Football High: Owen Thomas' Story

The issues of sports-related concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy were intensified when the brain of a deceased 21-year-old football player was examined.

[male speaker 1] The NFL is finally aware that concussions cause real problems. [male speaker 2] There's mounting evidence that's putting players at risk of brain damage. [male speaker 3] Much of the evidence sited in the media emerged from a small lab at this VA hospital outside of Boston. [Ann McKee] It was shocking actually from the first case forward. [male speaker 3] Dr. Ann McKee is a neuropathologist who has found evidence of degenerative disease in the brains of over a dozen ex-NFL players. The disease, called CTE, can lead to depression, dementia, even suicide. [McKee] It's a progressive deterioration of your brain. We are seeing it over and over again in football players. [male speaker 3] By the summer of 2010 McKey had a new concern. She had autopsied the brain of Owen Thomas, a 21-year-old captain of the University of Pennsylvania football team who had committed suicide the previous April. He had never played professional football. [McKee] I was expecting nothing. I mean, you have to remember that he's a young player. He's 21 years old. But what we found was damage to the point where I could actually see the damage on the slide without even looking at it under the microscope. [male speaker 3] Thomas' brain showed early signs of CTE. [McKee] To see it in such a young player, I have to say that I went home, and I almost couldn't speak. It's—it totally changed what I thought about this game. [male speaker 3] There was something else. Owen Thomas had never been diagnosed with a concussion. [Chris Nowinski] We were hopeful that this 21-year-old who had been playing 12 years that they would show that you need more than 12 years to get this disease. You need real concussions to get this disease, but Owen's case kind of opened up a huge dark world. [McKee] It was like, this could happen to anybody. Anybody who is playing this game, this could be the result. The question is, "When does it start?" Is this a process that starts much earlier in life than we are used to be thinking about?
Posted on BrainLine December 10, 2013.

Excerpted from the documentary "Football High." Used with permission from Frontline, PBS. www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline.