As the evidence increases, you just wonder when the tipping point will occur...
Shortly before he died last July, the former N.F.L. quarterback Ken Stablerwas 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.” Continue reading the main story
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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 traumaticencephalopathy, 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 blows to the head 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. Continue reading the main story
Ken Stabler’s Brain
An examination of Ken Stabler’s brain shows evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., the degenerative brain disease believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head.
Ann C McKee, MD, VA Boston Healthcare/Boston University School of Medicine
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.
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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.
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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. Continue reading the main story
The N.F.L.’s Tragic C.T.E. Roll Call
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease, has been found in dozens of former N.F.L. players. Here are some of the most notable cases, along with New York Times coverage.
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. rebutted 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.
Like that of other famous players, Stabler’s long career may have bolstered his case for the Hall, but also made him more susceptible to long-term brain disease.
“The very severity of the disease, at least that we’re seeing in American football players, seems to correlate with the duration of play,” McKee said. “The longer they play, the more severe we see it. But it’s also the years since retirement, to the age of death — not only the longer you play, but the longer you live after you stop playing.” Photo
The Broncos’ Lyle Alzado, left, who died from complications of a rare form of brain cancer in 1992 at age 43, and Joe Rizzo pursued Stabler in a game in 1978. CreditAssociated Press
After retiring from football, Stabler worked as a broadcast analyst for the N.F.L. and for the University of Alabama, where he played quarterback under Coach Bear Bryant. His damaged knees became such a problem in the past 10 years that he rarely ventured out.
It was not until the final few years that his family recognized a rapid decline in his cognitive functions, too. Several symptoms — which cannot be conclusively attributed to C.T.E. — began to show themselves quickly, beginning with Stabler’s complaints of a high-pitched ringing in his head. In his final year, he once grit his teeth so hard that he broke a bridge in his mouth and had to get dental implants.
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“There were days when I walked in the door and looked at his face, and I could tell,” Bush said. “He was sitting in his chair, because he was always waiting for me, and the news was on and whatnot, and he had his head laid back, and his eyes just scrunched up so tight that I used to think that would give you a headache in itself, just the pure pressure of squinting like that.”
Noise and bright lights became enemies. A lifelong lover of music, Stabler stopped listening to the radio in the car, choosing to drive hours in silence. He increasingly complained about the clanging of kitchen dishes and the volume of the television. Photo
Kim Bush, Stabler’s longtime companion, in the room Stabler used as his office in their house in Gulfport, Miss. CreditEdmund D. Fountain for The New York Times
Family and friends found him repeating himself, sharing stories privately or during public events that he had told just minutes before. He lost his sense of direction, pointing north when he spoke about the coast just a few miles south of his home in Gulfport, Miss. Driving, he became flustered at four-way stop signs.
In the fall of 2014, he moved to Arizona to be closer to his oldest daughter, Kendra Stabler Moyes, 45, and her twin sons, 17-year-old Justin and Jack, who play high school football.
“I remember them calling me and saying, ‘Mom, Papa keeps stopping at green lights,’ ” Stabler Moyes said.
Stabler recognized his decline, but it was not his personality to talk about his problems. He did not tell his daughters as he battled prostate cancer for three years, harking to what John Madden, Stabler’s coach in Oakland,described after Stabler’s death — a player who would not go into the training room until he was sure everyone else was gone.
“His vision of what a leader is, what a strong person is, is someone who did not show signs of weakness,” said Alexa Stabler, 29, the second of Stabler’s three grown daughters. “Because it would affect the people he relied on and the people he cared about, whether that was his family or his teammates.” Photo
Kendra Stabler Moyes, Stabler’s oldest daughter, with her twin 17-year-old sons, Jack, left, and Justin, at their home in Scottsdale, Ariz. CreditCaitlin O'Hara for The New York Times Photo
Kendra Stabler Moyes with championship rings belonging to her father.CreditCaitlin O'Hara for The New York Times Continue reading the main story
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In his later years, Stabler worried about the risk of concussions to his grandsons, a sign of his growing ambivalence toward football. The boys lived with Stabler for a time, and he drove them to school and went to all their practices and games. Both are now juniors in high school, and neither is a quarterback, but Justin wears his grandfather’s No. 12 on the field.
“One year one of my boys wasn’t sure he was going to play, and my dad was almost superexcited about it,” Stabler Moyes said. “He said: ‘I think that’s great. He can focus on his studies.’ He loved that they played, he loved watching them, but he was so worried about concussions. He was worried about their brains.”
Stabler wondered about his own mind years before he died. He and Bush talked about it after the 2002 death of the longtime Oakland center Dave Dalby, who mysteriously crashed his car into a tree in a parking lot. It came up again after an event where Stabler saw a struggling John Mackey, the Hall of Fame tight end. Mackey died in 2011; he was found to have had C.T.E.
“I remember Kenny looking at me and saying, ‘You ready to deal with that?’ ” Bush said.
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More and more of his peers had their brains examined and were found to have C.T.E., too. And when Seau, the former linebacker, shot himself in the chest in 2012 and was later found to have had C.T.E., Stabler vowed his brain for research.
“I asked him, point blank: ‘Are you willing to participate in the study? Is that something you want to do?’ ” Bush said. “He said: ‘Yeah, I want to do that. I should definitely do that.’ ”
Stabler added his name to a class-action lawsuit brought by former players against the N.F.L., seeking damages from decades of concussions. The suit was settled last April and is under appeal. Under the current deal, though, Stabler’s family would not be eligible for compensation because Stabler’s C.T.E. was diagnosed after the April 2015 cutoff. Photo
Raiders Coach John Madden walked Stabler off the field after he was injured on a sack by the Broncos’ Don Latimer in 1978. CreditAssociated Press
“He played 15 seasons in the N.F.L., gave up his body and, apparently, now his mind,” Alexa Stabler said as she fought back tears. “And to see the state that he was in physically and mentally when he died, and to learn that despite all the energy and time and resources he gave to football — and not that he played the game for free, he made money, too — without the knowledge that this is where he would end up, physically and cognitively, and for the settlement to say you get nothing? It’s hard not to be angry.”
The day after last year’s Super Bowl, shortly before scheduled surgery to replace his aching knees, Stabler learned he had Stage 4 colon cancer.
“The cancer took him away, but his mind was definitely in a pretty quick downward spiral,” Stabler Moyes said. “I’m grateful that he was still so present, still so there. Because I definitely don’t think he would have been in even three more years.”
McKee found widespread damage and the buildup of abnormal tau proteins throughout Stabler’s brain, consistent with the symptoms that Stabler tried to disguise, mostly with his sense of humor, from all but his closest friends and family.
“His changes were extremely severe in parts of the brain like the hippocampus and amygdala, and those are the big learning and memory centers,” McKee said. “And when you see that kind of damage in those areas, usually people are demented. So if he was still functioning reasonably well, he was compensating, but I don’t think that compensation would have lasted much longer.” Photo
Stabler, left, and Pete Banaszak celebrated the Raiders’ Super Bowl victory over the Minnesota Vikings in January 1977 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. CreditFocus on Sport, via Getty Images
To N.F.L. fans, it can be hard to separate the swashbuckling image of the Snake from the man his family knew — a constant presence, a willing chauffeur, a not-so-great cook.
“Certainly my friends thought it was a cool thing to have a famous father,” Marissa Stabler, 27, said. “But to them he was just Mr. Kenny, our chauffeur and our chef. He’d drive us to Alabama games. He always took the time for any fan or any person. It didn’t matter if we were out to dinner, he always set his fork down and took time for a conversation or an autograph. That’s just the person who he was, his Southern roots.”
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When Stabler was 31, a 1977 Sports Illustrated feature story detailed his penchant for honky-tonks and marinas, usually with a drink in one hand and a pretty woman in the other. Already married twice, he married again before he spent 16 years in a relationship with Bush. He pondered what he might do after football. Open a honky-tonk himself, he thought.
“My lifestyle is too rough — too much booze and babes and cigarettes — to be a high school coach,” Stabler said. “I’d hardly be a shining example to the young athletes of the future.”
His family hopes that the most powerful lesson he provides is the one delivered after he was gone.