“This is from a 29-year-old individual,” she said. “There’s been a shrinkage of the brain.”
Another bin. “This is from a retired NFL player. It shows atrophy. Shrinkage of the cortex. Shrinkage of the deep cortex.”
Another bin. Another former pro. “Very small temporal lobes. This looks like CTE. Wow. Pretty amazing. I think this will be a good case.”
McKee was speaking as a research scientist. As a football fan—as the kid sister of two brothers who played the sport—she knows the larger truth. There are no good cases. Football hits pull the brain like Silly Putty, stretching and shearing nerve cells. Some hits cause concussions. Some do not. The damage accumulates, regardless: Boston University researchers estimate that the average high school lineman takes 1,000 to 1,500 hits to the head each season, some at forces equivalent to or greater than a 25-mile-an-hour car crash.
The result can be found in the white plastic bins. Or in these tragedies: Former Philadelphia Eagles safety Andre Waters, dead at 44 from shooting himself. Former University of Pennsylvania football captain Owen Thomas, dead at 21 from hanging himself. Former NFL safety Dave Duerson, dead at 50 from shooting himself, purposely in the chest, so that his brain could come here.
“You look at these brains, and it’s like, ‘It wasn’t really him. It was the disease,’” says McKee.
The Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy has released test results for the brains of 20 deceased football players. Nineteen showed evidence of CTE. McKee has many more brains to examine, and hundreds more are pledged by athletes who are still alive.
These are the words McKee uses to describe the clinical symptoms of CTE: Impulsivity. Disinhibition. Volatility. Problems with depression and emotional control. And this is how Mike Webster, later diagnosed with the disease, spent his final months: living in his truck, squeezing Super Glue on his rotting teeth, shooting himself with a Taser gun to sleep, and sniffing ammonia to stay awake.