(HOUSTON, January 30, 2017)
I flew to Houston on Sunday night to join the families that were gathering there, during Super Bowl week, to honor the dead and to spread awareness about the disease that took the lives of their sons, brothers, and husbands: the degenerative brain disease, CTE. As the press release announced:
“Foreshadowing Super Bowl LI, families from kids to the pros who have lost loved ones to the tragic disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) have united to launch a comprehensive campaign including the first ever CTE Awareness Day January 30, 2017, a book called ‘Faces of CTE,’ and a collaboration with the Mayo Clinic Brain Bank to autopsy youth and amateur athletes’ brains.”
As we wrote in a piece earlier this week that was published before Monday’s #facesofCTE #CTEAwarenessDay Press Conference, entitled “Pushing Back Against Football, For Our Boys and Men: The First Annual CTE Awareness Day,” these families had found each other through shared tragedy, the loss of loved ones who had played football, and whose lives thereafter were marked by depression, dementia, substance abuse, memory loss, impulse control problems, aggression, and whose lives were often ended by suicide.
Downtown, the city busily prepared for Sunday’s NFL championship game. T-shirt, concession stands, and glitzy marketing booths were being hastily erected. Businessmen and travelers had begun to stream into Houston.
But here, at the St. Regis Hotel, in a conference room presided over by the ghosts of dead men and boys, no one mentioned “The Big Game,” the Patriots, or the Falcons.
Before the press conference. Life-sized cardboard cut-outs of some of the men and boys who have died preside. They were husbands, sons, and brothers of those who will be speaking today.
Some of those gathered were families of former NFL players. Like Mary Seau, the sister of Hall of Famer, Junior Seau, who committed suicide in 2013, and who was found to have CTE. And like Cyndy Feasel, the wife of former NFL lineman and long-snapper Grant Feasel, who died at the age of 52, after battling the degenerative brain disease.
But most of those here had lost boys who only had played youth football through high school. Moms like Jo Cornell, who lost her son, Tyler, Kimberly Archie, who lost her son, Paul Bright, and Debbie Pyka, who lost her son Joseph Chernach. Families like Karen and Doug Zegel, who lost their son, Patrick Risha, and Marc and Nicki Langston and their son Ben, who lost their son and brother Zack.
It’s easy to fall into gendered mischaracterizations when describing what this is. We’ve seen the headlines: “Moms Against Football!” Certainly, the Save Your Brain and Faces of CTE organizations that helped to organize this event rely on the passionate advocacy and heart-rending stories of moms like Kimberly Archie, Debbie Pyka, and Cyndy Feasel.
This isn’t moms against football. What this is about is families who have lost sons, fathers, and – yes – husbands. This is also about Doug Zegel and Marc Langston and Ben Langston. This is also about all of us and our children. It’s about caring enough to understand the risks to our children’s brains and lives and to take action to reduce that risk.
Kimberly Archie opened the press conference by announcing first ever CTE Awareness Day and a campaign to spread awareness of this public health crisis. She also announced an initiative to encourage kids under 14 to play flag football, as well as an initiative to encourage the donation of youth brains to a brain bank for study.
Cyndy Feasel followed, speaking powerfully and emotionally about what the tragic impact of the disease on her and her family:
“This disease – it took the love of my life away from me…I lost my family. I lost my house, our finances. It ripped my life apart.
Grant went far into the darkness of depression and substance abuse and then he died.
It’s the other side of The Superbowl.
And every year on January 30 we will gather to honor them.”
Mary Seau, the older sister of NFL Hall of Famer Junior Seau, and founder of the Mary Seau CTE Awareness Foundation, then spoke about the importance of donating youth brains for study. While there are thirty Alzheimer’s brain banks in the United States, there is only one brain bank specifically for CTE. Moreover, only 29 youth brains have ever been examined for CTE, and nine of them were positive. The Faces of CTE families plan to change that:
“We want to build on the great work already being done by Boston University to increase the number of brain banks that examine brains for CTE. Collaborating with the Mayo Clinic for youth and amateur brains is the next important step in preventing, treating and finding a cure for CTE.”
Finally, former NFL and NY Giants player, current President of Dallas Chapter of NFL Players Association, Larry Mallory, spoke about a Police Athletic League Flag Football League for kids under 14 years old, which he has organized in Ft Worth, Texas. Their focus is on 2nd to 6th graders, starting young and focusing on brain health, comprehension, and retention, as well as community, health, and fitness, as the key values to stress for our youth. It’s a model that he hopes to be able to replicate in other cities.
He indicated that many of his former teammates have been effected by brain injuries, and he wanted to get together to collaborate with and for them in this effort.
“As a former NFL athlete, I feel compelled to protect children and the game. Helping CTE moms and promoting flag until 14 is not only the right thing to do, but the most effective approach to reach these goals.”
Despite being deep in the heart of football country, Mallory indicated that he hasn’t received any real push-back on his flag football league, and has received encouragement and support from the flag football groups of USA Football.
After the press conference, someone glanced at the NFL’s Instagram account and saw an image that looked hauntingly similar to the Faces of CTE collage of players who had passed away after battling CTE. It was captioned “the faces of SBOpeningNight”
These families are down here to tell us that we need to look at this problem. We need to pay attention, and we need to take positive steps to change.
Tragically and hopefully, their ranks will grow and will soon be backed with more and more stories and evidence from youth brain studies.
We ignore them at the peril of our sons, friends, husbands, and families.
Photo Credit: Press Conference Photos (Author), CTE Awareness Day and Faces of CTE Posters (Save Your Brain), NFL Player Montage (NFL Instagram Account)
More Good Men Project Coverage of #CTEAwarenessDay:
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