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.

Since CTE was first found in football players less than a decade ago, and given that many indigent former athletes are represented by public or pro bono attorneys without the time or resources to pioneer unusual defense tactics, the disease has received virtually no mention in the courtroom, even when it is probably a significant factor contributing to a defendant's criminal actions.

In Brymer's case, his attorney's reference to CTE in her efforts to get his bail reduced had little effect. At the close of the bail hearing on Aug. 20, Haines said he wasn't convinced that Brymer suffers from a brain disorder. "I'm kind of familiar with this syndrome involved with football players," the judge said. "There's no medical evidence that connects this to your client ... that's my problem with this." He denied the motion, and Brymer was led out of the courtroom by a bailiff, who returned him to the jail upstairs.

Brymer's parents didn't stick around. They refused to speak to a reporter as they left the Hall of Justice, and didn't return subsequent phone calls. Brymer, in an interview a few days after the hearing, says he wishes they had stopped by the jail to visit him. "They drive 400 miles to San Francisco," he says. "They should just wait for an extra two or three hours to talk to me."

Chris Brymer, pictured during an interview at the San Francisco County Jail, is scheduled to go on trial for felony hate-crime assault on Oct. 1.
Joseph Schell
Chris Brymer, pictured during an interview at the San Francisco County Jail, is scheduled to go on trial for felony hate-crime assault on Oct. 1.

He's deflated, but not surprised. When his life began coming apart several years ago, Brymer says, his parents and siblings "found it really hard to understand where it came from. Basically, I had no one to lean on. ... It's just kind of a difficult situation for them to comprehend how someone could come down with brain trauma without anything happening."

As he awaits his trial, Brymer still has no one to lean on. Upon admittance to the county jail he was placed in a ward with emotionally disturbed prisoners, he says. One stands and spins in place; another threatened to stab him. Brymer takes the prescription antidepressant and anti-anxiety drug Paxil, but says he is being administered an improperly low dose. A dispute with a fellow inmate over a mattress — the details of the argument, as he describes them, are difficult to parse — led to his being placed in a special cell alone for a time.

By the time Brymer sits for a third and final interview at the county jail just before Labor Day weekend, he has visibly worsened from two and a half weeks earlier, when he first spoke to SF Weekly. His affect deadened, he stares at the wall, his blue eyes framed by dark rings. "I'm so tired of sitting in this jail," he says. Asked how he is feeling, he responds, "The only thing I have a feeling about is going to sleep, waking up, and another day passing."

There are those who want to help. Within hours of a reporter first calling Himebauch, Brymer's former USC teammate — who also went on to play with him in NFL Europe and the XFL — three other USC friends had called, asking about the details of his incarceration, the name of his attorney, the address of the jail where he was being held, and any advice on what they could do to help.

Former Rhein Fire teammate Heimburger says Brymer should be institutionalized or referred for medical treatment. "Someone should help, and if the state can't help people like that, that's kind of sad," he says. "We pay all these taxes, and if someone's falling apart like that, somebody should be able to help put them back together."

Seth Steward, spokesman for the San Francisco District Attorney's office, says prosecutors are careful to evaluate a defendant's mental capacity, particularly as it relates to his state of mind and intentions when an alleged crime was committed. "We definitely take that stuff into consideration," he says. In Brymer's case, however, Steward says it's unclear whether any mental disorder is present in the first place: "I don't even know if we have any evidence of that yet."

The people's case against Chris Brymer, the offensive guard who fell apart after years of protecting others on the field, begins just a few days from now. Regardless of its results, the punishment Brymer's mental and emotional snap has exacted on himself and those close to him can already be tallied.

Melissa Brymer, for one, feels sick as she watches the 7-year-old child she had with Chris — who is not allowed to make contact with his son, according to court restrictions following their divorce — grow to resemble his absent dad more and more. "He's already a foot taller than everyone else in his class. He looks like a lineman already, and I'm terrified," she says.

Chris Brymer's situation, like that of other former football players coping with probable CTE, creates uncomfortable questions for those who watch, play, or make money from our preferred national spectacle. To what extent are we complicit in the havoc football might be wreaking on individual lives? What special consideration do we owe the sport's broken athletes, in the courtroom or outside it?

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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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