Pathologist says Waters' brain tissue had deteriorated

Updated: January 19, 2007, 6:24 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

NEW YORK -- A leading forensic pathologist told The New York Times that brain damage suffered by former NFL defensive back Andre Waters may have led to his depression and ultimately his suicide.

The forensic pathologist, Dr. Bennet Omalu of the University of Pittsburgh, told The Times that the condition of Waters' brain tissue was what would be expected in an 85-year-old man, and there were characteristics of someone being in the early stages of Alzheimer's. The doctor said he believes the brain damage had come from or had been quickened by successive concussions.

Waters was 44 and a father of three when he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on Nov. 20 in Tampa, Fla., three days before Thanksgiving.

"No matter how you look at it, distort it, bend it," Omalu told The Times in a telephone interview, "it's the significant forensic factor given the global scenario."

If Waters had lived another 10 to 15 years, Omalu told The Times he believes "Andre Waters would have been fully incapacitated."

"Whatever its cause, Andre Waters' suicide is a tragic incident and our hearts go out to his family," the NFL said in a statement released to the media Thursday afternoon. "The subject of concussions is complex. We are devoting substantial resources to independent medical research of current and retired players, strict enforcement of enhanced player safety rules, development and testing of better equipment, and comprehensive medical management of this injury. This work over the past decade has contributed significantly to the understanding of concussions and advancement of player safety. We will continue with all these efforts and maintain our focus on player health and safety."

The league has a traumatic brian injury committee that will begin studying retired players later this year regarding concussions and depression.

"The connection between depression and head injuries is likely but not proven," Leszek Christowski, the Hillsborough County medical examiner, told ESPN.com's Tom Farrey on Wednesday. "Scientifically, there is no [cause-and-effect] connection. Could it play a role? Yes. But the statistical studies do not show a clear-cut connection between concussion and depression."

The Times cited a study by the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes, based at the University of North Carolina, of 2,500 former NFL players that found that cognitive impairment, Alzheimer's-like symptoms and depression rose in direct proportion to the number of concussions a player had sustained. The same group conducted a 2003 study which found a link between multiple concussions and depression among former pro players with histories of concussions. Then 2005 study was a follow up to the one two years prior.

According to The Times story, written by Alan Schwarz, Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard football player and professional wrestler who has suffered a number of concussions, initiated the inquiry. He called the Waters family to request permission to use remaining parts of Waters' brain for testing. The family agreed and signed release forms in mid-December. Four pieces of Waters' brain were sent from the Hillsborough County, Fla., medical examiner's office to Pittsburgh for testing by Omalu.

On Jan. 4, tests came back and Omalu said the results were similar to that of an 80-plus-year-old Alzheimer's patient.

"It strikes me as pretty reasonable," Dr. Brent Masel, board member for the Brain Injury Association of America, said in reference to the quality of Omalu's analysis. Referring to studies that have likened head trauma in the NFL to that found in boxers, Masel added, "When you look at boxers and the problems they've had, it makes sense that you might find this in a football player, based on what we know."

Waters was signed in 1984 by the Eagles as an undrafted free agent out of Cheyney State and played 10 seasons in Philadelphia. He finished his career with the Arizona Cardinals, whom he played for in 1994 and '95.

Tom Farrey is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.

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