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Ken Stabler, Magnetic NFL Star, Sapped of Spirit by Career Concussion Injuries

The New York Times reports that Ken Stabler, iconic football star quarterback of the 1970s, suffered greatly from the deprivations of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) before his death last summer at 69, including rapid declines in his thinking and other progressive brain damage. Earlier, Stabler had added his name to the class-action lawsuit brought by former players against the NFL seeking damages from decades of concussions.

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy is a degenerative brain disease believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head. The condition is still poorly understood, but has been shown to have affected hundreds of professional football players, including some of the sport’s highest-profile athletes, including Junior Seau, Mike Webster, and Frank Gifford. In the wake of his death ostensibly from colon cancer, Kenny “The Snake” Stabler has been revealed to have joined this unfortunate club. The day after he died, an autopsy showed that Stabler’s brain had shrunk to under the three pound normal human brain weight. Doctors conducting the examination noted the presence of severe and widespread lesions, “affecting many regions of the brain.”

Stabler was the NFL’s most valuable player in 1974 and led the Raiders to their first Super Bowl title two seasons later. He ended his 15-year pro football career with the New Orleans Saints in 1984. As the Times points out, quarterbacks receive more protection from hits than most players. Indeed, the NFL has special rules to discourage severe blows to players in the most important position on the field. Stabler’s diagnosis further suggests that no non-kicker position in football is immune from progressive brain damage linked to hits to the head, both concussive and subconcussive.

Stabler is the seventh former NFL quarterback found to have had CTE by Boston University, which says it has found the disease in 96% (90 of the 94) of the former NFL players it has examined. Because CTE can be diagnosed only posthumously, and most brains are not examined for the disease, incidence rates among athletes and nonathletes are difficult to ascertain. Symptoms of CTE resemble those of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, including memory loss, confusion, impulsiveness and depression. For decades, the NFL fought research by independent experts connecting brain trauma to long-term cognitive impairment. Only recently, long after Stabler’s career ended, has the league begun to publicly acknowledge it has a serious problem.

Ironically, Stabler’s long career may well have contributed to furthering the progression of his CTE. Researchers have noted a pattern connecting the severity of a player’s brain injuries with the duration of their professional athletic career.

In Stabler’s final years, his family recognized a rapid decline in his cognitive functions. Several symptoms (not all conclusively attributable to CTE) began to appear quickly, beginning with Stabler’s complaints of a high-pitched ringing in his head. In his final year, he once gritted his teeth so hard that he broke a bridge in his mouth and had to get dental implants. As the Times reported,

Noise and bright lights became [Stabler’s] enemies. A lifelong lover of music, Stabler stopped listening to the radio in the car, choosing to drive hours in silence. He increasingly complained about the clanging of kitchen dishes and the volume of the television. Family and friends found him repeating himself, sharing stories privately or during public events that he had told just minutes before. He lost his sense of direction, pointing north when he spoke about the coast just a few miles south of his home in Gulfport, Miss. Driving, he became flustered at four-way stop signs.