Football injuries contributed to ex-Steeler's death

Updated: September 14, 2005, 1:37 PM ET
Associated PRess

PITTSBURGH -- Former Pittsburgh Steelers lineman Terry Long died from a brain inflammation that resulted, in part, from repeated head injuries suffered while playing football.

Long, 45, died at UPMC Passavant Hospital on June 7, a few hours after paramedics found him unconscious at his home. An autopsy was inconclusive, but subsequent tests on tissues and fluids taken from Long's body yielded the findings released Tuesday.

Long died of an inflammation of the lining of the brain, said Joseph Dominick, chief deputy coroner in Allegheny County. A contributing factor was "chronic traumatic encephalopathy" -- also known as dementia pugilistica -- a condition most often seen among career boxers.

"He wasn't a boxer, but that's a general term that we would use to denote changes in the brain of a degenerative nature," coroner Dr. Cyril Wecht said. "They can be from one intensely traumatic injury, or they can be from repetitive and cumulative injuries, which is what we believe happened here."

Wecht's autopsy report said Long's brain suffered "repeated mild traumatic injury while playing football." Those repeated injuries made Long's brain more susceptible to meningitis, which can sometimes also be caused by an infection, but Wecht said that wasn't the case with Long.

"We now have partial closure on Terry's tragic death and demise," Mark Rush, his former business attorney and friend, said of the autopsy findings. "It certainly saddened me to learn that football, a sport Terry loved, possibly contributed to his death."

Steelers spokesman Dave Lockett declined comment on the findings, which come two years after at least three manufacturers introduced new helmets in the NFL and college football designed to guard against concussions. The new helmets came in response to published studies showing players who had one concussion were more susceptible to others.

Wecht has done research in that area, and has jointly published a case study of Mike Webster, a former Steelers center and Hall of Famer who was diagnosed with football-induced dementia before he died in September 2002 at age 50.

Webster died of heart problems, but a federal judge earlier this year ruled the NFL should pay his estate disability benefits for football-related head injuries.

"I'm not suggesting for one moment that we stop professional football. If I said that, I better leave the country," Wecht said. "I think more attention should be paid by scientists and biomechanical engineers in coming up with a better helmet."

Long started at right guard for the Steelers from 1984-91, when he attempted suicide with rat poison after he was suspended for violating the NFL's steroid policy. Long later rejoined the team, but didn't re-sign after that season.

Long had no children and was living alone after separating from his second wife in the months before he died. He was indicted by a federal grand jury in March on charges he fraudulently obtained loans for a chicken-processing plant which prosecutors allege he burned to the ground for the insurance money in September 2003.

Long was awaiting trial when he died.