Posted on October 7th, 2014
by James Joyce
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a progressive neurodegenerative disease suffered by individuals with a history of concussions and other forms of head injury. Last week, PBS’s Frontline reported that brain autopsies of 79 deceased NFL players concluded that 76, or 96.2 percent, of these individuals suffered from CTE. The Frontline news story came the day after it was revealed that former Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher, who killed his girlfriend and then himself in front of coaches and teammates, suffered from CTE. Before the week was over, The Washington Post had published a story that claimed the NFL’s CTE problem was reminiscent of black lung in the coal industry and that Congress needed to take action.
Not long ago, CTE was considered an obscure and not well-defined disease. A pivotal moment that propelled CTE into the spotlight was a press conference conducted by our colleagues at the Boston University (BU) CTE Center during the week of Super Bowl XLIII in 2009. The BU team announced that nine-year NFL veteran Tom McHale had suffered from CTE when he died on May 25th, 2008. Up until that point, a common denominator among individuals who suffered from CTE was a history of multiple concussions and severe head trauma. However, in the case of McHale, he was Ivy League educated, a successful businessman and he never had a documented concussion during his football career.
New York Times writer Alan Schwarz attended the McHale press conference and then authored an article entitled: “New Sign of Brain Damage in the NFL”
The event would become an inflection point that would forever change the way that the NFL and other sports would respond to head injury.
Lesser known is that Tom McHale’s death would inspire a research effort that would lead to our creation of a blood-based diagnostic candidate to identify and monitor CTE in living individuals. Clinical studies are now being conducted in former NFL players who enrolled to participate in the BU CTE Center’s DETECT study. At present, CTE can only be diagnosed through postmortem autopsy.
Tom and I both grew up in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Like myself, Tom and his older brother Jim both played football and competed in track and field at Gaithersburg High School. Their coach in both sports was my father, Fred Joyce. Tom and I would later become teammates on a University of Maryland football team that would win the 1983 ACC Championship under coach Bobby Ross. When a knee injury sidelined me during my senior year, it was Tom who took over my starting position on the defensive line. Our last game as teammates was at The Florida Citrus Bowl against a University of Tennessee team captained by Reggie White, who would go on to become one of the greatest players in NFL history. Reggie died at age 43. Tom died at age 45. Both left behind a wife and young children.
Tom was destined to become a star, yet he was also an independent thinker. Instead of continuing his career at Maryland, which likely would have insured that he became an early round NFL draft pick, he transferred to Cornell to earn a degree that he would leverage to become a successful restaurateur. Still, that decision didn’t inhibit him from having a nine-year NFL career. He played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Philadelphia Eagles and the Miami Dolphins. There are so many people that miss Tom McHale. I have the good fortune of still hearing his voice, pushing us to find a solution to diagnose CTE in the living. At the point when CTE becomes a diagnosable condition, we will then pursue an opportunity to advance a therapeutic candidate that could unshackle the minds of those imprisoned by this horrific disease.
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