Three Former NFL Stars Diagnosed With Telltale Signs of CTE

Buffalo Bills Hall of Fame guard Joe DeLamielleure during a game a 19-14 loss to the Los Angeles Rams on December 15, 1974 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Buffalo Bills Hall of Fame guard Joe DeLamielleure during a game a 19-14 loss to the Los Angeles Rams in 1974 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. (AP Photo/NFL Photos)

November 7, 2013

Researchers have discovered signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the crippling brain disease, in three NFL retirees, marking the second time on record that the degenerative neurological condition has been found in living players.

Pro Football Hall of Famers Tony Dorsett and Joe DeLamielleure, as well as former NFL All-Pro Leonard Marshall, tested positive for signs of the disease following three months of brain scans and clinical evaluations by researchers at UCLA. A fourth unidentified player was also tested, but his results have yet to be made available.

CTE, as the disease is known, is believed to stem from repeated blows to the head and has been linked to a variety of symptoms, such as memory loss, depression and dementia. The condition has been discovered in dozens of former football players, including San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau and Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster.

Explore How CTE Affects the Brain

Until this year, CTE had never been found outside of an autopsy room, but in January researchers at UCLA announced a breakthrough. For the first time, they had used brain scans to identify the protein that causes CTE in five living former NFL players.

The discovery of a telltale sign of CTE in three more players comes as the NFL faces mounting questions about a connection between football and long-term brain damage. The controversy gained added attention in October when legendary Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre joined a chorus of players who say they’ve experienced memory lapses they attribute to head injuries suffered in the NFL.

In an interview with FRONTLINE, DeLamielleure said that over his 12-year NFL career, he probably sustained “hundreds” of concussions. The former lineman for the Buffalo Bills said he was once “addicted to football,” but today he wrestles with sleeplessness, depression, and episodes of unexplainable anger.

“This is a job-related injury for me,” said DeLamielleure. “There’s no other way I got it. I didn’t go pounding my head into the wall. I didn’t do drugs. I didn’t drink. I didn’t get punched in the head one time. It’s from continuous hits to the head.”

“This is a job-related injury for me. There’s no other way I got it … It’s from continuous hits to the head.” — Joe DeLamielleure

Similarly, Dorsett, a former Heisman Trophy winner and the eighth all-time leading rusher in NFL history, told ESPN’s Outside the Lines that at age 59, he is battling memory loss and depression.

“I’ve thought about crazy stuff,” said Dorsett. “Sort of like, ‘Why do I need to continue going through this?’ I’m too smart a person, I like to think, to take my life, but it’s crossed my mind.”

DeLamielleure, Dorsett and Marshall are among the 4,500 former NFL players who have filed suit against the league for allegedly concealing a link between football and traumatic brain injury. In August, the two sides reached a proposed $765 million settlement in the case, but as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell emphasized to CBS News the following month, “There was no admission of guilt. There was no recognition that anything was caused by football.”

However, a recent FRONTLINE investigation into the NFL’s concussion crisis found that as early as the 1990s, the NFL’s retirement board awarded disability to at least three former players — including Mike Webster — after concluding that football caused their brain injuries.

An analysis of the settlement by ESPN reporters and League of Denial authors Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru found that the proposed agreement may not allow any compensation for the very first players to be diagnosed with football-related brain damage.

The early details of the settlement are one reason why DeLamielleure says he’s skeptical it will do much to help former players. “I want the guys that don’t have a voice, who are not Hall of Famers, to be taken care of,” he said. “The league is a multibillion industry and they can’t take care of the guys who made it.”

Jason M. Breslow

Jason M. Breslow, Former Digital Editor



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