Gifford is now one of the highest profile former NFL players to have suffered from the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive brain deterioration caused by both big hits and a number of smaller repetitive ones. The announcement Wednesday came through NBC News, for which Gifford’s widow, Kathie Lee, works. CTE presently can only be detected by studying brain tissue post mortem. The Gifford family statement said:
After losing our beloved husband and father, Frank Gifford, we as a family made the difficult decision to have his brain studied in hopes of contributing to the advancement of medical research concerning the link between football and traumatic brain injury.While Frank passed away from natural causes this past August at the age of 84, our suspicions that he was suffering from the debilitating effects of head trauma were confirmed when a team of pathologists recently diagnosed his condition as that of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)—a progressive degenerative brain disease.We decided to disclose our loved one’s condition to honor Frank’s legacy of promoting player safety dating back to his involvement in the formation of the NFL Players Association in the 1950s. His entire adult life Frank was a champion for others, but especially for those without the means or platform to have their voices heard. He was a man who loved the National Football League until the day he passed, and one who recognized that it was—and will continue to be—the players who elevated this sport to its singular stature in American society.During the last years of his life Frank dedicated himself to understanding the recent revelations concerning the connection between repetitive head trauma and its associated cognitive and behavioral symptoms—which he experienced firsthand. We miss him every day, now more than ever, but find comfort in knowing that by disclosing his condition we might contribute positively to the ongoing conversation that needs to be had; that he might be an inspiration for others suffering with this disease that needs to be addressed in the present; and that we might be a small part of the solution to an urgent problem concerning anyone involved with football, at any level.The Gifford family will continue to support the National Football League and its recent on-field rule changes and procedures to make the game Frank loved so dearly—and the players he advocated so tirelessly for—as safe as possible.
The news from the Gifford family is yet another high-profile moment for CTE, with the debilitating disease getting an energetic voice in Gifford’s widow. The dangers of repetitive head trauma from playing football and other sports is becoming increasingly known and the highest-profile football player to have died of it is the Hall of Famer Junior Seau, who committed suicide after suffering from depression and other side effects of CTE in 2012.
The news also comes a month before “Concussion,” a movie starring Will Smith as the doctor who discovered the disease, arrives in theaters. Increasingly now, players and their surviving family members are donating their brains to be examined for signs of CTE and Bennet Omalu described for The Post in 2007 what he saw in the brain of former Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster:
When slides were made of the matter, then magnified 200 times, the telltale red flecks of abnormal protein appeared. The proteins appear when the brain is hit, Omalu said, but disappear as the healthy brain cells devour them, leading to recovery. Yet when the brain suffers too many blows, the brain cells can’t keep up with the protein and eventually give up and die, leaving just the red flecks.
“No brain of a 40- or 50-year-old should look like this,” Omalu said. The only people who would have such markings, he added, were boxers, very old people with Alzheimer’s disease or someone who had suffered a severe head wound. Webster was only 50.
There is a good chance that Omalu is the only person who would have thought to check Webster’s brain for punch-drunk syndrome. Since few pathologists are trained as neuropathologists, they never would have seen the textbook pictures of the abnormal proteins that Omalu had observed in medical school.
“Another doctor would have cut up the brain,” Omalu said.
Now, pathologists know exactly what they’re seeing and they’ve spotted it in another Hall of Famer.
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