Dave Mirra is a BMX legend. The daring and handsome athlete had a solid two decades under his belt of wins and firsts in BMX history. He was greatly lauded as a hero of the sport and seemingly had much to live for. But on February 4 of this year, the action sports racer made news for a very different, tragic reason: He fired a gunshot into his own head.
According to ABC News, Mirra’s autopsy showed that he was suffering from CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, at the time of his death. He is the first action sports player to be diagnosed with this syndrome, which is generally found in contact sports such as football. It is often the chronic outcome of brain concussions, brain bruising, and jarring caused by sudden impacts. Boxers and football players have long been known to suffer from a concussion-related mood disorder, but only recently have doctors discovered how big the problem really is and how many more potential sufferers may be out there.
Dr. Lili-Naz Hazrati, a University of Toronto neuropathologist who examined Mirra’s brain after his death, says it was no different from those of afflicted former football and hockey players she had seen post-mortem.
“I couldn’t tell the difference,” she said.
Mirra was 41 when he died and was 19 when his skull was fractured as the result of being struck by a vehicle. In the years between, he suffered many head traumas as a result of his sport, but nobody linked that with how he was acting the final few weeks of his life, including his wife, who he was married to for nearly 20 years. They have two daughters, ages 8 and 9. Lauren Mirra says there were changes in Mirra’s mood prior to his suicide.
“He was always a really intense person. His intensity just started to increase. For sure last summer, I started to notice changes in his mood. And then it quickly started to get worse. The last couple months before he died were really intense, and then, of course, the last couple weeks were hard. We didn’t know what we were dealing with.”
She also said he had major symptoms that were greatly affecting his ability to live and interact with others in the final days of his life.
“Fatigue, definitely, both physically and emotionally. And forgetfulness, moodiness. He would repeat conversations and topics to the point where it was obvious to the person he was talking to but not to him. He would dwell on a subject and not want to move on from it.”
She went on to say that Dave realized something was wrong. There had been so many emotional changes and challenges involved when he retired from BMX racing in 2011 that he had given thought to coming out of retirement. He even tried his hand at a few other sports but never had the passion for them like BMX racing.
CTE began to get recognition when studies came out showing that many NFL players suffered from it, and it has been indicated in why they have a higher suicide rate than the rest of the general public. The trauma literally causes protein deposits in the frontal lobe of the brain which may affect mood, memory, and may lead to suicidal thoughts. The trauma is also cumulative, and each injury may make CTE worse. While still poorly understood, greater awareness has caused athletes and the general public to change their habits regarding protective head gear and avoiding head injury if at all possible.
Although Mirra died at age 41, his BMX legacy will forever live on. Perhaps something even more important will as well: CTE awareness in sports other than football or boxing. In fact, Dale Earnhardt Jr., a NASCAR driver and son of the late NASCAR icon Dale Earnhardt Sr., says that he will be donating his brain upon his death to the study of CTE. He has had numerous concussions during his NASCAR career.
[Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images]