Study: McHale had developed CTE

Updated: January 27, 2009, 8:59 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

TAMPA, Fla. -- Researchers at Boston University have diagnosed an ex-NFL player who died last year as having had a degenerative brain condition similar to Alzheimer's disease that has been linked to repeated head trauma.

Tom McHale, a nine-year NFL veteran who died in 2008 at the age of 45, was the sixth player examined by researchers connected with the Sports Legacy Institute for chronic traumatic encephalopathy -- and the sixth whose diagnosis was confirmed by a postmortem study of his brain.

The Center for Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE) announced Tuesday that McHale was suffering from CTE when he died on May 25 at his Florida home. Police said the cause of death was an accidental overdose of oxycodone and cocaine, according to The New York Times.

His widow, Lisa McHale, said he developed chronic pain in his shoulders and other joints, leading him to start taking large doses of the painkiller OxyContin. That in turn made his depression worse and led him to occasional cocaine use, she said, according to the Times.

McHale, who played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, went through drug rehabilitation three times before his death. His passing shocked former teammates and players who remembered the Cornell graduate as being intelligent and responsible, according to the Times.

"Bearing in mind that only six former players, over the age of 25, have been tested for CTE, I find these results to be, not only incredibly significant, but profoundly disturbing. And I just can't conceive of anyone thinking otherwise," Lisa McHale said of the findings, according to the CSTE, a collaboration of the Sports Legacy Institute and Boston University School of Medicine.

The condition, which is caused by repeated trauma and can be diagnosed only 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 are typically found in elderly people in their 80s and in boxers suffering from dementia.

Players in this year's Super Bowl were asked about their concerns for their long-term health. Pittsburgh's Hines Ward said it's a concern, but not an unexpected one.

"It's just a violent game," the star receiver said Tuesday during Super Bowl media day. "If you run into someone full speed with a head-to-head hit, something's bound to give. Unfortunately, it's your brain."

Ward's teammate, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, has suffered at least two concussions in NFL games and another in a motorcycle accident.

"I'm not going to think about it right now," Roethlisberger said. "I'm going to live this day to the fullest."

A doctor who conducted a postmortem autopsy of former Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Andre Waters, who shot himself to death at age 44, showed his brain tissue resembled that of an 85-year-old man and shared characteristics of early-stage Alzheimer's.

In response to the study, the NFL said: "We support all research that would further the scientific and medical understanding of this injury. There continues to be considerable debate within the medical community on the precise long-term effects of concussions. We are currently funding an independent medical study of retired NFL players, which we hope will contribute to the overall understanding of this issue."

Pittsburgh free safety Ryan Clark doesn't remember the hit he put on Baltimore's Willis McGahee that knocked McGahee unconscious in the AFC Championship game. But he doesn't want the sport to be unfairly labeled.

"If they do anything else, we're not going to be able to tackle people," Clark said. "I'd like to see them stop talking about it on TV so much. It gets so much press when you see things like [his hit on McGahee]. People are beginning to believe it's a barbaric sport."

The CSTE also announced that it discovered early evidence of CTE in the youngest case to date, an 18-year-old boy who suffered multiple concussions in high school football before his death. The boy was not named at his family's request.

"I have 9- and 11-year old boys who are just beginning to play Pop Warner football," Lisa McHale said, according to the CSTE. "In light of Tom's situation and the findings on the high school football player with the initial evidence of CTE, I now question their involvement in a sport that had been so important in our lives."

Other former NFL players diagnosed with CTE are former Pittsburgh Steelers Mike Webster, Terry Long and Justin Strzelczyk, along with Waters and John Grimsley. Long also committed suicide, while Strzelczyk led police on a 40-mile high-speed chase on the New York State Thruway before dying in a head-on collision.

The CSTE also announced on Friday that a number of living former NFL players -- including Hall of Famers Joe DeLamielleure and Willie Wood -- have recently agreed to join three-time Super Bowl champion Ted Johnson and seven other former NFL players in donating their brains for study upon their deaths. Johnson revealed in 2007 that he has suffered from depression as a result of multiple concussions during his career.

The new donors include three members of the NFL's "88 Plan," named for John Mackey, the former Baltimore Colts tight end who suffers from severe dementia.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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