On the last day of his life, Paul Bright clocked out of work at 6 p.m., pulled on a helmet and straddled his freshly renovated motorcycle. As the parking lot gate rattled opened, he whacked the kickstand, squeezed the throttle until the engine rumbled and peeled away.
After a long day, he was ready to unwind and enjoy the last hours of Labor Day at his apartment in Canoga Park with his girlfriend and his fluffy white dog, Angel.
Paul relished having his own place, which he shared with a roommate. After high school, he’d drifted, directionless. But by 24, he’d settled into a job he loved, catering film sets. He delighted in satisfying celebrities such as Jennifer Lopez, Ice Cube and, a personal favorite, Blake Shelton, whose songs Paul occasionally crooned while in the kitchen.
The bike he’d found on Craigslist about 10 months earlier. It was a 1994 Honda CBR600, a clunker he’d tooled up until it was sleek and zippy enough to buzz across the city — which he did often, to the distress of his friends and family.
Heading west, only two miles from his apartment, Paul rolled to a stop at a traffic light on Sherman Way in Reseda, next to a doughnut shop and a 7-Eleven. The setting sun gleamed in his eyes.
Ahead, an Acura burst through a stop sign. Witnesses heard the squeal of brakes, then shattered glass.
His mother got the call that September night in 2014.
Paul had died, she was told, in a traffic collision. The official cause of death: blunt force trauma.
She thought there was a good chance it was something else.
When she took the call about Paul, Kim Archie was wearing a T-shirt from a memorial fundraiser for a 25-year-old man who was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, when he hanged himself.
Archie runs an organization, the Los Angeles-based National Cheer Safety Foundation, which has pushed for stricter safety standards in sports. Over time, CTE, which has been linked to the deaths of several football players, consumed most of her focus.
The night Paul died, Archie had been sitting in the glow of her computer, emailing a reporter about the disease.
Given the heartbreaking news, she was overcome with memories — and questions. Her mind spasmed, but it kept coming back to one thing: Did CTE kill her son?
Maybe it was because the disease had been on her mind. The idea that Paul might be afflicted seemed far-fetched. He had played football as a boy but quit after his freshman year in high school. He had never been diagnosed with a concussion.
But Archie had compulsively monitored the latest research on CTE and seen studies suggesting the disease may be more common among youth players than previously thought.
Heavy helmets set atop underdeveloped necks can contribute to whiplash and shearing in the brain — not quite NFL-grade trauma but significant nonetheless. Enough blows to the head, even small ones, could spur the disease’s development, research indicates. And Paul had played mostly on the line, meaning he was hitting and getting hit on every play.
Archie recalled recent incidents in which Paul had seemed “off” or acted erratically, incidents that seemed relatively insignificant at the time.
A thought galvanized.
“Sport safety is my whole life,” she said. “I just couldn’t save my own son.”
When the sun rose, she made a call.
The facility is a collaboration between the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs, Boston University and the Concussion Legacy Foundation. A majority of its donors are former college or NFL players. But concern about the disease has trickled down to the youth level, and the number of former high school players whom McKee has studied swelled to 27. Her team found CTE in seven.
The incidence rate among former athletes who didn’t compete beyond high school has not been determined to a statistical accuracy. The rate probably skews high because most of the donations come from families who already suspect CTE. But a study by the Mayo Clinic, which has a bank comprised of brains from people who died from other neurological diseases, found the incidence rate to be even higher: 1 in 3.
When Paul’s brain arrived in Bedford, its tissue was dyed to reveal certain signature proteins. It then was sliced into thin cross sections from ear to ear.
When the dye set, the technician noted an abnormality, a lesion that had wrenched its way into the frontal cortex of Paul’s brain. The protein tau, the marker of CTE, had clumped to form a signature pattern “like tangled yarn,” McKee said.
The cluster was located precisely where she would expect one in a football player, startling researchers.
“I’m never prepared for it,” McKee said. “It’s just something you can’t get used to because of his age and the fact that he had his whole life in front of him.”
McKee’s team prepared a report and emailed a copy to Archie. The subject line: “K-19 report.”
K-19 was Paul, a case number.
Archie recalls pulling out her phone, opening the report and letting out a gasp: “Overall, these are the findings of early stage (stage I of IV) chronic traumatic encephalopathy,” it read.
“To see it in black and white,” she said, “it took my breath.”
Paul Bright Sr. didn’t object to his ex-wife’s sending their son’s brain for examination, but the notion that CTE caused his death? He thinks that conclusion is irresponsible.
Paul was reared by his father in Sparks, Nev., after his parents divorced. In youth football, he played for the Sparks Steelers, a team coached by his dad; an uncle, Mike Key; and a man named Jesse Hon.
As a boy, Paul covered his mop of red hair with a Sparks Steelers hat he wore everywhere. In the end, it was buried with him.
Though undersized and not particularly fast, Paul’s versatility made him particularly valuable. He could play anywhere, and Hon sometimes rolled with Paul’s play calling.
The CTE diagnosis stunned those who had been associated with the Steelers. Concerns about head injuries had begun to roil nationwide. One recently released survey by i9 Sports found that nearly two-thirds of parents considered tackle football for children younger than 12 unsafe.
If Paul had CTE, they wondered, who else was at risk?
The former player is Key’s eldest son. “It’s messing me up now,” Key said.
In the worst CTE cases, there are obvious hints to the disease. People turn suicidal. They can’t maintain relationships or jobs or pay their bills. Some have trouble with drugs or alcohol.
Bright runs through the list: Paul was not suicidal. He kept relationships, had a job he enjoyed. He did not get his bike insured, but the bills he had, he paid.
In Stage I of CTE, Paul’s diagnosis, the warning signs are ambiguous.
Generally, McKee said, “You have a lower threshold, and you might do things that otherwise you would’ve inhibited.”
Paul was a marijuana user, a habit that started in high school, Bright said, and he acted out in other ways. On his 21st birthday, he was pulled over by police for driving recklessly and cited for DUI.
A year later, for what was supposed to be his final court date, Paul never showed.
“Irrational,” Archie said.
And then there was that motorcycle. Paul had kept the bike a secret from many people, including his mother. Bright knew about it, and he tried to tell Paul to get it registered, obtain a license and insurance. His son didn’t listen.
But Bright doesn’t blame CTE, saying Paul’s behavior before the accident was indistinguishable from that of many young men of similar age. He described his son as “a 24-year-old on his own that smokes a lot of pot and doesn’t necessarily make the right choices all the time.”
He saw a lot of himself in Paul.
When he was young, Bright said, there were times he skipped insurance payments because he had blown too much money having a good time. He hadn’t shaped up until he joined the National Guard, at age 24.
The same age Paul was when he died.
“I understand that lightning didn’t come down, and CTE killed him. ... It’s complicated.”
Less than a year before the accident, Paul met up with his childhood best friend, Chad Telecky, at a mall near Sparks.
Telecky noticed something was off. The smallest things distracted Paul. They ate at a Chinese restaurant, and Paul spent a long time staring at the menu, unable to decide.
Telecky later told his girlfriend, “I don’t really feel OK with him. He’s acting really strange.”
Since Paul’s death, those close to him have struggled with these types of memories. Were they anomalies or clues to a silent unraveling?
“I understand that lightning didn’t come down, and CTE killed him,” Archie said. “It’s complicated.”
On one hand, Paul seemed like an adult who couldn’t shake boyhood. But there were signs he was maturing. After about a year in Los Angeles, he walked into a sandwich shop in Woodland Hills and walked out with a new job.
He became a model employee. Each night, he took off his shoes and mopped the floor in his socks, to avoid leaving marks. When the owners sold the shop, they took Paul along to their new catering business.
The move seemed to further motivate him. He perfected even small details of his new trade, going so far as to fuss over scrambled eggs for hours at a time at home. He rarely took a day off. He also became a favorite on set, according to his bosses; the rapper Ice Cube even asked him to fill in as a bodyguard one day.
Someday, Paul told friends, he would have his own restaurant.
The motorcycle was cause for concern. Paul’s boss, Joe Gugliuzza, was concerned he was buzzing all over town. He also knew Paul didn’t have any of the motorcycle’s paperwork in order.
A father figure, Gugliuzza tried tough love. He told Paul that until the bike was registered, insured and he was licensed, he didn’t want him to ride it to work. And for awhile, Gugliuzza didn’t see it in the parking lot.
Paul poured hours into the bike, souping it up in his spare time. He had a shop install new brake lines. He put in the headlights himself and, unable to contain his excitement, rode straight to his sister Tiffani’s apartment.
“Uh, you might want to check that out before you ride it home,” Tiffani told him.
Loose wires were dragging on the asphalt.
It was clear her brother was trying, though. When Tiffani visited Paul’s apartment to retrieve his mail after the crash, she spied an envelope from the Department of Motor Vehicles.
It was that motorcycle registration everyone wanted him to have.
Before she could see, he hid the mess, then bought cement and smoothed it over a patio table. Carefully, he laid down the shards of china. He was assembling a mosaic.
“He thought if he made this table, then I wouldn’t cry that my plates had been broken,” Archie said, “that he had done something special with the broken pieces.”
Archie wonders what would have become of Paul if not for the crash. McKee’s research suggests that CTE is progressive in 90% of cases. Paul was in the earliest stage.
“Whether he lived or died in that motorcycle accident, he would’ve died from a degenerative brain disease either way,” Archie said. “It wouldn’t have stopped developing.”
The crash, she believed, just robbed him of a chance.
A chance to make something of the pieces.