Feature

This is Ted Johnson's Brain

A former star at the University of Colorado and celebrated NFL linebacker gave himself to football—only to find at the end of his career that he'd lost his mind. Now, at age 36, he's trying to put the pieces of his broken life back together.

August 2009

Since 2002, at least five NFL players have committed suicide or died following years of rapidly deteriorating mental health. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of others have suffered quietly, victims of a particularly sinister trauma called post-concussion syndrome (PCS). In its most serious form, PCS can lead to Alzheimer's disease, dementia, and early death. When a player absorbs a blow to the head, the sloshing of the brain and subsequent banging against the interior skull can tear blood vessels, twist the brain stem, and compress tissue. With each successive concussion, the chance for a more devastating concussion—and the long-term effects that come with it—multiplies massively.

Although the exact number of professional football players who suffer concussions during a given season is up for debate—the NFL only recently created rules on how to address the injury—researchers at the University of North Carolina reported in 2006 that retired players faced a 37 percent higher risk of Alzheimer's disease than other males of the same age. Retired players with three or more concussions also had a five times greater chance of being diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment and a threefold greater prevalence of significant memory problems, compared to players without a concussion history.

The most noteworthy case of PCS is that of Mike Webster, who died of a heart attack in 2002. A Hall of Fame center with four Super Bowl-champion Pittsburgh Steelers teams, Webster, nicknamed "Iron Mike," played nearly two decades in the NFL, after which he literally lost his mind.

After his retirement in 1990, Webster wasted millions of dollars on ill-advised investments, got divorced, and lived out of his black Chevrolet truck with a garbage bag taped over a broken window. His diet consisted mostly of potato chips and dry cereal, and those who saw him in his final years said he suffered severe headaches, showed signs of dementia, and had the glassy-eyed look of a boxer who had taken too many shots to the head; he used a stun-gun to shock himself into unconsciousness. By his 50th birthday, he was dead.

Bennet Omalu, then a neuropathologist at the Allegheny County (Pennsylvania) medical examiner's office, examined Webster's brain after he died. Omalu was shocked at the microscopic red flecks—a telltale sign of irreversible damage. Webster's brain was shredded from repeated blows to his head over the years.

Webster wasn't the only NFL vet who had serious health issues after retirement. In 2005, former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Terry Long killed himself after a 15-year retirement marked by bouts of significant depression. In 2006, Omalu studied the brain of Andre Waters, a 44-year-old former hard-hitting Philadelphia Eagles safety who shot himself 11 years after his retirement. Waters suffered at least 15 concussions during his 12-year career. After viewing Waters' brain, Omalu said the former football player would have been "incapacitated" had he lived 15 more years because of the damage to his brain. In 2007, Omalu examined the brain of Justin Strzelczyk, a 36-year-old former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman who died three years earlier during a high-speed police chase. Omalu saw four red splotches in the brain. And last year, Boston University doctors discovered signs of "chronic traumatic encephalopathy"—loosely known as "punch-drunk syndrome"—in former Houston Oilers and Miami Dolphins linebacker John Grimsley, 45, who accidentally shot himself and died earlier in the year. (Johnson has said that he will donate his brain to Boston University for research upon his death.)

In 2007—a few months after the New York Times and Boston Globe printed stories about Ted Johnson's head injuries, in particular two concussions he suffered within days of each other in 2002 from which Johnson said he had never fully recovered—I attended the National Concussion Summit in Marina del Rey, California. The event was among the first to address concussions in sports, particularly in the NFL, where the league was mounting a full-throated refutation of Omalu's findings. Omalu and other doctors who supported his research, the NFL argued, had cherry-picked a handful of players, massaged statistics, and passed off the worst-case scenario as typical of the average football player. Omalu defended his work, saying the league had failed to protect its most valuable assets in favor of television contracts and ticket sales. NFL officials were invited to the conference, but none attended. The league now is conducting its own study, which NFL officials say will "determine if there are any long-term effects of concussion in NFL athletes." The findings, the league has said, likely will be published next year.

Omalu spoke at the Concussion Summit. He had Webster's postmortem photo stored on his laptop, and he projected it onto a large screen at the front of the room. The Hall of Famer's thinning hair was tousled; his head and neck rested on a Styrofoam brace. There was a slight upturn in the corners of Webster's lips, as if he were smiling. Omalu left the photo on the screen for several moments. Dozens of us stared at it. The room was silent, perhaps because we could not believe what we were seeing—or maybe because of what Webster seemed to be telling us. After spending his last decade trapped in a tortured mind, Iron Mike looked relieved to be gone.

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