Report: Signs of damage linked to dementia in Strzelczyk's brain

Updated: June 15, 2007, 11:40 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

A former Pittsburgh Steelers lineman who died three years ago after leading police on a high-speed chase had signs of a brain condition causing dementia and depression found in three other ex-NFL players, The New York Times reported Friday.

Justin Strzelczyk was killed when he collided with a tractor-trailer on the New York State Thruway in upstate New York after leading police on a 40-mile high-speed chase. Before his death he said he was hearing voices from "the evil ones" and suffering from depression.

Dr. Bennet Omalu, a neuropathologist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, told the Times a recent study of Strzelczyk's brain tissue showed he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a finding two other doctors confirmed. Omalu believes the conditon was caused by multiple trauma sustained on the football field.

The condition, which can only be diagnosed in dead patients or by an invasive biopsy, is characterized by tangles of nerve fibers in the brain's cortex. The symptoms can include memory loss, depression and dementia similar to Alzheimer's disease and is typically found in elderly people in their 80s and in boxers suffering from dementia.

"This is extremely abnormal in a 36-year-old," Dr. Ronald Hamilton of the University of Pittsburgh, who confirmed Omalu's findings, told the Times. "If I didn't know anything about this case and I looked at the slides, I would have asked, 'Was this patient a boxer?'"

According to Omalu, an autopsy of Andre Waters, who shot himself to death last November at age 44, showed his brain tissue resembled that of an 85-year-old man and shared characteristics of early stage Alzheimer's. Omalu said he found similar conditions in the brains of former Steelers Mike Webster, a Hall-of-Fame center who suffered from dementia before his death from heart failure in 2002, and Terry Long, who committed suicide by drinking antifreeze last June.

Also, former New England Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson has said he suffers from depression and memory loss after enduring multiple concussions as a player.

According to the Times, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said that the league had no comment on Omalu's findings in the Strzelczyk case, while NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw did not respond to telephone messages seeking comment.

Strzelczyk, a 6-foot-6, 300-pound offensive lineman with the Steelers between 1990 and 1998, was experiencing an apparent breakdown the morning of Sept. 30, 2004, when he led police on a 40-mile chase down the New York State Thruway in his pickup truck after being involved in a minor traffic mishap near Syracuse.

According to media accounts of the incident, he drove 15 miles on three tires and a rim after one of his tires was punctured by metal spikes thrown onto the road to stop him and was "flipping off" troopers, throwing a beer bottle at one. The incident ended near Herkimer, when Strzelczyk swerved into the westbound lanes of the Thruway to avoid a truck that had pulled across the highway to stop him and collided head-on into a tanker truck.

Earlier this year, Dr. Julian Bailes, the chairman of the department of neurosurgery at West Virginia University and the Steelers' team neurosurgeon during Strzelczyk's career, suggested to Omalu that Strzelczyk's brain tissue might have been preserved from his autopsy, the Times reported. Bailes, is also the medical director of the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes at the University of North Carolina and has co-authored several papers citing links between concussions and later emotional and cognitive problems.

Mary Strzelczyk, the late player's mother, granted Omalu permission to study the brain tissue for signs of CTE, saying she wanted to better understand what led her son to his death. On Wednesday, as she looked at images of her son's brain damage on a computer screen, she told the Times they would be "a piece of the puzzle."

"I'm interested for me and for other mothers," she told the Times. "If some good can come of this, that's it. Maybe some young football player out there will see this and be saved the trouble."

Omalu told the newspaper he is confident the damage was caused by concussions Strzelczyk might not have reported, because players did not know the symptoms of a concussion or would not report them for fear of appearing weak.

"Could there be another cause? Not to my knowledge," Bailes told the Times. He also said that bipolar disorder, which Strzelczyk appeared to be exhibiting in the months before his death, would not have been caused by CTE but could have been made worse by it.

Omalu and Bailes told the newspaper the diagnosis stands out because the condition manifested itself when Strzelczyk was in his mid-30s. Long and Waters were in their 40s when they committed suicide, while Webster was 50 and had suffered from numerous physical ailments and chronic pain in addition to dementia.