The mother of University of Pennsylvania football co-captain Owen Thomas, who committed suicide in April, said she was “astounded” to learn that her son had a trauma-induced brain disease found in more than 20 deceased National Football League players.
Thomas, a junior defensive end, died at age 21 when he hanged himself in his off-campus apartment.
Doctors at Boston University examined Thomas’s brain tissue and discovered mild chronic traumatic encephalopathy, an Alzheimer’s-like disease that impairs normal brain functions and eventually kills brain cells. While researchers said they couldn’t definitively link Thomas’s death to the disease, they noted the pattern of suicidal behavior in CTE victims, including former NFL players Andre Waters and Terry Long.
“I was just astounded that perhaps this was a contributing factor to Owen’s death,” Thomas’s mother, Katherine Brearley, said in a video on Boston University’s on-line news site. “Owen never did have a big concussion, so I hope there is some research into what happens in a developing young person with a lot of little jolts to the brain.”
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is characterized by a building of a toxic protein in the brain. Early symptoms include memory impairment, emotional instability, erratic behavior, depression and problems with impulse control, according to directors at BU’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. Dementia and death can follow.
The New York Times first reported the results of the study yesterday on its website.
Brearley said Thomas, who helped lead Penn’s football team to the 2009 Ivy League championship, exhibited uncharacteristic behavior the day before he died.
“He called home and my husband said he was very concerned because Owen’s voice was weak,” said Brearley, a minister who lives in Allentown, Pennsylvania. “Owen said, ‘I’m failing everything,’ which was very uncharacteristic of Owen. The next day, at about 2 o’clock in the afternoon, he hung himself in his room.”
Thomas was an organ donor and Brearley said the family signed “Gift of Life” papers after his death to harvest his organs and other tissue for patients awaiting transplants. As they were driving home, she said, she received a call on her mobile phone from Chris Nowinski, one of four co-directors for the BU center.
Nowinski is a former Harvard University football player and professional wrestler who retired at age 24 because of multiple concussions. He’s also the co-founder of Sports Legacy Institute and author of the 2006 book, “Head Games: Football’s Concussion Crisis from the NFL to Youth Leagues.”
Nowinski has sought to prove that brain damage is widespread in men, women and children who engage in sports involving repeated collisions. Brearley said she agreed to donate Thomas’s brain for the center’s research even though he’d never suffered a concussion.
“I said, ‘Even though you’re not going to find anything, I’m convinced that somebody somewhere is going to find something that causes this kind of event to happen,’” Brearley said. “I’m not going to walk away believing this just happened because he was somewhat depressed about maybe two tests.”
Brearley said she was amazed when Ann McKee, an associate professor of neurology and pathology at BU’s School of Medicine, told her two weeks ago that her son was diagnosed, post-mortem, with a disease associated with repeated head trauma. Thomas’s case was unique, doctors said, since he was the first college athlete found to have the disease and never had been diagnosed with a concussion.
University of Pennsylvania spokeswoman Lori Doyle said yesterday in a statement that the school is “deeply concerned” about the medical issues being raised about football head injuries. She said the school would work with the Ivy League and medical community to address those issues.
Brearley said she’s hoping for some good to come out of the death of her youngest son.
“If other younger athletes can be protected, that would be a good legacy for Owen to leave,” Brearley said.