The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Family of Richmond football player will donate his brain for concussion research

The family of Augustus “Gus” Lee, the University of Richmond football player and Paul VI Catholic High School graduate who died early Tuesday morning, will donate his brain to the Veterans Administration-Boston University-Concussion Legacy Foundation Brain Bank, a repository of more than 650 donations established to study traumatic brain injuries and the neurodegenerative illness chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Lee was found dead in his snow-covered car just off the Richmond campus at 1:35 a.m., on Dec. 11, according to police. The Virginia Office of the Chief Medical Examiner reported the cause of death was suicide by asphyxiation. He was 20 years old.

“I just wonder if something happened,” his mother, Phyllis Lee, said in a phone interview, referencing the potential of a brain injury caused by contact sports. “Because what he did was so out of character for him. It’s like, okay, wow, something has taken over this sweet kid that I never would imagine would do something like this. And that just led me to think if something had taken over him, maybe it’s his own brain that’s working against him.”

The Concussion Legacy Foundation is a nonprofit that advocates for the study and treatment of brain trauma in athletes and other at-risk groups, including veterans. Since 2008, co-founder and chief executive Chris Nowinski has solicited donations of brains for researchers at Boston University to study. That research has contributed to a growing medical consensus that links football to CTE, a link the NFL acknowledged in 2016.

“We sincerely appreciate the contribution to research and we hope the information we’re able to provide is helpful to [Lee’s family],” Nowinski said in a phone interview. “It’s certainly going to be helpful to the athlete community.”

Lee’s mother said her son did not have a history of lingering health problems after concussions, but said he certainly suffered concussions when he was younger, including once in middle school when he was knocked unconscious during a lacrosse game. Doctors did not clear him to return to the field for several months after the injury.

Lee was a redshirt freshman defensive back who mostly played on the Spiders' special teams units. He graduated in 2017 from Paul VI Catholic in Fairfax, where he was a member of the football, lacrosse and track teams.

“He loved being a part of a team,” former Paul VI football coach Joe Sebastian said earlier this week. “He was very driven but in a good way. He wanted to be part of good things, positive things. You could see that when he was playing for Richmond.”

Lee walked on to the Spiders football team after considering Delaware and Cornell, the coach said. He struggled to transition to the school of 4,000-some undergraduates from the small, tight-knit community at Paul VI, his mother said. And even though he played sports all his life — never missing lacrosse in spring and early summer, football in the later summer and fall, and swimming in the summer in the little time that was left over — the football team’s training regimen at Richmond took a toll.

“I could tell his freshman year, he was a little fried,” she said. “Even though he played sports all his life, he was playing football five days a week. He was lifting weights. They have ‘freshman Fridays,’ where they have them waking up at 6 a.m., to work out. He was homesick. I could tell.”

But by spring practice, Lee was seeing results on the field. He switched from wide receiver to defensive back and earned playing time on the kickoff and kick return teams. He had an interception in the spring intrasquad scrimmage and was named the game’s MVP.

Richmond opened the season at Virginia, where Lee’s older brother is a student, and his whole family made the trip to Charlottesville for the game. The cameras for the stadium’s jumbotron zoomed in on Lee during the game’s opening kickoff.

“You could see he was going to be a big-time player,” said Sebastian, who recorded each of Lee’s games and fast-forwarded through the tape to find the special teams plays on which Lee was on the field. “He was such an athlete.”

Midway through the season, Lee came home to his parents' house in Vienna with bronchitis and when he went back to school was not the same, his mother said. The two began speaking on the phone every day, which was unusual for them. Lee told his mother some days he was not eating.

When his mother asked if he was okay, he told her he was fine, just tired. Then days after Thanksgiving, he called home late at night in tears and said he was driving from campus to Vienna.

“He said, ‘I’m so lonely. It’s awful here. I need to come home,’ ” his mother recalled.

He saw a mental health professional the next day, who told Lee’s parents she wanted to set up a neurological screening over winter break. In the meantime, Lee went back to campus with final exams looming.

“He said, ‘I’ve worked so hard, I’m so close. I just want to finish and then I’ll come home,’ ” his mother recalled. On their daily phone calls and in text messages they counted down the days until the end of the semester. His final two exams were scheduled for Dec. 10.

But that day, Lee’s roommate had gone hours without seeing him. He called Lee’s parents, who alerted university police. After midnight Tuesday morning, police from the city of Richmond expanded the search off campus and located Lee in his car an hour later on the 300 block of College Road, a well-trafficked street just off campus.

Augustus Lee is survived by his parents, Phyllis and Chris, and older siblings, Gillian and Jackson. A funeral is planned for Saturday at 2 p.m. at Church of the Holy Comforter in Vienna.