Head Case

Experts say ex-football players with head injuries often end up in the criminal justice system. Former USC lineman Chris Brymer is exhibit A.

Parker's rap sheet and the holes in his story could make prosecutors' jobs difficult as they seek a conviction. But the trial's outcome won't answer a bigger question. What happened to Chris Brymer? He had descended from the pinnacle of athletic and financial achievement to become a human wreck, and nobody could understand why. His family had no history of mental illness, and doctors he was persuaded to consult offered conflicting diagnoses: depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia.

It turns out that some of the brightest minds in medical science have been working hard for years to understand the root of symptoms just like Brymer's. They have even identified a cause. They just don't know how to help.

Bennet Omalu, a Lodi forensic pathologist, is known in California's Central Valley in his professional capacity as San Joaquin County's chief medical examiner. Within the national fraternity of advanced brain researchers, he is recognized as the first medical expert to conclusively diagnose CTE in a football player.

Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster was the first football player in whom CTE was diagnosed.
Associated Press
Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster was the first football player in whom CTE was diagnosed.

Omalu's discovery took place in 2002 during an autopsy he performed on Mike Webster, the Hall of Fame center for the Pittsburgh Steelers. After playing in the NFL from 1974 to 1990, Webster exhibited a bizarre range of cognitive and emotional problems mimicking dementia and mental illness in retirement. He ended up living out of his car and dying at the age of 50. Omalu's examination of Webster's brain after his death revealed extensive tissue damage signified by the presence of the tau protein, a substance found in Alzheimer's patients that destroys neurons. Since other biological markers of Alzheimer's were absent, Omalu concluded that Webster had suffered from a condition not yet understood by doctors: brain injury from repeated head trauma. For "Iron Mike," an offensive lineman of legendary fortitude, it made perfect sense.

Since then, Omalu and his organization, the Brain Injury Research Institute — along with other medical researchers working independently — have diagnosed numerous cases of CTE in deceased professional and college football players. The most recent case came in mid-September, when Boston University researchers diagnosed CTE in the brain of Owen Thomas, a University of Pennsylvania football captain who inexplicably hanged himself at his apartment in April. He had never played in the NFL, offering a sobering indication of how quickly CTE develops.

Omalu is now convinced that brain injury is responsible for many of the inexplicable antics observed in high-level football players. "Most CTE sufferers die from either suicides or accidental overdoses," he says. "CTE is responsible for most, if not all, of the absurd behavior these players show."

CTE has been a hot topic in sports news during the past year. In October 2009, Malcolm Gladwell published an exposé in The New Yorker documenting its prevalence among former football players. Shortly thereafter, Congress held hearings into the NFL's approach to minimizing the risk of the disease and caring for retired players. As news spread, it eventually found its way to Melissa Brymer, who was still puzzling over what could be responsible for her estranged husband's actions. "When I Googled [CTE] and researched it, I started crying," she says. "That was the moment I said, 'This is Chris.'"

The depression, the anger, the paranoia, the inability to think straight: Brymer exhibited the classic profile of an ex-football player suffering from CTE, down to his homeless wanderings, which were eerily similar to those of fellow offensive lineman Webster.

No one will know for sure if Brymer has CTE until he dies. The disease has been diagnosed only in dead people; the procedures scientists use to identify it in the brain — slicing and staining neural tissue to reveal the tau protein — can't be safely performed in a living human being. Research is under way to identify biological indicators of CTE in the living, perhaps in spinal fluid, but nothing has panned out. For ex-football players struggling with CTE-like symptoms, doctors can only offer a guess, based on their medical histories, as to what's wrong. Even then, there is no cure.

"There's no way to know whether this guy has CTE or not from what you're telling me, but there's certainly enough to suspect it's there," says Robert Cantu, a prominent brain researcher at Boston University. "I can tell you that he fits the profile, so he would be highly suspect for CTE."

Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard football player who runs the Sports Legacy Institute in Boston, says, "You're talking about a guy who is successful in two careers and suddenly develops cognitive and emotional problems that ruin his whole life. At this point in somebody's life, that doesn't have a lot of other causes. People can lose their minds in midlife and develop problems, but it seems to happen to a lot of former football players."

While Brymer acknowledges that his years as an offensive lineman involved "a lot of head-banging," he says he never reported a concussion. No matter: Repeated head trauma over long periods — most of it probably suffered in practice, not during games — is believed by researchers to be the likely cause of CTE, rather than isolated concussions.

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Headaches, tell mle about it.  I played all four years of college football at USC with a headache. In fact, many people wondered why I did not try out for professional football, and that was it. I looked forward to the end of the headaches. Would I do it again? Yes, but that is because I seem to be okay, although some of my family and friends wonder about  that. I seem to be at my best when I am writing, so I blog political commentary a  lot. Keeps my mind in tune, I think.

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