TAMPA, Florida -- From her living room couch, Lisa McHale recounts the story of her husband's death like she's told it a thousand times. She's conversational, casual, and collected.
Her late husband, Tom McHale, a former Buccaneers lineman, died in 2008 at age 45, leaving Lisa and three young boys behind.
But after talking about the good and bad times the family had together and how the kids looked up to Tom, it's only when Lisa starts talking about her husband's brain that her eyes start to well up.
"I saw a lot of disease," Lisa said, fighting back tears. "I saw a lot of cell death, and I saw the cause of why I lost my best friend."
Shortly after Tom died from a drug overdose, Lisa donated his brain to researchers at Boston University and the Sports Legacy Institute (SLI). Their joint project, the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, helped discover massive brain damage that likely explained Tom's depression and drug use.
McHale was diagnosed post-mortem with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative disease found predominately in athletes who have suffered repeated head trauma. Symptoms include depression, confusion, memory loss, and trouble making decisions.
Prior to McHale's death, it was largely believed CTE predominately existed in repeat concussion victims. But McHale was never diagnosed with a concussion in nine NFL seasons or during his successful college (Cornell) and high school careers.
The findings opened the door for what is now comprehensive brain research from BU and the Sports Legacy Instiute. There are 125 brains currently in their brain bank, with hundreds more promised from active and retired athletes who are still alive. Researchers are finding CTE in huge percentages of the former athletes.
A number of the brains in the bank have Tampa connections, such as that of former Middleton High School star O.J. Murdock, as well as the brain of former Eagles star Andre Watters. Both committed suicide at young ages.
The Youth Connection
As startling as some of the findings have been, the most shocking came from the brains of teenagers who have died following brief football careers. Indications are severe brain damage and CTE can occur in young brains even without suffering a concussion.
It's prompted researchers to make a drastic new suggestion.
"We believe kids under the age of 14 should not be playing contact sports the way they are currently played," said Boston University researcher Dr. Robert Cantu. "They shouldn't be playing tackle football, they should be playing flag football. They should be learning the skills of tackling, but tackling dummies, not bashing bodies and bashing heads."
Cantu said because kids' brains aren't fully coated with myelin, an insulation that protects neurons, their brains are particularly succeptable to any kind of hit to the head. Repetative hits, such as heading the ball in soccer or banging helmets on the football field, can add up to real damage.
He also expressed concern over the weakness of children's necks, which are not yet proportional to their head size until the teenage years.
Lisa McHale, who has remained active with family outreach for the Sports Legacy Institute, has since pulled her boys out of Pop Warner Football.
"There is more brain trauma going on at the youth level in contact sports than anybody conceived of," McHale said.
She thinks football has come a long way in recent years as new studies have shed more light on the concussion crisis.
Pop Warner Football, the NFL, and the Ivy League all recently instituted concussion-related safety measures to better protect athletes, and most youth hockey leagues in America prohibit full-body checking until age 13.
But Cantu and McHale both say it's not enough. Simply addressing concussions doesn't protect the 7-year-old child who sustains 500 helmet-to-helmet hits a season playing Pop Warner.
"I would say to parents, 'I think you're being foolish and very unfair to your kids if you aren't taking a really hard, long look at the programs you're allowing your kids to be in,'" McHale warned.
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