Tyler Sash, a former New York Giants safety who died last September from an accidental overdose of pain medications at the age of 27, has been posthumously diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative brain disease believed to be caused by repetitive brain trauma.
The New York Times reported that Dr. Ann McKee, chief of neuropathology at the V.A. Boston Healthcare System and a professor of neurology and pathology at the Boston University School of Medicine, found that Sash’s CTE levels were comparable to those of the late Junior Seau. Seau, who was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame last year, committed suicide at the age of 43.
But while Seau played in the NFL for 19 seasons, Sash only played in 23 games for the league. McKee said that she had only seen one other case of CTE this advanced in someone so young.
“Even though he was only 27, he played 16 years of football, and we’re finding over and over that it’s the duration of exposure to football that gives you a high risk for CTE. Certainly, 16 years is a high exposure,” McKee said.
Since CTE is a progressive disease, it can impact football players at all levels of the sport. Last fall, research conducted by the Department of Veteran Affairs and Boston University found evidence of CTE in 87 of 91 deceased former NFL players.
But another recent study out of the Mayo Clinic found that even amateur athletes were susceptible to CTE after finding the disease in the brains of 21 of 66 males who had played contact sports when they were young.
The NFL has been under intense scrutiny for their handling of concussions and brain disease. Will Smith’s recent film Concussion explored the lengths the league went to cover up the discovery of CTE in the last decade. And while the league reached a settlement last year with former players over its handling of brain injury, under the settlement guidelines, the Sash family is not eligible for compensation.
Sash won a Super Bowl with the Giants before being cut in 2013 after his fifth reported concussion. After he returned to his home in Iowa, his family grew increasingly concerned by his erratic behavior, which included mood swings, memory loss, confusion, and an inability to focus. In one incident, Sash was arrested for public intoxication after running away from police on a motorized scooter for four blocks before fleeing to the woods.
His mother, Barnetta Sash, initially thought that his increasingly suspect behavior was due to the strong prescription pills he was taking to treat shoulder injuries sustained during his playing days. However, she donated his brain to be studied after he died, and said this week that the diagnosis of CTE helped her more thoroughly understand what her son was going through.
“Now it makes sense. The part of the brain that controls impulses, decision-making and reasoning was damaged badly,” she said.
“I want other parents to realize they need to have a conversation with their kids and not just think it’s a harmless game — because it’s not.”