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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.

Wednesday, Sep 29 2010
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Victor Hwang, a prosecutor in the district attorney's hate-crimes unit, was unconvinced. "I'm not sure where Ms. Solis gets the facts that she alleges," he told the judge.

The spectacle of a former football player at odds with the law is a familiar one to activists trying to call attention to the plight of potentially brain-damaged NFL veterans. The Steelers' Mike Webster was arrested for forging pill prescriptions in 1999, three years before his death. The late Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry was arrested five times on charges including assault and drug possession before dying at the age of 26 when he leaped or fell — it's unclear which — from a moving car driven by his fiancée in December. An autopsy showed that he had CTE. Former Steeler Justin Strzelczyk, who endured depression and hallucinations after leaving the NFL, died in 2004 at age 36 when he led police on a high-speed chase and crashed his pickup. He too was found to have CTE.

"A lot of these people with CTE do come before the judicial system, because they make poor decisions," says Gay Culverhouse, the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers president who now runs the Players Outreach Program, which helps former NFL players get access to disability benefits. "They start getting arrested for either battery or drugs. They're usually arrested three or four times."

Once funneled into the criminal-justice system, they have little luck. The courts have no formal mechanism in place for accounting for traumatic brain injury. That has led Culverhouse, working with Harvard Law School professor Peter Carfagna, a sports-law expert, to undertake an effort to develop a "dementia defense" for former football players that would serve the same function as an insanity defense. "We're trying to publish a white paper that would be a roadmap for defense counsel," Carfagna says.

It's not an easy road. The absence of definitive tests for CTE in living people makes conclusively proving it impossible, and most states have standards on the admissibility of scientific evidence that would restrict which, if any, medical experts could testify on the likelihood of a defendant's brain trauma. Prosecutors' and jurors' lack of sympathy for former high-earning athletes accused of crimes doesn't help.

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."

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."

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Peter Jamison

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