Excerpt from "Deadly aftershocks. Repetitive head trauma might be cause of brain disease in NFL players."
By MARK KRAM Philadelphia Daily News
BEDFORD, Mass.- What Lisa McHale would like you to know is the way it once was, not the way it ended. Because it is vital to her that you know her husband Tom as she will always remember him - the intelligent, principled, fun-loving man she fell for so long ago back in college. Away from the violence that unfolded each Sunday on the football field, where he played on the offensive line for 9 years in the NFL for the Eagles and two other teams, the 6-4, 290-pound Tom McHale could fill up a room with his presence. Good guy: Loved his wife, doted on his three boys, and remained loyal to his old pals from childhood. Lisa remembers she was"instantaneously crazy about him" and that would never change, even as she now catches herself saying: "I just wish you could have known Tom when he was Tom."
Gradually, he became a stranger to her. In the years that followed his departure from the league in 1995, during which he opened some restaurants and worked in real estate in the Tampa area, McHale began taking OxyContin and other drugs to quell the pain that had settled in his joints. "Physically, he had the body of a far older man," says Lisa, who by 2005 became aware that "something was terribly, terribly wrong." Tom had lapsed into a depression. The man who once embraced life with such energy and enthusiasm became withdrawn socially, what Lisa would later describe as a shell of his old self. He told Lisa he was hooked and entered rehab but he relapsed, again and yet again before Lisa asked him to leave in May 2008; Tom had begun using while the children were in the house. Within a week Tom had died in his sleep from an accidental drug overdose at the apartment of a friend. He was 45.
Chances are it would have ended there as just another sad casualty of addiction were it not for a telephone call Lisa received from Chris Nowinski, the founder of the Sports Legacy Institute and co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at the Boston University School of Medicine. From what he understood of how McHale died, Nowinski suspected that years of repetitive head trauma had left him with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a brain abnormality that renders one susceptible to memory impairment, emotional instability, erratic behavior and problems with impulse control. Nowinski asked Lisa if she would allow the brain of her deceased husband to be analyzed.
And the findings she was later presented with seemed to explain everything.
Tom had an acute case of CTE. According to Dr. Ann McKee, a CSTE co-director and neuropathologist who specializes in degenerative brain disease, McHale exhibited significant pathology in areas of the brain that control inhibitions, impulsivity, insight, judgment, memory, emotional liability and aggressive behavior. While McKee says there is "no direct link" between the damage she discovered and drug dependence, she speculated that McHale was probably experiencing "these weird connections," that he could well have been using drugs not just to feel better physically but also to ease the psychological turbulence that forms in concert with dying brain cells. Lisa remembers that Tom had written in a diary that he was overwhelmed by the continual feeling that he was having a nervous breakdown.
"I had come to grips with the fact that he had died of addiction, but it seemed to me as if something else was going on with him," Lisa says. "He had worked hard in recovery but just did not get any better. The poor man was confused. And then I looked at the slides of his brain tissue and I understood why.
"He was losing his mind. And our minds are who we are."