The Super Bowl champion is gone too soon, and he took a ticking time bomb disease to the grave.
When Tyler Sash died in September last year — the cause of death, a drug overdose — his loved ones were still confused over his bizarre behavior over the last years of his life. Turns out, the former New York Giants safety and University of Iowa standout suffered from CTE or chronic traumatic encephalopathy. What is more, 27-year-old Sash had the same level of disease from repeated concussions as former NFL great, Junior Seau, according to an NY Times report.
Dr. Ann McKee works with the VA Boston Healthcare System where she is the director and chief of neurophysiology. In September of 2015, McKee sat with PBS’ Frontline and talked about a collaborative concussion study by her facility and the Department of Veteran Affairs.
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Dozens of brains from deceased NFL players were donated to the study effort, and the findings were alarming: 87 of the 91 specimens showed evidence of CTE. Forty percent of concussed former players played at the defensive and offensive lineman positions.
Moreover, the researchers found that 79 percent of high school players at any position or level had the disease. That figure rose to 96 percent for all NFL players tested.
“People think that we’re blowing this out of proportion, that this is a very rare disease and that we’re sensationalizing it. My response is that where I sit, this is a very real disease. We have had no problem identifying it in hundreds of players.”
Doctors are perplexed over the onset of Tyler Sash’s CTE as radiography reports don’t often show signs of the condition in the second decade of a person’s life. For comparison, Junior Seau was 43 when he committed suicide in 2012, and David Russell “Dave” Duerson was 50 when he took his life a year earlier.
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Posthumous studies revealed that both men had chronic traumatic encephalopathy at death. Last year, retired New York Giants Hall of Famer and beloved sports commentator, Francis Newton “Frank” Gifford, died suddenly at 84. He also had CTE at the end of his life.
CTE disease is graded in a similar fashion to cancer malignancies: stages 0-4. Tyler and Seau both had stage 2 upon their deaths. Both families said the men had exhibited strange and unpredictable behaviors before they died, including memory loss, periods of confusion, and outbursts of anger.
Tyler’s family thought his change in mood was attributed to legally prescribed pain medication. Reportedly, he was being treated for a longtime and aggravating shoulder injury. The pain was so unbearable at times; he would often go days without sleeping because he could not bear weight on either part of his body.
His autopsy showed a cause of death as a fatal mix of hydrocodone and methadone. Sash’s mom, Barnetta, spoke to the Times about her son’s brain discovery.
“My son knew something was wrong but he couldn’t express it. He was such a good person, and it’s sad that he struggled so with this — not knowing where to go with it. Now it makes sense. The part of the brain that controls impulses, decision-making and reasoning was damaged badly.”
Dr. McKee said the locations where CTE lesions were found on Tyler’s brain — amygdala, temporal, and frontal lobes — likely explain the former Giants’ behavior. The regions control emotions, among other things.
“It helps explain his inattention, his short fuse and his lack of focus. Even though he was only 27, he played 16 years of football, and we’re finding over and over that it’s the duration of exposure to football that gives you a high risk for C.T.E. Certainly, 16 years is a high exposure.”
Tyler Sash only played a little more than two-dozen games in the NFL. He was drafted into the league in 2011 and punched his ticket to Super Bowl 46 where New York upset the New England Patriots 21-17.
In his last year as a pro player, the league suspended Sash for allegedly testing positive for the banned substance, Adderall. He said he obtained it legally for the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but Sash was not aware it was on the list of prohibited medications.
Sash’s family isn’t eligible for the recent $1 billion settlement between the NFL and 5,000 former players who suffered concussions over their careers. However, as his mother said, it’s more about awareness and educating kids about the dangers of repetitive head hits. In short, she just wants to save lives and protect players’ quality of living.
[Photo by NFL via Getty Images]