Researchers from the National Institutes of Health said Thursday that former NFL star Junior Seau had a degenerative brain disease when he killed himself with a gun last May. Researchers said the hard-hitting linebacker, who played for 20 NFL seasons before retiring in 2009, had brain abnormalities consistent with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is often linked to repeated blows to the head.
His family requested the analysis of his brain.
"We saw changes in his behavior and things that didn't add up with him," his ex-wife, Gina, told The Associated Press. "But (CTE) was not something we considered or even were aware of. But pretty immediately (after the suicide) doctors were trying to get their hands on Junior's brain to examine it."
Researchers from NIH studied three unidentified brains, which included Seau's, saying they found Seau’s brain to be similar to autopsies of people "with exposure to repetitive head injuries."
"It was important to us to get to the bottom of this, the truth," Gina Seau added, "and now that it has been conclusively determined from every expert that he had obviously had CTE, we just hope it is taken more seriously. You can't deny it exists, and it is hard to deny there is a link between head trauma and CTE. There's such strong evidence correlating head trauma and collisions and CTE."
According to his ex-wife and 23-year-old son, Tyler, Seau had wild behavioral swings during the later years of his life, as well as signs of irrationality, forgetfulness, insomnia and depression.
"He emotionally detached himself and would kind of 'go away' for a little bit," Tyler said. "And then the depression and things like that. It started to progressively get worse."
Seau isn’t the only football player to have CTE. Several dozen other players have it too. Boston University has a center for study of the disease and reported last month that 34 former pro football players and nine college football players have been confirmed to suffer from CTE.
Accordingly, thousands of former NFL players – including at least 26 Hall of Famer’s – have filed lawsuits against the NFL, claiming the league withheld information on the harmful effects of concussions.
The NFL doesn’t deny the claims either. In an email to the AP, the league says they appreciate the Seau family's cooperation with the National Institutes of Health, and that the finding underscores the recognized need for additional research to accelerate a fuller understanding of CTE.
"The NFL, both directly and in partnership with the NIH, Centers for Disease Control and other leading organizations, is committed to supporting a wide range of independent medical and scientific research that will both address CTE and promote the long-term health and safety of athletes at all levels," the email said.
In the meantime, a $30 million research grant has been given to the NIH from the NFL players’ union, which called the NIH report on Seau "tragic."
"The only way we can improve the safety of players, restore the confidence of our fans and secure the future of our game is to insist on the same quality of medical care, informed consent and ethical standards that we expect for ourselves and for our family members," said the NFLPA in a statement.
Tyler Seau played football through high school and for two years in college. He says he has no symptoms of brain trauma, although he also says he was not surprised that his father had it after learning a little about CTE.
"He did play so many years at that level. I was more just kind of angry I didn't do something more and have the awareness to help him more, and now it is too late," Tyler said.