Chris Brymer shuffles into a brightly lit, white-walled cell in a windowless corner of San Francisco County Jail Number 3 and eases his football player's frame into a plastic chair. He has a shaved head, patchy beard, and wide, bloodshot blue eyes. He's only 35, but there's something about the way his broad shoulders slouch within his orange prisoner's sweatshirt that suggests an older man.
That might be why his age was erroneously listed as 50 in a police report filed in July, when he was arrested for allegedly attacking a black man, repeating "Die, nigger, die" as he struck him in the head with an object fetched out of a trash can. The victim got a gash above his eye requiring stitches, and Brymer got charged with four felony counts of assault and criminal threatening, three of them enhanced by hate-crime allegations. If convicted, he could spend almost 15 years in state prison.
"I really don't feel that I should be here," he says absently, after introducing himself to a visiting reporter. "It's a really odd thing."
Few criminals relish incarceration, but Brymer's predicament is an odd thing. It's odd that Brymer, once a starting lineman at the University of Southern California, should end up pushing a shopping cart around the streets of San Francisco in the months before his arrest, which took place outside a soup kitchen he frequented. It's odd that a gregarious professional athlete who, a former black teammate says, "has no racist bone in his body" should be facing allegations of a racially motivated assault. And it's odd that a man who ran a successful Orange County mortgage business is now incapable of holding the thread of a conversation or talking without slurring his words.
"He's just a person who's not there," says his ex-wife, Melissa Brymer, who began dating Chris when she was 15 and stayed with him for more than 10 years, through his football career, until their separation in 2005.
The San Francisco District Attorney's office has held up the charges against Brymer as an example of law enforcement's approach to hate crimes in this city. "The conduct charged in this case is outrageous in any civil society, but especially here in San Francisco where we have a long tradition of embracing diversity," District Attorney Kamala Harris said in a statement shortly after Brymer's arrest. (The first African-American and woman to be elected to the city's top law-enforcement position, she is also the Democratic nominee in this fall's race for California attorney general.) Yet a closer look at Brymer suggests his case has less to do with racism than with the crippling neurological aftereffects of America's most profitable professional sport.
Interviews with medical experts, Brymer's friends and relatives, and Brymer himself indicate that he likely suffers from a poorly understood brain disorder called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Researchers are learning that CTE — brain degeneration caused by repeated head trauma such as concussions — is alarmingly common among high-level former football players, particularly linemen. The disease produces a range of emotional and cognitive problems, including irrational bursts of anger, difficulty communicating and forming sentences, and schizophrenialike delusions.
Recent advances in scientific knowledge about CTE, accompanied by a growing body of evidence that prominent players whose lives were derailed by personal breakdowns had suffered from the disease, have raised tough ethical issues for thriving college and professional football franchises. Even though the NFL has recently become vigilant about dealing with players who suffer concussions, the league continues to publicly deny the existence of a link between football and long-term brain trauma.
As Brymer awaits a trial scheduled to begin Oct. 1, the details of the altercation that led to his arrest remain unclear. The alleged victim is a violent felon of dubious credibility, and Brymer and his attorneys say he acted in self-defense. But regardless of the trial's outcome, his story is far from unusual, and illustrates the challenges faced by a special class of criminal defendants.
Many football veterans and CTE patients wind up in court as a result of their unpredictable behavior, prompting some activists and legal experts to call for greater awareness among judges and attorneys about brain trauma's influence over defendants' actions. Brymer's case and others like it raise their own issues — not just for medical researchers or the NFL, but for the criminal-justice system of a football-crazed society.
Big as he was, he was not big for a lineman. At 6-foot-2 and 280 pounds, Chris Brymer may have been a giant on the gridiron in Apple Valley, the town northeast of Los Angeles — famous for its orchards and two celebrity residents, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans — where he grew up. But in the Pac-10, where he was recruited to USC and earned a berth as a starting offensive guard after a year redshirting, his size wasn't enough. He had to prove himself, and he did so through the vicious, headfirst style of play that is the hallmark of many great linemen.
"There were a lot of linemen that were bigger than him, but he was a bulldog," recalls Melissa Brymer, who now lives in San Bernardino County with the couple's 7-year-old son. "He especially liked using his head. I have a dented helmet of his. He used to get really bad headaches."
Not that Brymer's teammates were complaining. Up against some of the strongest, fastest, and most aggressive athletes to be found anywhere, players appreciated having a guy like Brymer between themselves and their opponents. He frequently "pulled" for USC's running backs, colliding at high speed with defensive players to clear a path.
"I'd say he was probably one of the toughest players I've ever played with — very physical, hard-nosed, just the type of guy you'd like to be next to you if you were ever in a tough situation," says Jonathan Himebauch, who played center at USC with Brymer and is now the offensive line coach for the Montreal Alouettes in the Canadian Football League. "He was always a guy who was looking to protect." Off the field, Brymer was well-liked, if known to have a stubborn streak. "I wouldn't say he would be a guy that's going to turn away from a fight, but he wasn't one to go out and start fights," Himebauch recalls.