In the months leading up to his suicide, former NFL player Dave Duerson feared that a life spent on football fields, all of those hard hits, might have irreparably damaged his brain.
Now, medical researchers say they have confirmation.
A postmortem examination has found evidence that Duerson suffered from a neurodegenerative disease linked to concussions and other repetitive head trauma, researchers said Monday.
“The pathology was severe in areas of the brain that influence impulse control, inhibition, emotion and memory,” said Dr. Ann McKee, a neurologist at Boston University and the Bedford VA Medical Center.
McKee and her colleagues have examined 15 former players and discovered signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, in 14 of them. These findings have reinforced growing concerns about long-term football injuries.
The NFL issued a statement Monday saying it plans to study the latest report.
Executives pledged to expand help for retired players and “further evaluate playing rule and policy changes to reduce and prevent unnecessary contact with the head.”
But a growing number of veterans complain that the wealthy league has not done enough, especially in terms of providing adequate pensions and healthcare.
“This just confirms the fraud that the NFL has perpetrated on retired players,” said Dave Pear, a former Raiders defensive lineman who created the Independent Football Veterans group. “The blood is on their hands.”
Duerson was 50 years old when he killed himself at home in February, putting a gun to his chest. A suicide note asked that his brain — left intact — be donated to Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, which is partly funded by the NFL.
“It is my greatest hope that my father’s death will not have been in vain, that through this research his legacy will live on, and that others will not suffer in the same manner,” his son, Tregg, said in a statement after the test results were announced.
An All-American safety at Notre Dame, Duerson played 11 years in the NFL where he was named to four Pro Bowls and won Super Bowls with the Chicago Bears in 1986 and the New York Giants in 1991. After retiring, he ran several food distribution companies that grew into multimillion-dollar successes.
But in recent years, his business foundered as Duerson complained of headaches and memory loss, along with problems related to vision, attention and impulse control.
The former player told family and friends that he might be suffering from brain damage.
CTE shows up as deposits of abnormal proteins that researchers have tied to an array of symptoms including depression and erratic behavior. The disease — originally called “dementia pugilistica” and linked only to boxers — found its way to football when it was discovered in the brain tissue of former Philadelphia Eagles player Andre Waters, who committed suicide in 2006.
“It is not yet known how common CTE is,” said Dr. Robert Cantu, also of the Boston center. “It cannot be diagnosed during life and there are no known treatments.”
The center has collected the brains of more than 70 athletes and military veterans and claims that more than 40 of the 50 examinations completed so far have been positive for CTE.
Researchers say that, in addition to repetitive concussions and sub-concussive blows, other yet-to-be-determined factors — perhaps including genetic predisposition — could put individuals at risk.
“Our knowledge about this disease has increased exponentially,” McKee said. “Now we’ve been able to define it and see a predictable pattern of neurological degeneration.”
While researchers continue their work, the NFL has focused more attention on the long-overlooked issue of concussions. Last season, national television audiences watched one player after another suffer frightening impacts to the head.
The league responded with fines and get-tough directives.
Duerson’s family members would like to see additional efforts at various levels of the game, all the way down to Pop Warner. They said the examination of Duerson’s brain had given them a feeling of closure.
“We accept this gift with great humility,” their statement read, “as we are mindful of other families who have lost loved ones and still bear the burden of unanswered questions.”