Nearly seven months after Oakland Raiders’ great Ken Stabler died of colon cancer, Boston researchers have determined he was also suffering from CTE, a degenerative brain disease.
“We knew right away it was a damaged brain. It was smaller than we would have expected – there was shrinkage of the brain,” Dr. Ann McKee said.
The Boston University School of Medicine neurology and pathology professor dissected Stabler’s brain after he died in July 2015.
“The CTE legions were widespread throughout the brain,” McKee said, noting the corpus callosum, which connects the hemispheres, was also “thin.”
CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, is believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head. In older former players such as Stabler, who died at 69, dementia may contribute; but McKee says this is not the case for Stabler.
“This was a very pure case of CTE. He had no other neurodegenerative disease,” McKee said, explaining there was no sign of Alzheimer’s or cancer in his brain.
Stabler is one of the highest-profile football players to have had CTE, along with Junior Seau and Frank Gifford. The list of former players with CTE is now well over 100.
Known by nickname ‘The Snake,’ Stabler was the NFL’s most valuable player in 1974. Two seasons later, he led the Raiders to their first Super Bowl title. He retired in 1984.
Fans tend to think quarterbacks are less at risk for brain injury, as they have an offensive line protecting them. But Stabler’s diagnosis suggests few positions on the football field are immune to brain disease.
“So I was surprised to see it, but then when I found out he had been playing for 28 years – that’s a very lengthy exposure,” McKee said.
Medical experts say eliminating hits, concussive or sub-concussive, will mean some serious changes to the game.
U.S.A. Football says they’re on it, developing a consistent teaching method to train young players across the country.
“The game is taught differently than even 10 or 15 years ago,” said U.S.A. Football senior communications director Steve Alic.
Thirty high schools and 94 youth leagues in the Bay Area participate in the organization’s “Heads Up Football” program, teaching a safer method for tackling and other plays.
Doctors say more longitudinal research needs to be done to head off or even reverse cumulative brain trauma, but this is a good start.
“An individual gets 1,000 sub-concussive hits per season. So if you play for 10 years, that’s 10,000 of these hits. That’s where we think this damage is beginning,” McKee said.
Stabler is a finalist for this year’s pro-football hall of fame class. The vote is taking place in San Francisco on Saturday, the day before Super Bowl 50.