The story of Penn player Owen Thomas, who took his own life aged 21, and was later found to have CTE.
In April 2010, Owen Thomas, a student at the University of Pennsylvania and a defensive lineman on the football team, took his own life. He was 21 with no history of depression or other mental illness and his death took everyone who knew him by surprise. He had been acting in a way that was slightly out of character in the weeks before his death, but nobody suspected that he was suicidal. Certainly, nobody thought Owen had suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain condition linked to the deaths of several NFL Players.
CTE was first studied a century ago in relation to boxers but it wasn’t until the 2005 death of Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Mike Webster, aged 50, that it was linked to football players. The disease, which can only be identified after death, causes memory loss, mood problems, behavioural changes and disorientation. Since Webster’s death, more than 100 former players whose brains have been examined after death have been found to have had CTE.
When Chris Nowinski, co-founder of the Boston University CTE Center, heard about Owen Thomas’s death, he began to suspect that the young player had suffered from CTE. He approached the family and asked if Owen’s brain could be examined. Later that year it was confirmed that, despite his youth, Owen already had Grade 2 CTE. He was one of the youngest players confirmed to have the disease.
Growing Up on the Gridiron tells the story of Owen’s career. A popular, gentle person, Owen was a dedicated and determined football player who took up the game aged nine. He was not known to have suffered from numerous concussions, suggesting that he had contracted the disease because of the numerous ’sub-concussive’ impacts typically sustained by linemen.
Mayk talks to Dr Ann McKee, the neuropathologist at Boston University who examined Owen’s brain. Dr McKee is a long-time football fan but now believes that, at the very least, young children should not play contact football.
The concussion issue does not make headlines at the rate that it did a decade or so ago, but this book serves as a reminder that it is still very much a relevant issue – and one that does not yet have a solution.
Vicki Mayk began her career as a reporter with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and has been a journalist and PR professional ever since. She is currently senior editor at Wilkes University, Pennsylvania, where she also teaches. Growing Up on the Gridiron is her first book.
“Grown men doing something to their bodies is one thing, but there’s thousands of kids that emulate them,” [Ann] McKee says. “And those kids want to be and act just like those guys, and for them, the dangers are higher and they’re dealing with coaches that aren’t always very informed.”
Such figures reflect something that is a concern for many: as more middle-class white families abandon football because of concerns about head injuries, it may increasingly become a game for lower-income minority families who see it as a way for their sons to earn college scholarships. The racial disparity was underscored in a New York Times story about the one hundredth anniversary of the NFL that reported that roughly 74 percent of the league’s players are black.
Owen’s brother Morgan admits that he has tempered his passion for games filled with cracking hits. “ESPN had a show where they would show highlights of people getting smashed. I used to love it. Now when I see those violent hits, those violent collisions, I don’t know what I was thinking.” His own style of play, he concedes, probably put him at risk for CTE. “I used to love, when I played football, that I would have all the different facemask marks on my helmet,” he says, adding, “I led with my head a lot.” With that admission comes a question: Why does he not exhibit any CTE symptoms when Owen did? “Owen and I are brothers and we are blood. How was it so prevalent in his brain? How can I be functioning relatively normally while he seemed to have symptoms as early as he did?” Both Morgan and his father pledged their brains to the Boston University brain bank, hoping that it may help to find reasons why heredity appeared to single out Owen.
Owen Thomas’s story is significant and not just because the suicide of any 21-year-old student is a tragedy. It’s important because of the questions raised by his death in particular. Owen had not sustained numerous concussions and he did not play for 30 years like the professionals found to have the disease. Readers have to question whether the game is safe for young players. Is line play a long-term risk to player health? And how many players of Owen’s age have already developed CTE?
These are important questions to ask, unfortunately Growing Up on the Gridiron doesn’t build these questions into a compelling story. In many ways, that isn’t Mayk’s fault. What makes Owen’s story significant is, sadly, his death. But his death came without warning. Nobody, even Owen it seems, knew what he was dealing with. And though we know what killed him, we know very little about how or why. The heart of this story is, unavoidably, absent. We are left with a book that tells us that young players are also at risk from CTE, a point that has been better made elsewhere.
Mayk says her working title for the book was The Friends of Owen Thomas, because she was inspired by how much Owen touched the lives of so many. That means we hear a fair amount about Owen’s friends but, for me, this doesn’t work. I didn’t see why I should be interested in his friends in their own right; none of them can shed much light on that central point of the book, Owen’s death, because nobody saw it coming.
It feels callous to dismiss a book about such a life-changing event for Owen’s friends and family. There’s enough material here to sustain a solid magazine article. The sections featuring Dr McKee, for example, are interesting and highlight the extent to which this remains a problem for which there is no solution. This is an issue that all football players – and fans – need to grasp. However, by the time I reached the end, I was not convinced there was enough here for a book.
Shane Richmond, Pigskin Books