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Autopsy of former NFL player who killed six people shows he had CTE

An autopsy revealed that Phillip Adams, shown during his NFL career with the San Francisco 49ers, had Stage 2 chronic traumatic encephalopathy. (Tom Gannam/AP)

The brain of Phillip Adams, the former NFL player who killed six people in April before fatally shooting himself, showed signs of severe chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the director of the Boston University CTE Center announced Tuesday.

Neuropathologist Ann McKee said in a statement released by the Concussion Legacy Foundation that an examination of Adams’s brain revealed he had Stage 2 CTE, with Stage 4 being the most severe stage of the degenerative brain disease caused by repetitive impacts to the head.

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McKee said that among the NFL players who died in their 20s and 30s whose brains her center has studied, most had Stage 2 CTE, which is associated with “progressive cognitive and behavioral abnormalities.” McKee noted, however, that Adams showed signs of unusually severe CTE in both frontal lobes, similar to former NFL player Aaron Hernandez, who died by suicide in 2017 while serving a life sentence for murder.

“Phillip Adams had an extraordinary amount of CTE pathology in the frontal lobe, the area of the brain behind the forehead,” McKee said. “Frontal lobe damage is associated with violent, impulsive or explosive behavior, a ‘short fuse,’ and lack of self-control. His CTE pathology might have contributed to his abnormal behaviors, in addition to other physical, psychiatric and psychosocial factors.”

On April 7, Adams, 32, killed six people in his hometown of Rock Hill, S.C. The victims included four members of what authorities described as a “very prominent and very well-known” family in the Rock Hill community: Robert Lesslie, a 70-year-old doctor; his wife, Barbara Lesslie, 69; and two grandchildren, Adah, 9, and Noah, 5. Two HVAC technicians who were working on the Lesslies’ home — James Lewis and Robert Shook, both 38 — were also killed.

In the wake of the killings, authorities did not reveal a motive or a connection between Adams and the victims.

“As we process these results, we are deeply saddened by the events that occurred on April 7 and we continue to pray for the families of the victims,” Adams’s family said in Tuesday’s statement. “We are pleased to have a better understanding of the mental turmoil that Phillip was dealing with during the last moments of his life. We cannot say that we are surprised by these results, however it is shocking to hear how severe his condition was.”

Adams, a seventh-round draft pick by the San Francisco 49ers out of South Carolina State in 2010, played in 78 NFL games for six teams over six seasons as a defensive back.

CTE, which can only be diagnosed at autopsy, has been found in former football players, members of the military, boxers and others who have been subjected to repeated head trauma. A 2017 study by the BU center found signs of the debilitating disease in 110 of 111 NFL players whose brains were autopsied, and another study suggested long-term emotional and cognitive disability weren’t just tied to the number and severity of collisions but also to the age at which those collisions began. Adams had played football since he was 7 years old.

Scott Casterline, Adams’s former agent, said in the spring that Adams did not participate in the physical and mental health programs the NFL offers to former players after his playing career ended. Casterline and others saw signs of Adams’s deterioration, even though Adams did his best to conceal it.

“You don’t show pain. You don’t show your emotions. He just wouldn’t do it,” Casterline said then. “He’s from a football city, got an old-school dad; he’s not going to call anybody and say, ‘Hey, I’m hurt.’ That just wasn’t his nature.”

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