A new name has been added to the growing list of former National Football League (NFL) players to be diagnosed posthumously with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disease that scientists believe is caused by repeated blows to the head. Researchers from Boston University announced this week that former Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler had CTE.
Stabler, who died last July after a battle with colon cancer, asked to have his brain studied in an effort to help the loved ones he left behind better understand why his mind seemed to deteriorate during his last years. The one-time NFL MVP becomes one of the highest-profile players to be diagnosed with CTE. He joins a growing list of players like Junior Seau, Frank Gifford, and Mike Webster.
Dr. Anne McKee, chief of neuropathology at the V.A. Boston Healthcare System, conducted the examination of Stabler’s brain, finding that the former quarterback had a moderate-severe disease, with widespread legions “affecting many regions of the brain.”
Stabler’s Last Years
After Ken Stabler decided to call it quits on his career as a quarterback, he started working as a broadcast analyst for the NFL and for his alma mater, the University of Alabama. He had to quit broadcasting when his damaged knees became too big of a problem to ignore.
The final few years of his life were when family members started to notice symptoms related to CTE. Stabler’s family said he would often complain of a high-pitched ringing in his head. In one grim instance, he gritted his teeth so bad that he broke a bridge in his mouth and had to get dental implants.
He was also prone to losing his sense of direction, hated being around bright lights and noise, would tell a story then tell the same story again five minutes later…all of which are related to CTE symptoms.
Stabler was aware of and concerned about his mental decline. He told his longtime partner Kim Bush in 2012 that he wanted to participate in a CTE study and donate his brain to science after seeing a former player and friend struggling with cognitive functions. He also added his name to the NFL concussion lawsuit that is still under appeal. Under the terms of the current settlement, Stabler’s family isn’t eligible for compensation because the former quarterback’s CTE diagnosis was after the April 2015 cutoff.
Ken Stabler CTE Diagnosis: No Position in Football is Safe From Head Trauma
The Ken Stabler CTE diagnosis might come as something of a surprise, as quarterbacks are typically more protected from severe hits than any other player on the field, aside from kickers and punters. Over the years, the NFL has legislated stricter rules to better protect those playing arguably the most important position on the field.
Nevertheless, Stabler is the seventh former quarterback in the NFL to be diagnosed with CTE. Boston University has now found CTE in the brains of 90 of 94 former players studied, including former quarterback Earl Morrall and safety Tyler Sash, who were both diagnosed with CTE in recent days. Sash died last September at the young age of 27. Morrall died in 2014 at the age of 79.
Like Stabler, Morrall played the quarterback position at a high clip in the NFL for many years. Drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in 1956, Morrall ended his career after playing 21 seasons for six different teams. Stabler played with three teams for 15 seasons.
The diagnosis of both men suggests that there isn’t any position on the football field (except perhaps kickers and punters) that is immune from the hard hits that can lead to CTE. It doesn’t matter if you are a quarterback or a defensive lineman: if you suit up and play on Sunday, there is a chance that your brain will suffer ill effects later in life. For all the new rules the NFL has in place to protect players and discourage violent helmet-to-helmet collisions, no position on the field will ever be bulletproof.
Another interesting aspect of the Ken Stabler CTE diagnosis: According to researchers, there could be a correlation between the length of one’s career in the NFL and the severity of CTE.
“The longer they play, the more severe we see it,” says Dr. McKee. “But it’s also the years since retirement, to the age of death—not only the longer you play but the longer you live after you stop playing.”
Perhaps the most telling part of this story comes from Stabler’s daughter, Kendra Stabler Moyles, who has two sons that play high school football. Moyles told the New York Times that her father would often worry about his two grandsons sustaining concussions. When one of the boys was questioning whether or not to play football anymore, Stabler was excited. He remarked that the boy could focus on his studies, a sign that perhaps the former quarterback had become hesitant about the safety of the game he spent so many years playing.
After feeling the deleterious effects of the sport firsthand, who could blame him?