Anytime an athlete puts on a jersey and steps onto the field, the ice or the pitch, they are aware of the inherent risks they are taking with their physical health. Injury is a common theme amongst athletes; broken bones, torn ligaments, surgeries, stitches, all par for the course, so to speak. For athletes, the reward still greatly outweighs the risk however. The grueling training, grinding schedules and potential to never make it to the big leagues still draws athletes to dedicate their lives to their respective sports, multiple injuries required.
Though psychical injuries have never been a secret in sports, neurological injuries are just now coming into focus, and being taken seriously, with the brain now becoming researchers primary focus of sports related injuries. While repairing a torn ACL may cripple a player’s career, it most likely won’t lead them to an early grave. Injuries to the brain, those inflicted by repeated blows to the head whether via hits in football, hits or punches in hockey, wrestling maneuvers or otherwise, however, have been speculated to have led prominent athletes into an early grave.
All of these injuries can cause concussions, and after suffering multiple concussions, researchers have concluded that a degenerative brain condition known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) begins to affect athletes. Though blaming the suicides, murders and other tragedies the ten athletes on this list solely on CTE would be naive, the fact that all ten suffered repeated concussions that led to CTE cannot be ignored.
10 Patrick Grange
Though soccer has not generally been associated with CTE, in 2012, semi-professional soccer player Patrick Grange, who died due to his affliction with Lou Gehrig’s disease, was discovered to have stage 2 CTE after an autopsy was performed. The findings were a revelation for the soccer community, as it was one of the first reported cases of CTE in the soccer world. The speculation is that because Grange was a prolific header of the soccer ball, a skill he reportedly practiced for decades before his death, he may have caused the degeneration of brain tissue, leading to CTE.
Researchers have been quick to admit the correlation between heading and CTE is not fully established, stating, “we can't say for certain that heading the ball caused his condition in this case, but it is noteworthy that he was a frequent header of the ball, and he did develop this disease. I'm not sure we can take it any further than that." While researchers may not be able to fully attribute Patrick Grange’s CTE to his sport, but it is noteworthy he is the first soccer player to be diagnosed with the disease.
9 Ryan Freel
Another first for a sport was when former Major League Baseball player Ryan Freel was diagnosed with stage 2 CTE following his suicide in December of 2012. During the course of his nine-year professional career Freel bounced around a few teams playing outfield and being used as an all-purpose player until his retirement in 2010, a year after being hit in the head with the ball while a member of the Baltimore Orioles.
It was not the first serious head injury Freel suffered during his tenure as a ball player; in 2007 Freel’s head and neck first collided with a team mate and then the wall while tracking a fly ball. During his career Freel also made headlines when it was revealed in a Newspaper interview he spoke to voices in his head, and was arrested for driving under the influence twice.
Again, researchers have not conclusively ruled that the collisions suffered during his playing career resulted in both Freel being the first MLB player diagnosed with CTE, or his subsequent suicide, but it is now a known medical fact that head injuries, CTE, depression and suicidal behaviour have many common denominators.
8 Derek Boogaard
While football has been the sport most associated with CTE, and former players' brains have been studied the lengthiest, hockey has increasingly become a sport under scrutiny for the repeated blows to the head players take. The National Hockey League has gone to great lengths in an attempt to remove ‘head shots,’ illegal body checks to the head, as well as fighting, long a staple in the sport, from the game. Indeed, of the members of the NHL alumni who have passed on, either naturally or via suicide, those whose brains have been donated to research have been found to have evidence of CTE.
Hulking enforcer Derek Boogaard, who spent his brief career with the Minnesota Wild and New York Rangers, was one of the first players to be posthumously diagnosed with CTE. At 6 foot 7 and nearly 260 pounds, Boogaard was best known for dropping the gloves and fighting opposing players. Near the end of Derek Boogaard’s career he developed an addiction to prescription medication, as well as alcohol, while frequently suffering headaches and memory lapses, which doctors have attributed to repeated concussions.
At the young age of 28, while ostensibly rehabilitating a shoulder injury, Boogaard died of an accidental overdose. Following his death, his family donated his brain to research, where extensive CTE was found. Doctors stated that Boogaard would have likely suffered from dementia by middle age. Boogaard’s death was the first in a string of suicides of prominent enforcers in the NHL, prompting the league to investigate what could be done to prevent both brain injury, and subsequent substance abuse and suicide amongst players.
7 Terry Long
Offensive tackle Terry Long played eight seasons in the National Football League for the Pittsburgh Steelers. While he didn’t necessarily have an illustrious career as a player, he was productive. It was after his shocking suicide, by drinking antifreeze in 2005, where Terry Long made his biggest impact on football. After an autopsy was conducted, and severe CTE was found to be present in Long’s brain, a doctor at the county office where the autopsy was performed stated:
"People with chronic encephalopathy suffer from depression. The major depressive disorder may manifest as suicide attempts. Terry Long committed suicide due to the chronic traumatic encephalopathy due to his long-term play. The NFL has been in denial."
Following these statements, the NFL went on the defensive denying that any brain injury that Long could have suffered from his playing career had any impact on his suicide whatsoever. "I think it's fallacious reasoning, and I don't think it's plausible at all," a Steelers doctor said. Well, a decade later, the impact of CTE on athletes following the end of their careers is far more talked about, and taken seriously.
6 Dave Duerson
Safety Dave Duerson had an illustrious career in the NFL, being selected to the Pro Bowl four times, winning the NFL Man of the Year Award in 1987 and, most importantly, winning two Super Bowls, first with the Chicago Bears in 1986, and then the New York Giants in 1991. He also set a single-season sack record, that after 19 years was finally broken. After football, Duerson was also a successful businessman for a period. It was in death however, that some of Dave Duerson’s most notable contributions to football might have taken place.
Duerson, following another in a long list of tragic suicides, shot himself to death in 2011, and his brain was donated to science where it was discovered that he suffered from CTE. With the growing list of deceased athletes' brains being donated for research into CTE, the presence of the degenerative disease in Duerson’s brain further added credence to the medical thesis that there is a direct correlation between sports-induced brain injuries, depression, and ultimately, suicide.
5 Andrew “Test” Martin
Canadian professional wrestler Andrew Martin, known as “Test,” was known for finishing moves like the “Diving Elbow Drop,” and the “Test Drive,” as well as signature moves like the “Gutwrench Suplex” during his ten-year career with the WWE, ECE and Total Nonstop Action Wrestling. Ultimately the chronic pain of his wrestling career led to use of oxycodone, the prescription drug that ultimately led to an accidental overdose and death.
After Andrew Martin’s brain was tested, it was confirmed that he suffered from severe chronic brain injury, which mimicked symptoms of Alzheimer’s in sufferers. Whether the brain injuries suffered during his wrestling career were the cause of, or merely played a role in his death, one thing is clear; Andrew Martin’s brain was significantly damaged from sport, and he was not even 34 years of age.
4 Bob Probert
Hockey legend Bob Probert was as tough as they came when he took to the ice. One of the most feared fighters in the game, Bob Probert could also actually play hockey as well, making him a more important member of his team than merely the guy who dropped the gloves to intimidate the opposition. During his 17-year career split between the Detroit Red Wings and the Chicago Blackhawks, Probert amassed over 100 goals and 300 points to go along with his 3,300 penalty minutes, so, though he wasn’t Gretzky, he could put the puck in the net, scoring over 20 goals in a season twice over his career.
Sadly, Probert was as known for his off-ice troubles as he was for on-ice pugilism. Alcohol and drug abuse hampered Probert’s life and career; he even served jail time during the 1989 season. Following his playing career, Probert began writing a book about his life and playing career, but sadly, Probert died of heart failure at the age of 45, before his memoir could be published. It was published posthumously. After an autopsy, it was revealed that Probert suffered from CTE, and though it most likely did not contribute to his death, it forced the NHL to again combat the culture of fighting and head injuries in hockey.
3 Junior Seau
Junior Seau was one of the greatest linebackers of his time, with 12 Pro Bowl selections, and an AFC Player of the Year Award, predominantly with the San Diego Chargers. After a stint with the Miami Dolphins, Seau briefly retired, before signing with the New England Patriots where he played a large role in maintaining the Patriots' supremacy atop the AFC.
Beyond football, Seau also founded a foundation in his name that aimed to keep young children away from drugs and help empower them. By all accounts, post-retirement Junior Seau led a productive and positive life, making TV appearances and being an active participant in his community, until May 2, 2012.
In what most media outlets compared to former NFL player Dave Duerson’s suicide a year previous, Seau took his own life in eerily similar circumstances, a gunshot to the chest. Lyrics left in Seau’s hadwriting alluded to not liking the man he had become. Seau’s suicide shocked the sports world. He was not abusing drugs, and was said to not have shown any changes in his behaviour. Following an autopsy however, Seau’s brain showed the hallmark signs of CTE, which has been blamed as the cause of his suicide. The death of one of the most dynamic players of his time sparked a lawsuit and a renewed discussion about head injuries in sports.
2 Chris Benoit
Another former Canadian WWE star, Chris Benoit was a tour de force in the world of professional wrestling. Benoit was a fan favourite after winning multiple titles and because of his “unbelievable athleticism and wrestling ability.” Unfortunately, Benoit’s legacy in the ring was forever tarnished after he murdered his wife and child before killing himself in 2007.
The primary reason medical examiners and investigators cite to lead to Benoit murdering his family is the severe CTE that his brain revealed following his autopsy. Damaged due to years of concussions incurred while wrestling, Benoit’s brain activity had changed with the CTE leading Benoit into a deep depression. According to medical examiners that tested Chris Benoit’s brain, it was “so severely damaged it resembled the brain of an 85-year-old Alzheimer's patient." While no one will ever truly know what led to the murder-suicide of Chris Benoit and his family, the drastic changes CTE causes in the brain certainly played a part.
1 Jovan Belcher
In one of the most shocking cases of a murder-suicide perpetuated by a professional athlete diagnosed with CTE, 25-year-old Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher’s career had barely even started when he shocked the world by murdering his 22-year-old girlfriend before turning the gun on himself.
It wasn’t just the murder-suicide that was shocking; it was the manner in which he went about it. After a night out, Belcher returned to the home he shared with his girlfriend, their infant daughter, and his mother, and shot his girlfriend 9 times before fleeing in his car to the Chiefs’ practice facility. Upon arrival, Belcher confronted the Chiefs General Manager and asked the team to take care of his child. Once the sound of police sirens began approaching the practice facility, Belcher told his GM, coach and a team mate that he “can’t be here,” knelt beside his car, and after making the sign of the cross, and shot himself in the head.
The sports world was shocked. What could possibly have provoked such a brazen act? Though Belcher’s blood alcohol level was found to be over the legal limit after his body was exhumed and his brain further examined, it was proven that Belcher suffered from CTE, something that family members say led to his increasingly erratic behaviour before the murder-suicide. Whether CTE was an active contributor to the tragedy may never be proven, but given the cruel fates those on this list suffered, and the fact that all of these men had empirical evidence of brain trauma, the correlation cannot be mere coincidence.