The Super Bowl brought Nicki Langston of Overland Park to Houston this week, but she wasn’t there to celebrate football.
Langston met fellow mothers, wives and siblings connected by similar stories with tragic endings. The football men and boys in their lives had suffered brain damage and died from the degenerative disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE.
Mary Seau, Junior Seau’s sister, was there. After a Hall of Fame NFL career, Seau committed suicide in 2012 and was found to have had CTE.
Also there was Cyndy Feasel, author of After the Cheering Stops and wife of former Seahawks offensive lineman Grant Feasel. He died of CTE the same year as Seau.
They told their stories to a handful of reporters on what they dubbed CTE Awareness Day, using the Super Bowl as a backdrop. Nicki Langston was there because she believes that’s what her son Zack, a linebacker for Blue Valley Northwest and Pittsburg State who committed suicide three years ago, would have wanted.
“I felt like I was doing it for my son,” Langston said.
The Langstons were at a loss to explain Zack’s behavior and mood swings soon after his football career ended. He became depressed and easily angered. The friendly and caring person they knew had started to withdraw from social situations and became paranoid.
Then Zack started to lose his memory. He couldn’t remember his childhood, couldn’t recall what he had been told minutes earlier.
Even after Zack’s death, questions remained. But a clue was given by Zack himself.
He was visiting his former girlfriend and the mother of their 3-year-old son, who was asleep in his bedroom. Zack had purchased a gun and brought it with him on the visit.
“He told her that this had something to do with football,” Nicki Langston said.
Zack never left. On Feb. 24, 2014, he took his life.
The weeks and months passed and an autopsy revealed no brain damage. The Langstons remained stunned and confused but no closer to answers. Then Nicki got a call from her sister, Debbie, who had watched a Frontline documentary on PBS, called “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis.”
Debbie relayed the symptoms she had heard from researcher Ann McKee of Boston University’s Center for Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, where the brains of several former NFL players had been examined.
The Langstons connected with McKee, and Zack’s brain was shipped to the CTE Center.
The family soon received an answer.
“His brain was riddled with CTE,” Nicki Langston said. “He had it at the same level as Junior Seau.”
According to the CTE Center, the disease is found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma, concussions and hits to the head that do not initially cause symptoms. It’s not just found in NFL players or professional athletes, but in athletes like Zack Langston who didn’t play beyond college, and others who in some cases did not play beyond high school.
Last week, the NFL announced that the number of diagnosed concussions in the league fell from 275 in 2015 to 244 in 2016. The league said it has seen a jump in the number of self-reported concussions by players, too.
The NFL remains under intense scrutiny for the way it handles head injuries. In December, the Supreme Court rejected the final two challenges to the estimated $1 billion settlement between the NFL and thousands of former players who have been diagnosed with brain injuries linked to repeated concussions.
The NFL wasn’t represented at CTE Awareness Day.
“We haven’t gotten any response from the NFL specifically about the event,” Kimberly Archie, a child sports safety advocate, told he Houston Chronicle. “But it is the hope of the families that (the NFL) will embrace CTE Awareness Day and be a part of making a difference with us.”
The group that met in Houston said it plans to meet at all future Super Bowls. The message isn’t for people to stop playing football, but to promote no-contact football until kids are at least 14. Flag football is a much safer option for young brains.
“There is so much development in the brain up until then,” Langston said. “That’s when a lot of this damage is taking place.
“I’ve talked to several moms now who wonder if their sons have CTE because of their behavior.”
Spreading word of contact sports’ dangers was the objective for those who met in Houston, and Langston said she plans to distribute informational fliers to area pediatricians, encouraging no-contact football for youth and warning of CTE’s dangers.
“It’s about getting parents to take this seriously,” Langston said. “If I knew then what I know now, there is no way in hell I would have let him play before 14. I beat myself up every day feeling like I didn’t protect my son.
“I’m doing this for him.”