. The handsome Gifford became a popular announcer for “Monday Night Football” after his NFL career. His third wife was TV host Kathie Lee Gifford; they were married at the time of his death. In November 2015, Gifford’s family revealed that he had suffered from CTE. The family said, “After losing our beloved husband and father, Frank Gifford, we as a family made the difficult decision to have his brain studied in hopes of contributing to the advancement of medical research concerning the link between football and traumatic brain injury … We decided to disclose our loved one’s condition to honor Frank’s legacy of promoting player safety dating back to his involvement in the formation of the NFL Players Association in the 1950s.”

View Frank Gifford’s obituary


Cookie Gilchrist (1935–2011)

AP Photo

Gilchrist was a tough-bruising fullback and a star in the AFL. He was an All-Star for three seasons with the Buffalo Bills and helped lead the team to the 1964 AFL championship. Before coming to the AFL, Cookie had been a top player in the Canadian Football League. After his career ended, however, he feuded both with the CFL and with the Buffalo Bills. Following his death, he was diagnosed with CTE, which doctors observed may have contributed to his sometimes difficult behavior.

View Cookie Gilchrist’s obituary


Mike Webster (1952–2002)

Getty Images / Focus on Sport

Webster was the first former NFL player to be diagnosed with CTE. Many consider Webster the greatest center to play in the NFL. He was nicknamed “Iron Mike” for his toughness on the field during his long, 17-year career. He was selected for nine Pro Bowls and won four Super Bowl titles with the Steelers. After he retired, he suffered from amnesia, dementia, and depression; for many years, he lived out of his pickup truck. Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic neuropathologist who has been at the forefront of bringing the issue of CTE to the general public, diagnosed Webster with the disease. Omalu’s finding was mostly ignored by the NFL until active player Chris Henry was diagnosed with CTE in 2009.

View Mike Webster’s obituary


Chris Henry (1983–2009)

AP Photo / Amy Sancetta

Henry was the first active NFL player at the time of his death to be diagnosed with CTE. Henry caught 119 passes with the Bengals in five seasons. He died in 2009 when he fell out of the back of a moving pickup truck; doctors suggested that Henry’s CTE may have contributed to his off-field behavior, which included criminal arrests and substance abuse.

View Chris Henry’s obituary


John Mackey (1941–2011)

Getty Images / MCT / Baltimore Sun / Jerry Jackson

The Hall of Fame tight end played nine of his ten seasons with the Baltimore Colts. Mackey famously caught a 75-yard touchdown pass from Johnny Unitas (1933 – 2002), leading the Colts to a win in Super Bowl V. After retirement, Mackey suffered from dementia. His family eventually had to put him into an assisted-living facility. Running out of money to pay for his care, Mackey’s wife Sylvia (in photo above) reached out to then NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue. Tagliabue and NFLPA director Gene Upshaw (August 15, 1945 – August 20, 2008) created the “88 Plan” in 2007. Named for Mackey’s jersey number, the plan provides $88,000 per year for nursing home care and up to $50,000 annually for adult day care for former NFL players suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s. Mackey was diagnosed with CTE after his death.

View John Mackey’s obituary


Rob Lytle (1954–2010) 

Getty Images / Focus on Sport

Lytle was an All-American running back for the University of Michigan. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2015. He played seven seasons in the NFL for the Denver Broncos, scoring the team’s only touchdown in Super Bowl XII. Lytle died of a heart attack at the age of 56. An autopsy of his brain revealed “moderate to severe” symptoms of CTE.

View Rob Lytle’s obituary


Ollie Matson (1930–2011) 

Getty Images / Los Angeles Times / Ray Graham

Matson was a Hall of Fame running back. He was elected to the Pro Bowl six times. Matson was so good, he was traded by the Chicago Cardinals to the Los Angeles Rams in 1958 for nine players. Before joining the NFL, Matson won two Olympic medals as a sprinter on the U.S. squad. Matson suffered from dementia in his later years. After he passed away, his nephew Art Thompson III told the Associated Press that Matson had not spoken a word in four years.

View Ollie Matson’s obituary


Earl Morrall (1934–2014)

AP Photo

Morrall was one of the greatest backup quarterbacks in the NFL. During the 1968 season, he filled in for an injured Johnny Unitas, leading the Colts to the Super Bowl where they lost to Joe Namath’s New York Jets. During the 1972 season, he took over for an injured Bob Griese for a series of games and helped the team make the playoffs en route to a Super Bowl victory and a historic record of 17-0. Morrall threw for over 20,000 yards during his career. After his death, he was diagnosed with Grade 4 (the most serious) CTE.

View Earl Morrall’s obituary


Adrian Robinson (1989–2015)

Getty Images / Wesley Hitt

Robinson was a linebacker who played college for Temple University. He played for a few years in the NFL and, in 2015, signed with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League. Two weeks after signing with Hamilton, he was found dead. The medical examiner ruled his death a suicide. He was diagnosed with CTE.

View Adrian Robinson’s obituary


Junior Seau (1969–2012)

Getty Images / Los Angeles Times / Vince Compagnone

Seau played linebacker in the NFL with great passion. He was a team leader; he made tackles all over the field; he was a twelve-time Pro Bowl selection during the course of a long, 20-year career Seau died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his chest at the age of 43. After his death, Seau was diagnosed with CTE, and his family sued the NFL over his brain injuries.

Read more about Junior Seau


Tyler Sash (1988–2015)

Getty Images / NFL

Sash played safety at the University of Iowa. He was drafted by the New York Giants in the sixth round of the 2011 NFL draft. He played with the Giants for two years. Sash died at the age of 27 from a lethal mixture of drugs; he was found to have Stage 2 CTE.

View Tyler Sash’s obituary


Shane Dronett (1971–2009)

Getty Images / Allsport / Andy Lyons

Dronett was an All-American defensive end at the University of Texas. He went on to a ten-year career in the NFL, playing for the Broncos, Lions and Falcons. According to his family, his behavior changed radically after his time in the NFL. He began to exhibit paranoia, confusion, fear, and rage. After confronting his wife with a gun, Dronett turned the weapon on himself and took his own life. He was diagnosed with CTE by the Boston University CTE Center.

View Shane Dronett’s obituary


Bubba Smith (1945–2011)

Getty Images / WireImage / Ron Galella, Ltd.

Smith was a ferocious defensive lineman in the NFL, though many today may remember him from his acting career as Moses Hightower in the “Police Academy” movies. Smith was an All-American at Michigan State and won Super Bowl V with the Baltimore Colts. He became an actor after retiring from football; besides “Police Academy,” he appeared in the movie “Blue Thunder.” After his death at the age of 66, Smith was diagnosed with Stage 3 CTE, with symptoms including cognitive impairment.

View Bubba Smith’s obituary


Ken Stabler (1945–2015)

Getty Images / Robert Riger

Stabler was a Hall of Fame quarterback known as “The Snake.” He was given the name by his high school coach after he ran for a long, winding touchdown. Stabler was a legend with the Oakland Raiders—a four-time Pro Bowl player who led his team to a championship in Super Bowl XI. Stabler was known for his cool under pressure on the field; off the field, he was known for his playboy lifestyle. Following his death, he was diagnosed with Stage 3 CTE.

View Ken Stabler’s obituary


Mosi Tatupu (1955–2010)

Getty Images / Focus on Sport

Tatupu was a star on special teams for the New England Patriots. A native of American Samoa, Tatupu was a Patriots fan favorite, going to the Pro Bowl in 1986. Today, the Mosi Tatupu Award is given each year to the best special teams player in college football. He died following a heart attack in 2010 and was posthumously diagnosed with CTE in 2014.

View Mosi Tatupu’s obituary


Kevin Turner (1969–2016)

Getty Images / The Boston Globe / Jim Davis

Turner played fullback for eight seasons for the Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots. After his retirement from the NFL, Turner was diagnosed with ALS, a.k.a. Lou Gehrig’s disease. Following his death, the Boston University CTE Center announced that Turner also had a severe case of CTE, and doctors believe that CTE was the main factor in Turner developing ALS. A documentary on his battle with the disease titled “American Man” was featured on HBO.

View Kevin Turner’s obituary


Andre Waters (1962–2006)

Getty Images / Mitchell Layton

Hard hitting defensive back Waters helped the Philadelphia Eagles become one of the top defenses in the NFL. He led the Eagles in tackles four years during his ten years with the team. Waters died after shooting himself at his home. Dr. Bennet Omalu examined Turner after his passing and determined that he had CTE. Omalu reported that Waters’ brain tissue had degenerated so far as to resemble that of a 90-year-old man with similar characteristics to early-stage Alzheimer’s victims.

View Andre Waters’ obituary


Fred McNeill (1952–2015)

AP Photo

McNeill spent his entire 12-season NFL career as a linebacker for the Minnesota Vikings, helping the team appear in two Super Bowls. Following his playing career, McNeill became a lawyer. He started showing signs of CTE in his 40s. He was later diagnosed with dementia, and entered an assisted living facility. He died in 2015 at the age of 63. McNeill was recently confirmed as the first case of an ex-NFL player who was diagnosed with CTE while living. He had an experimental scan done at UCLA in 2012, and the CTE was confirmed in an autopsy after he died.

View Fred McNeill’s obituary

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