Shortly before he died last July, the former N.F.L. quarterback Ken Stabler was rushed away by doctors, desperate to save him, in a Mississippi hospital. His longtime partner followed the scrum to the elevator, holding his hand. She told him that she loved him. Stabler said that he loved her, too.
“I turned my head to wipe the tears away,” his partner, Kim Bush, said recently. “And when I looked back, he looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘I’m tired.’ ”
They were the last words anyone in Stabler’s family heard him speak.
“I knew that was it,” Bush said. “I knew that he had gone the distance. Because Kenny Stabler was never tired.”
The day after Stabler died on July 8, a victim of colon cancer at age 69, his brain was removed during an autopsy and ferried to scientists in Massachusetts. It weighed 1,318 grams, or just under three pounds. Over several months, it was dissected for clues, as Stabler had wished, to help those left behind understand why his mind seemed to slip so precipitously in his final years.
On a scale of 1 to 4, Stabler had high Stage 3 chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., the degenerative brain disease believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head, according to researchers at Boston University. The relationship between concussions and brain degeneration is still poorly understood, and some experts caution that other factors, like unrelated mood problems or dementia, might contribute to symptoms experienced by those later found to have had C.T.E.
Stabler, well known by his nickname, the Snake (“He’d run 200 yards to score from 20 yards out,” Stabler’s junior high school coach told Sports Illustrated in 1977), is one of the highest-profile football players to have had C.T.E. The list, now well over 100, includes at least seven members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, including Junior Seau, Mike Webster and Frank Gifford.
Few, if any, had the free-spirited charisma of Stabler, a longhaired, left-handed quarterback from Alabama who personified the renegade Oakland Raiders in the 1970s. Stabler was the N.F.L.’s most valuable player in 1974 and led the Raiders to their first Super Bowl title two seasons later. He ended his 15-year N.F.L. career with the New Orleans Saints in 1984.
“He had moderately severe disease,” said Dr. Ann McKee, chief of neuropathology at the V.A. Boston Healthcare System and a professor of neurology and pathology at Boston University School of Medicine, who conducted the examination. “Pretty classic. It may be surprising since he was a quarterback, but certainly the lesions were widespread, and they were quite severe, affecting many regions of the brain.”
Quarterbacks are provided more protection from hits than most football players. An offensive line’s purpose is, in part, to protect the quarterback, and leagues like the N.F.L. have special rules to discourage severe blows to players in the most important position on the field.
But Stabler’s diagnosis further suggests that no position in football, except perhaps kicker, is immune from progressive brain damage linked to hits to the head, both concussive and subconcussive.
Stabler is the seventh former N.F.L. quarterback to be found to have had C.T.E. by Boston University, which has found C.T.E. in 90 of the 94 former N.F.L. players it has examined, including the former Giants safety Tyler Sash, who died in September at age 27 and whose diagnosis was made public last week.
Because C.T.E. can be diagnosed only posthumously, and most brains are not examined for the disease, incidence rates among athletes and nonathletes are difficult to ascertain. A study by the Mayo Clinic, released last fall, found C.T.E. in 21 of 66 men who played contact sports (mostly football), but found no traces of the disease in 198 other brains of men who had no exposure to contact sports.
Scientists are quick to note that they do not understand why some football players get C.T.E. and others do not.
But the disease, once thought to mostly afflict boxers, has been found in recent years in deceased athletes who have played soccer, rugby and even baseball.
Most brains are donated by families hoping to understand why their loved one’s cognitive functions declined in later years. Symptoms of C.T.E. are similar to those of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, including memory loss, confusion, impulsiveness and depression.
“On some days, when he wasn’t feeling extremely bad, things were kind of normal,” Bush said. “But on other days it was intense. I think Kenny’s head rattled for about 10 years.”
For decades, the N.F.L. refuted research by independent experts that connect brain trauma to long-term cognitive impairment. Only in recent years, long after Stabler’s career ended, has the league begun to publicly acknowledge it has a problem.
Stabler is a finalist for this year’s Pro Football Hall of Fame class, to be voted upon by sportswriters and announced on Saturday, the day before Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, Calif.
He was a finalist three times before, the last in 2003, and his nomination regularly led to sturdy debate. This time, Stabler was selected posthumously as a senior finalist, along with Dick Stanfel, an offensive lineman who died in June at age 87.
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SOURCE: NY Times, John Branch