By John Branch, New York Times
Shortly before he died in July, the former NFL 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 69, his brain was removed during an autopsy and sent 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 the neuropathologist’s scale of 1 to 4, Stabler had high Stage 3 chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, 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 CTE.
Stabler, well known by his nickname, the Snake, is one of the highest-profile football players to have had CTE. The list, now well over 100 names long, includes at least seven members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, including Junior Seau (above), 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 NFL’s most valuable player in 1974 and led the Raiders to their first Super Bowl title two seasons later. He ended his 15-year NFL 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, but they still take wicked blindside hits. An offensive line’s purpose is, in part, to protect the quarterback, and leagues like the NFL 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 NFL quarterback found to have had CTE by Boston University, which says it has found CTE in 90 of the 94 former NFL players it has examined, including the former Giants safety Tyler Sash, who died at 27 in September and whose diagnosis was made public last week.
On Wednesday, the family of another Super Bowl quarterback, Earl Morrall, told The New York Times that Morrall was found to have Stage 4 CTE after his death in 2014 at age 79.
Gary Chandler is a prion expert. He is the CEO of Crossbow Communications, author of several books and producer of documentaries about health and environmental issues around the world. Chandler is connecting the dots to the global surge in neurodegenerative disease, including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, chronic wasting disease and other forms of prion disease. The scientific name for prion disease is transmissible spongiform encephalopathy. The operative word is “transmissible.” Even the global surge in autism appears to be related.