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NFL great Frank Gifford had degenerative brain disease, family announces

Frank Gifford

Frank Gifford at an NFL game in 2013.

(Bill Kostroun / Associated Press)

Frank Gifford, the Pro Football Hall of Famer and USC All-American who died of natural causes in August, suffered from a degenerative brain disease linked to repeated head trauma, his family announced Wednesday.

The family said in a statement that pathologists who studied Gifford’s brain after he died at age 84 found evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, better known as CTE.

“We decided to disclose our loved one’s condition to honor Frank’s legacy of promoting player safety dating back to his involvement in the formation of the NFL Players Association in the 1950s,” the statement said. “His entire adult life Frank was a champion for others, but especially for those without the means or platform to have their voices heard.”

Gifford is the latest in a string of high-profile NFL players to be diagnosed with CTE. The disease, which can be confirmed only after death, has been found in other members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, including Junior Seau, John Mackey and Mike Webster.

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Eighty-seven of the 91 brains from deceased NFL players studied by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University showed signs of CTE.

“I do think that Mr. Gifford is a very important case for awareness,” said Chris Nowinski, executive director of the Boston University-affiliated Concussion Legacy Foundation. “The family didn’t have to do this study to explain away behaviors or actions. They truly did it to raise awareness because they silently suffered.”

Nowinski said his organization wasn’t involved in testing Gifford’s brain.

Dr. Russell Lonser, a member of the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Committee and chairman of the Department of Neurological Surgery at Ohio State University, believes more research about CTE is needed.

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“There are critical questions that are unanswered,” he said. “There’s clearly a heightened awareness, and it’s important to move research and understanding forward in the future.”

In a statement, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said: “The health and safety of our players remains our highest priority. We have more work to do — work that honors great men like Frank Gifford.”

During 12 NFL seasons, Gifford made the Pro Bowl eight times at three different positions — defensive back, running back and flanker. But the image that lingered from his professional career was the violent tackle by Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Chuck Bednarik, another Hall of Famer, in 1960. The blow knocked out Gifford and forced him to sit out a season to fully recover.

After Gifford’s playing career, he gained notoriety for his low-key role as the evenhanded play-by-play announcer for “Monday Night Football,” a program on which he worked for 27 years.

“During the last years of his life Frank dedicated himself to understanding the recent revelations concerning the connection between repetitive head trauma and its associated cognitive and behavioral symptoms — which he experienced firsthand,” the family’s statement said. “We ... find comfort in knowing that by disclosing his condition we might contribute positively to the ongoing conversation that needs to be had ... that we might be a small part of the solution to an urgent problem concerning anyone involved with football, at any level.”

An NFL-commissioned actuarial report last year projected that about 3 in 10 retired players will develop serious neurocognitive problems such as Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.

In April, a federal judge granted final approval to a settlement between the NFL and retired players in long-running concussion litigation against the league. The deal, which compensates some players on a sliding scale for various diseases, is on hold pending appeal.

The families of players diagnosed with CTE after death prior to the deal’s final approval could be eligible for up to $4 million depending on seasons in the league, age at diagnosis and other factors. The agreement doesn’t compensate for CTE after the deadline, one of the points of contention in the appeal.

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The news about Gifford left Garrett Webster, son of late Pittsburgh Steelers lineman Mike Webster, wondering when the tragedy will end.

The longtime Steelers standout, who died from a heart attack at age 50 in 2002 after years of erratic behavior, was the first NFL player to be diagnosed with CTE. Despite a slew of NFL rule changes, concussion protocols and studies in recent years, his son doesn’t believe enough has changed.

“I used to think that donating your brain was helping the game become much safer, but now I believe the NFL just does not care,” he wrote in an email Wednesday.

Gifford’s family said in the statement that it will continue to support the NFL and its initiatives aimed at making football safer.

Al Michaels, who worked with Gifford for 12 years in the “Monday Night Football” booth, said he was saddened Wednesday to hear the news but never suspected his colleague’s ailment.

“I saw the best of Frank,” Michaels said. “You never know what’s going on in somebody’s brain. Frank was always there, always ready, always prepared. There isn’t a single person in the world who isn’t going to stumble on something from time to time, but nothing out of the ordinary.”

Michaels said, however, that Gifford did not appreciate any jokes or lighthearted comments about the Bednarik hit.

“The one thing that Frank was never pleased with on any level was he felt that Bednarik dined out on that thing for a lot of years,” he said. “Bednarik would be at banquets, and he’d be the one that `rang Frank Gifford’s bell, put him out for a year,’ and all that nonsense. That was at a time when you could kind of make jokes like that. But Frank never saw any humor in that, and of course nobody sees any humor in it anymore.”

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nathan.fenno@latimes.com

Twitter: @nathanfenno

sam.farmer@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesFarmer


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