Bruce Murray spent years heading the ball. He worries it took a toll.

The American soccer star, now in his 50s, is dealing with dementia and suspected chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

Bruce Murray is among the former athletes likely to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. (Eric Lee for The Washington Post)
Bruce Murray is among the former athletes likely to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. (Eric Lee for The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

Bruce Murray remembers every micro detail from the 1990 World Cup: scoring a goal, assisting on another and, with a band of former college stars leading the U.S. national team, helping put a mighty scare into Italy.

He recounts learning the game on the fields of Bretton Woods Recreation Center in Germantown, where his father, Gordon, was the golf pro.

Other memories from a lifetime in soccer remain vivid: winning two NCAA trophies with Clemson, sitting next to track star Florence Griffith Joyner on the flight to the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics and being inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame.

In recent years, though, Murray has forgotten to turn off the ignition of his car before entering his Potomac townhouse. He has had to remind himself that his two young children were in the back seat.

A light drinker, he has gone on benders. He has checked himself in at a hotel for no apparent reason.

He lost his balance on a run along the C&O Canal, tumbling into a tree and rolling into the water.

At 56, Murray is among the former athletes likely to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disease found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma.

CTE cannot be diagnosed until death, when brain tissue is analyzed. Robert Stern, a doctor who has evaluated Murray’s test results, said the former forward and midfielder has “mild dementia,” which is unusual in someone his age.

From the archives: Doctors provide consensus symptoms of CTE among living, a major step for researchers

Stern, the director of clinical research for Boston University’s CTE Center, also said Murray’s “cognitive impairment and behavioral difficulties” were in line with what is seen in patients who are diagnosed with CTE after death.

Murray is involved with the Concussion Legacy Foundation (CLF), a Boston nonprofit that funds and supports brain injury research and has elevated CTE into the sports conversation. Since it was launched in 2007, more than 1,000 people have pledged to donate their brain for research. Murray and his wife, Lynn, who has never suffered a brain injury, are among them.

“We don’t know what the timetable is,” Murray said, “and how fast this is going to speed up.”

Medication and information have improved quality of life, but there’s still the great unknown.

“We’ve come a long way,” Lynn Murray said, fighting back tears. “Things are much better now, but we just don’t know.”

They’ve decided to tell their story to raise awareness of brain injuries. They also want to warn about the possible dangers of heading the ball, something Murray believes contributed to his condition.

During his pro career — which spanned from 1988 to 1995 and included 85 appearances with the national team — Murray was diagnosed with at least four concussions, he said. In those days, though, head injuries of all kinds were not taken as seriously as they are now. Had those lesser blows — with the ball and with opponents — occurred today, he believes he would’ve been sidelined many more times.

“As a parent, if I knew somebody like me who had done a ton of heading and is now going through this, maybe there’s a cause and effect here,” he said, emphasizing the impact heading could have on young players.

“Developing brains,” he added, “have no business heading the ball.”

The Murrays shared their story with The Washington Post as additional information about brain injuries in soccer has come to light.

Last week, the Concussion Legacy Foundation and the family of Scott Vermillion — a former University of Virginia defender who ended a four-year pro career in 2001 with D.C. United — announced he had CTE when he died in December 2020 of acute alcohol and prescription drug poisoning. He was 44.

From the archives: More football leads to worse CTE, scientists say. Consider NFL great Willie Wood.

In his late 20s, Vermillion began dealing with impulse control issues, aggression, depression and anxiety, the foundation said. Later, it said, he struggled with substance abuse and memory loss.

His is the first documented case of CTE in MLS, but former soccer players overseas have been found to have had CTE as well.

“As more information and more tools to study this came out, we knew soccer around the world was going to have a part in this conversation,” said former MLS star Taylor Twellman, whose career was ended by concussions and who started a foundation focused on head injuries.

“It’s only going to become bigger,” the ESPN analyst said, “because we have more information than we did 20 years ago.”

‘I just wandered around’

Murray was one of the greatest players to come from the soccer-rich Washington area. In the early 1980s, he starred at Churchill High in Potomac and won two national club championships.

At Clemson, he won NCAA titles as a freshman and a senior, and in that last year, he received the college game’s most prestigious award, the Hermann Trophy.

In the gap between the North American Soccer League’s extinction in 1985 and MLS’s launch in 1996, Murray played for the Washington Stars and Maryland Bays in the low-budget American Soccer League. His overseas career featured stints with Luzern in Switzerland, Millwall and Stockport County in England, and Ayr United in Scotland.

He also ascended to the national team. A year after participating in the 1988 Olympics in South Korea, a core group that also featured John Harkes, Tab Ramos and Paul Caligiuri helped end a 40-year U.S. World Cup drought by qualifying for the 1990 tournament. In the group stage, Murray scored in a 2-1 defeat to Austria.

Head injuries, however, began to mount. The worst episode came in 1993 during a friendly in Saudi Arabia when, in the first minute, a defender’s knee crashed into his head.

The next thing he remembered, he was in Los Angeles being examined by the team doctor. “Everything in between was gone,” Murray said. A month later, he was back on the field.

That summer, he joined Millwall in England’s rough-and-tumble second flight. Another concussion left him in a fog.

“I remember going to the store and didn’t know why I was there,” he said. “I just wandered around.”

He said he was reminded of that episode six years ago when he read about D.C. United’s Chris Rolfe experiencing the same thing while dealing with a brain injury.

Despite getting “dinged” again at Millwall, Murray said he accepted a starting assignment the next match.

“I thought, ‘I don’t even know who I am right now,’ but I couldn’t give up my place,” Murray said. At halftime, he was replaced because he “wasn’t right.” He didn’t play again for months.

Five years earlier, when he played in Switzerland, players were punished by having to head punted balls for two hours, he said.

The combination of injuries and roster changes ended his national team career before the 1994 World Cup in the United States. At the time, he was the program’s all-time leading scorer with 21 goals.

‘Everything becomes overwhelming’

Since retiring in 1995, Murray has remained involved in soccer as a coach and, for a spell, United’s TV color commentator. He launched a soccer academy, which operates at Bretton Woods, and coaches a semipro team, Rockville SC.

“Interestingly, with soccer, he does fine” managing his condition, Lynn said.

But Murray conceded: “I can talk a good game, but everything becomes overwhelming. I can do everything in my head, but now I have to really attack something slowly.”

Physically, he added, “I don’t have that muscle memory of where I need to be going with the next step.”

Lynn, who has been married to Bruce for 10 years, always knew her husband had some memory issues. She became alarmed when he began drinking heavily, which was “out of character for him,” she said. “He could go a year without a sip.”

“A situation where he is facing a problem, maybe an emotional issue,” she added, “then he feels like he can’t process it.”

Anger issues also surfaced — common among people with dementia and suspected CTE.

“It was like he was a different person,” Lynn said. “Those were dark times.”

Bruce interjected: “It’s like the Incredible Hulk. I have to throttle it.”

It took the couple years to find people who understood what they were going through. Lynn connected with Brandi Winans and Lisa McHale, whose husbands, former NFL players, died after suffering from neurological problems. Lisa McHale is the CLF’s director of legacy family relations.

“That’s when I realized someone knew what I was talking about — finally,” Lynn said.

“If I didn’t have an advocate to fight for me,” Bruce said, “I could have never found the right people.”

Consultations and MRI exams followed. The result was “the worst-case scenario,” Lynn said. “It’s like we knew, but it was the answer we were looking for.”

Said Bruce, “But now there are more questions.”

As they manage their lives with Bruce’s brain injuries, the Murrays are passionate about educating parents about the dangers of heading the ball.

A 2016 British study suggested routine heading of the ball can cause damage to brain structure and function. That same year, the U.S. Soccer Federation banned heading by children 10 and under in organized competition and limited the amount of heading by 11-, 12- and 13-year-olds in practice.

Britain implemented similar guidelines in 2020 following a study that showed former pro players were at greater risk of dying from brain disease.

Murray hopes sharing his experience will help others.

“Because of the steps we are taking, we have come out of this okay,” he said. “But we don’t know where it’s going to go down the road.”

Loading...
Loading...