Steve Chapman

A few weeks ago, a 25-year-old man was found in his car in Tampa, Fla., dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. It was a sad but ordinary story except for two facts: The man, O.J. Murdock, was a wide receiver for the NFL's Tennessee Titans, and the wound was not to the head but the chest.

Exactly why Murdock killed himself is impossible to know. But his case inevitably brings to mind other former NFL players who committed suicide -- particularly Dave Duerson of the Chicago Bears. He feared he was suffering from brain damage and shot himself in the heart for a considered reason: He wanted his brain intact so it could be assessed for illness.

It was, and The Chicago Tribune reported, "Scientists at Boston University who examined Duerson's brain tissue said he suffered from a 'moderately advanced' case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease associated with repeated blows to the head."

This is the first weekend of the NFL regular season, which follows closely on the opening of the NCAA schedule, and it brings with it some of the most cherished rites of fall. But this year, it carries with it a sense that the sport's best days are over. The most popular spectator sport in America may be no match for the revelations of medical science.

One of those came Wednesday from a study of more than 3,400 professional football players who had played at least five years in the league. Their death rate from three grave brain diseases -- Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Lou Gehrig's -- was triple the normal rate.

"It is very appropriate to say that what these guys in the study died of is likely CTE," said Robert Stern, a neurology professor who co-founded the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University.

But the news is even worse than it sounds. Many of the subjects played in the NFL decades ago, and Stern said that because modern players are bigger and faster, they may be inflicting even worse brain damage on each other.

The stark truth is that shots to the head turn out to be unhealthy for the brain, and such blows are to football what running is to basketball: something that happens every play. Concussions were once thought to be the main risk, but experts have established that CTE can occur even in players with no history of multiple concussions.

It's a progressive disease, with no known cure, and its effects are grim -- including "memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and, eventually, progressive dementia," according to the BU center.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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