Strzelczyk, 6 feet 6 inches and 300 pounds, was a monstrous presence on the Steelers’ offensive line from 1990-98. He was known for his friendly, banjo-playing spirit and gluttony for combat. He spiraled downward after retirement, however, enduring a divorce and dabbling with steroid-like substances, and soon before his death complained of depression and hearing voices from what he called “the evil ones.” He was experiencing an apparent breakdown the morning of Sept. 30, 2004, when, during a 40-mile high-speed police chase in central New York, his pickup truck collided with a tractor-trailer and exploded, killing him instantly.
Largely forgotten, Strzelczyk’s case was recalled earlier this year by Dr. Julian Bailes, the chairman of the department of neurosurgery at West Virginia University and the Steelers’ team neurosurgeon during Strzelczyk’s career. (Bailes is also the medical director of the University of North Carolina’s Center for the Study of Retired Athletes and has co-authored several prominent papers identifying links between concussions and later-life emotional and cognitive problems.) Bailes suggested to Omalu that Strzelczyk’s brain tissue might be preserved at the local coroner’s office, a hunch that proved correct.
Mary Strzelczyk granted permission to Omalu and his unlikely colleague, the former professional wrestler Christopher Nowinski, to examine her son’s brain for signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Nowinski, a former Harvard football player who retired from wrestling because of repeated concussions in both sports, has become a prominent figure in the field after spearheading the discovery earlier this year of C.T.E. inside the brain of Andre Waters, the former Philadelphia Eagles defensive back who committed suicide last November at age 44.
Tests for C.T.E., which cannot be performed on a living person other than through an intrusive tissue biopsy, confirmed the condition in Strzelczyk two weeks ago. Omalu and Nowinski visited Mary Strzelczyk’s home near Buffalo on Wednesday to discuss the family’s psychological history as well as any experiences Justin might have had with head trauma in and out of sports. Mary Strzelczyk did not recall her son’s having any concussions in high school, college or the N.F.L., and published Steelers injury reports indicated none as well.
Omalu remained confident that the damage was caused by concussions Strzelczyk might not have reported because — like many players of that era — he did not know what a concussion was or did not want to appear weak. Omalu also said that it could have developed from what he called “subconcussive impacts,” more routine blows to the head that linemen repeatedly endure.
“Could there be another cause? Not to my knowledge,” said Bailes, adding that Strzelczyk’s car crash could not have caused the C.T.E. tangles. Bailes also said that bipolar disorder, signs of which Strzelczyk appeared to be increasingly exhibiting in the months before his death, would not be caused, but perhaps could be exacerbated, by the encephalopathy.
Omalu and Bailes said Strzelczyk’s diagnosis is particularly notable because the condition manifested itself when he was in his mid-30s. The other players were 44 to 50 — several decades younger than what would be considered normal for their conditions — when they died: Long and Waters by suicide and Webster of a heart attack amid significant psychological problems.
Two months ago, Omalu examined the brain tissue of one other deceased player, the former Denver Broncos running back Damien Nash, who died in February at 24 after collapsing following a charity basketball game. (A Broncos spokesman said that the cause of death has yet to be identified.) Omalu said he was not surprised that Nash showed no evidence of C.T.E. because the condition could almost certainly not develop in someone that young. “This is a progressive disease,” he said.
Omalu and Nowinski said they were investigating several other cases of N.F.L. players who have recently died. They said some requests to examine players’ brain tissue have been either denied by families or made impossible because samples were destroyed.
Bailes, Nowinski and Omalu said that they were forming an organization, the Sports Legacy Institute, to help formalize the process of approaching families and conducting research. Nowinski said the nonprofit program, which will be housed at a university to be determined and will examine the overall safety of sports, would have an immediate emphasis on exploring brain trauma through cases like Strzelczyk’s. Published research has suggested that genetics can play a role in the effects of concussion on different people.
“We want to get a idea of risks of concussions and how widespread chronic traumatic encephalopathy is in former football players,” Nowinski said. “We are confident there are more cases out there in more sports.”
e martë, 19 qershor 2007
Concussions and Chris Nowinski
Article in the New York Times about sports related concussions, Chris Nowinski gets a mention.
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