With the clock winding down to about a minute to go in the AFC Championship Game back in January of 2013, Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez caught a simple pass out in the flat from Tom Brady, turned it up field, broke a tackle and gained 11 yards for a first down. It was garbage time, and the catch was a relatively innocuous play as the Patriots were grinding out the last few moments of a 28-13 home loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
Little did we all know that 11-yard catch would be the last one of Aaron Hernandez’s NFL career, and that minute of football would be the last time he played competitive sports in his life. We were also unaware at that time that Hernandez might have been six months removed from killing two people over a spilled drink at a Boston nightclub (He was acquitted of those murders in April), and six months away from going to prison for the rest of his life for murdering Odin Lloyd.
In retrospect, when you go back and watch it now, for a meaningless play, it’s kind of a heavy 11-yard pass. Now add this in — Aaron Hernandez was playing that game with enough brain damage that he was diagnosed postmortem with Stage III chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or more commonly referred to as CTE.
In plain English, according to a lawsuit filed by Hernandez’s attorney, Jose Baez, on behalf of Hernandez’s four-year-old daughter, Avielle, against the NFL and the Patriots, Hernandez had a level of CTE that is “usually seen in players with a median age of death of 67 years.” In even plainer English, the imaging of Hernandez’s brain released as part of the lawsuit is chilling, with enough deposits of tau protein, a heavy CTE indicator, that it looks as if somebody had kicked dirt all over the cross sections of Hernandez’s brain.
Of course, Hernandez never came close to seeing 67 years old. He hanged himself in his jail cell at a Massachusetts prison back in April at the age of 27, just five days after being acquitted for the murders of Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado in Boston in July of 2012. The suicide notes left behind by Hernandez, and shared publicly, give cryptic hints, such as Hernandez telling his fiancée, “You’re rich,” that he may have been killing himself to try to somehow leave what was left of his dwindling estate in such a legal condition that his fiancée and daughter could shield it from civil lawsuits filed by the families of his alleged victims. Only Hernandez, and perhaps his fiancée, truly know.
The motivation of the lawsuit filed by Baez is far clearer than the innuendo in Hernandez’s suicide notes. The lawsuit, filed against the NFL and the Patriots and seeking $20 million, claims the league and the team deprived Hernandez’s daughter of “the love, affection, society, and companionship of her father while he was alive.” The suit also alleges that the NFL and the Patriots “concealed and misrepresented the risks of repeated traumatic head impacts to NFL players,” and “needlessly delayed adoption of rules and league policies related to player health and safety with regard to concussions and subconcussive head trauma.”
Lawsuits having to do with football and the effects of the game on its players are nothing new, as thousands of retired players (and their families) and the NFL, in the past few years, arrived at a billion-dollar settlement of a class action lawsuit over the harrowing medical conditions of retired players. Along similar lines, Houston attorney Gene Egdorf recently filed a lawsuit against the NCAA on behalf of the widow of the late Greg Ploetz, a former Texas Longhorn football player, who died at age 66 two years ago with Stage IV CTE. Egdorf thinks that the severity of Hernandez’s CTE could open up the NCAA and the Southeastern Conference (Hernandez played three seasons at the University of Florida) as potential defendants as well.
“If I represented Hernandez, in light of his young age, I certainly would have sued the NCAA and the SEC,” said Egdorf. “Suing the university is more complicated, since as a public school it has governmental immunity protections and lawsuit limitations.”
However, according to Egdorf, the severity of Hernandez’s CTE might be a Catch-22 with Baez’s lawsuit against the NFL. “The severity of [Hernandez’s] CTE certainly helps in proving the causal link to football,” said Egdorf. “But the NFL can argue that such a severe case means significant injury occurred before he played in the NFL.”
Hernandez’s case could be complicated by the class action settlement, and the fact that Hernandez never officially withdrew from that lawsuit, likely because he never thought to do so while in prison, thinking he might win his murder case and have a chance, albeit a microscopic one, of playing again if he were released from prison. If Hernandez were to be included in the class of players covered by the settlement with the league, it could preclude his individual lawsuit.
“A court and a jury would have to agree that the collective bargaining agreement does not pre-empt [Hernandez’s] claims, that the [class action] settlement doesn’t pre-empt his claims, and of course that the playing in the NFL caused his injuries and the NFL hid information on CTE and head trauma,” said Egdorf. “The NFL would have to put up witnesses to testify under oath and produce theories or documents — neither of which has previously occurred. It could be a monumental PR disaster for the NFL.”
Perhaps more daunting than any legal entanglements for the NFL are the mere optics of the diagnosis on Hernandez’s brain. According to the lawsuit, the CTE detected in the former Patriot’s brain was the most advanced ever seen in anyone of that age. Hernandez was 23 when he was arrested for the murder of Odin Lloyd, and had played a grand total of 44 games in the NFL, including the playoffs. Forty-four games, that’s it. On top of that, Hernandez played a position, tight end, that would not necessarily be considered “high-impact” on every play.
In other words, Hernandez was not some ten-year veteran who was pounding his head into a brick wall on every play. He only played parts of three NFL seasons, and yet upon examination, his brain was awash in CTE. That Hernandez was suffering from severe brain damage doesn’t excuse his criminal activity, by any means. His rap sheet going back to Florida and the shady company he kept going back to high school in Bristol, Connecticut, are well documented. However, now, anecdotally at least, the most notorious NFL criminal of this millennium is directly, medically linked to the brain disease that NFL owners have spent years trying to downplay, ignore and conceal. Privately, NFL owners had to cringe hard at the news of Hernandez’s brain disease.
If nothing else, Hernandez’s Stage III CTE is another wakeup call on just how brutal the game of football can be, and how the worst of the damage inflicted every weekend isn’t in the knees, backs or shoulders of players, but in the human brain. Complicating things is the fact that CTE cannot be detected in the living. Only after a player dies can his brain be examined for CTE, and, not surprisingly, a recent study at Boston University showed that 110 of the 111 brains of deceased NFL players researchers had examined had some level of CTE.
“When they finally come up with a way to detect CTE in the living, that will be the game changer,” said former New England Patriot linebacker Ted Johnson, whose 2007 interview with about his concussion issues, which included Patriots head coach Bill Belichick knowingly making Johnson practice with concussions, blew the lid off the cavalier mentality the league had toward head trauma.
“Knowing the actual damage they’ve sustained, players will be able to make far more educated decisions on whether or not to keep playing,” said Johnson. “If there’s one thing that could bring down the NFL, it’s a test for CTE in the living. The owners are totally fearful of this.”
So while we all sit here wringing our hands over which teams did and did not stand for the national anthem last Sunday, the real issue for the NFL and the life-threatening problem for its players persist. This is a dangerous game with big hits and permanent injuries, injuries for which new rules and new equipment can only do so much to prevent.
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In re-watching that AFC Championship Game from 2013, knowing what we know now about the pervasive nature of brain damage in the NFL, and knowing what we know now about Hernandez’s battered brain specifically, it’s hard not to wonder who else on that field was running around with Stage III CTE that day.
Moments after Hernandez’s final catch, as that AFC title game wound down, and the Ravens salted away the upset of the Patriots in New England, CBS play-by-play voice Jim Nantz informed the audience that the Ravens would be presented the Lamar Hunt Trophy for winning the AFC by their senior adviser of player development, O.J. Brigance.
“Brigance is a real inspirational figure to this team,” Nantz said. “A man who was on their Super Bowl team in 2000, who is battling ALS.” ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, is directly linked to head trauma — the type of head trauma a decade at linebacker will inflict. Brigance, a Houstonian and a Rice graduate, was diagnosed with ALS in 2007. He’s been in a wheelchair for several years, and is not able to speak. He played linebacker for 12 seasons in the Canadian Football League and the NFL.
The reminders are inescapable. This is a scary game.