Former Atlanta Falcons safety Ray Easterling, who helped lead the team’s vaunted defense in the 1970s and later joined a high-profile lawsuit against the National Football League targeting its handling of concussion-related injuries, died April 19 at his home in Richmond. He was 62.
Richmond police Capt. Yvonne Crowder told FoxSports.com that the cause was a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Mr. Easterling played for the Falcons from 1972 to 1979, helping to lead the team’s “Grits Blitz” defense in 1977, which set the NFL record for fewest points allowed in a season.
After his playing days, Mr. Easterling started to suffer the consequences of the years of bruising hits, his wife, Mary Ann Easterling, said. He suffered from depression, insomnia and dementia.
He was part of a group of seven former players who sued the NFL in Philadelphia in August, claiming that the league failed to properly treat players for concussions and tried for decades to conceal any links between football and brain injuries.
The NFL has said any allegation that the league intentionally sought to mislead players is without merit.
Mr. Easterling was born Sept. 3, 1949, in Richmond, and played football at the University of Richmond. He was drafted by the Falcons with the ninth-round pick in 1972 and played for seven years, starting for four seasons. He was a leader of the secondary that established a team record in 1977 with 26 interceptions. The defense that year set the NFL record at the time for allowing just 129 points in a season.
“He was one of the hardest working football players, most disciplined football players I’ve ever played with,” said Greg Brezina, a friend and former Falcons teammate.
After his playing days ended, Mr. Easterling returned to Richmond, where he ran a financial services company and started a youth football camp. He started showing signs of brain damage about 20 years ago, his wife and friends said.
“He just wasn’t thinking right,” said Brezina. “He’d start talking to you about one topic, and then he’d end up in another topic, and he wouldn’t know how he got there.”
Mr. Easterling’s wife said she will fight to continue the lawsuit and will urge the league to establish a fund for players who suffered traumatic brain injuries from their playing days.
“Somehow this has got to be stopped,” she said. “It’s destroying people’s lives.”