20 More NFL Stars to Donate Brains to Research

John Mackey, Hunter Hillenmeyer, Mike Haynes, Zach Thomas, Kyle Turley to Donate

The Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE) at Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) announced today that one active and 18 retired National Football League (NFL) players have pledged to join the rapidly growing CSTE Brain Donation Registry. The newest donors are current Chicago Bears linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer, Hall of Famer Mike Haynes, Pro Bowlers Zach Thomas, Kyle Turley, and Conrad Dobler, NFL Players Association (NFLPA) Senior Regional Director Jason Belser, Super Bowl Champion Don Hasselbeck, Keith Krepfle, and Jack Thompson. In addition, Sylvia Mackey, wife of John Mackey, the Hall of Fame Baltimore Colts tight end suffering from dementia, has pledged to donate Mr. Mackey’s brain upon death.

These NFL players have decided to donate their brain and spinal cord tissue to the CSTE upon death so that researchers can better understand the effects of repeated head trauma on the nervous system and develop strategies for prevention, treatment, and ultimately, a cure. They join a growing list of active players, players such as Matt Birk of the Baltimore Ravens, Lofa Tatupu of the Seattle Seahawks; and Sean Morey of the Arizona Cardinals, and NFL retirees, including Ted Johnson, Joe DeLamielleure, Bruce Laird, Ben Lynch, Brent Boyd, and Bernie Parrish. These players are among the more than 250 current and former athletes, including 60 retired NFL players, in the CSTE Brain Donation Registry.

“The only way we will truly understand the long-term effects of repetitive head trauma in football is to study a large group of athletes throughout their lives and then examine their brains following death. These athletes who are participating in this research are to be commended for their commitment and courage,” stated Dr. Robert Stern, co-director of the CSTE.

Brain trauma in sports is increasingly seen as a public health crisis due to the discovery of a neurodegenerative disease called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in a number of recently deceased athletes. CSTE co-director and degenerative brain disease expert Dr. Ann McKee identified CTE in all twelve of former college and NFL players’ brains she studied, including Hall of Famer Lou Creekmur, Wally Hillgenberg, Tom McHale, and John Grimsley. McKee also identified CTE in the only former NHL player examined, Mr. Reggie Fleming.

CTE, originally referred to as “dementia pugilistica” because it was believed to only affect boxers, is a progressive brain disease caused by repetitive trauma to the brain, including concussions and subconcussive blows to the head. It is characterized by the build-up of a toxic protein called tau in the form of neurofibrillary tangles (NFTs) and neuropil threads (NTs) throughout the brain. The abnormal protein initially impairs the normal functioning of the brain and eventually kills brain cells. Early on, CTE sufferers may display clinical symptoms such as memory impairment, emotional instability, erratic behavior, depression and problems with impulse control. However, CTE eventually progresses to full-blown dementia. Although similar to Alzheimer’s disease, CTE is an entirely distinct disease, and it is the only fully preventable cause of dementia. McKee and her colleagues published their research findings on CTE in athletes in the July issue of the Journal of Neuropathology and Experimental Neurology.

The CSTE’s groundbreaking research created a dramatic change in the understanding of and response to brain trauma and concussions in all sports, but especially football. The research contributed to the House Judiciary Committee holding two hearings on head injuries in the NFL in recent months, and CSTE Co-Directors McKee, Dr. Robert Cantu, and Chris Nowinski were invited to testify. Mr. Nowinski recruited many of the donors through the non-profit Sports Legacy Institute, a sports concussion educational and advocacy organization and partner in the BU CSTE. Since then, the NFL has made multiple changes to the way concussions are managed, including requiring an independent neurological specialist to determine when a concussed athlete can return to play, mandating that any player who has symptoms of a concussion not return to play the same day, accepting the resignations of the co-chairs of the NFL Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) Committee, running public service announcements during NFL games about the danger of concussions, and pledging to support the ongoing research at the BU CSTE.

The NFLPA has pledged to support the CSTE’s research and encourages players to participate. On January 26, the NFLPA held the first meeting of the Mackey/White TBI Committee, which includes CSTE co-directors Cantu, McKee, and Nowinski, and is chaired by CSTE registry member Sean Morey.

The NFLPA Mackey/White Committee was named in honor of John Mackey, a former president of the NFLPA, and Reggie White. It was Sylvia Mackey’s advocacy on her husband’s behalf that led to the NFL’s creation of the “88 Plan”, which has provided over $7 million dollars for care of former NFL players with dementia, and is named after John Mackey’s number 88. Over 100 NFL families have benefitted from this program. Mrs. Mackey said, “It is probably too late for this research to help John, as his dementia has advanced to the point that he cannot speak. However, I hope the CSTE scientists can learn from John so that fewer football families are exposed to this terrible disease.”

Dr. Cantu, a leading sports concussion expert and clinical professor of neurosurgery at BUSM, said, “We are thankful to Mrs. Mackey for her support of our research and for her years of advocacy for the countless retired athletes who suffer from brain diseases like her husband. Because of her support of our research, and because of the growing number of athletes participating in our brain donation registry, we will be able to determine the specific risk factors for CTE and potentially develop effective treatments. The research will foster education and allow meaningful guidelines to be implemented at all levels of athletic participation.”

Chicago Bears linebacker Hillenmeyer said of his decision to donate his brain following death, “I owe it to my fellow active players, the players who came before us, and the millions of college, high school, and youth athletes. It is critical to support this research so we can make sure we truly understand the potential long term risks associated with brain injuries in the NFL and football at all levels.”

Former Miami Dolphins stalwart middle linebacker Zach Thomas stated, “I would like to make sure the game of football survives. The scientific findings to date are clear that repetitive trauma to the head results in CTE in many athletes. I want to do my part to help the researchers understand this disease and to discover treatments and an eventual cure. This is not just about professional athletes who may know there are risks to the game. This is about making sure that the game is safe for all of those children playing the game today and in the future.”

The CSTE was created in 2008 as a collaborative venture between Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) and Sports Legacy Institute (SLI). The mission of the CSTE is to conduct state-of-the-art research of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, including its neuropathology and pathogenesis, the clinical presentation and course, the genetics and other risk factors for CTE, and ways of preventing and treating this cause of dementia.

Sports Legacy Institute is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation founded in 2007 to solve the sports concussion crisis. SLI is dedicated to education, prevention, treatment, and research on the effects of concussions and other brain injuries in athletes and the military. SLI partnered with Boston University School of Medicine to form the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy in 2008.

Following is a list of player profiles for the new members of the CSTE registry:

Billy Ray Smith, Jr. played his entire career as a linebacker with the San Diego Chargers. He was the 1987 Chargers MVP, a Second Team All-AFC selection in 1986 and 1987, and was named to the All-NFL Second team in 1989. Mr. Smith attended the University of Arkansas.

Charles Kirby, a running back, split his time in the NFL between the Indianapolis Colts and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He attended the University of Virginia.

Conrad F. Dobler played for the St. Louis Cardinals, New Orleans Saints, and Buffalo Bills over the course of his NFL Career. An offensive lineman, he went to the pro bowl three consecutive years from 1975-1977. He was a fifth round draft pick out of the University of Wyoming.

Council Rudolph Jr. played in the NFL as a defensive end for six seasons with the Houston Oilers, St. Louis Cardinals, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He attended Kentucky State University.

David F. Long played seven NFL seasons, the first 3 with the then Saint Louis Cardinals, and the final four with the New Orleans Saints. A defensive lineman, he was drafted in the third round of the 1966 Draft out of the University of Iowa.

Don Hasselbeck played nine seasons in the NFL as a tight end, spending the first six with the New England Patriots. He then played for the Los Angeles Raiders, the Minnesota Vikings, and the New York Giants. He is the father of Seattle Seahawks starting quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and ESPN Analyst and former NFL quarterback Tim Hasselbeck. He was selected in the second round of the 1977 NFL Draft out of the University of Colorado.

Earl Edwards played defensive tackle for the San Francisco 49ers, Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns, and Green Bay Packers over eleven seasons in the NFL. He was the runner-up for NFL Rookie of the Year in 1969. He is a member of the Tampa Sports Hall of Fame. He was drafted in the fifth round of the 1969 NFL Draft out of Wichita State University.

Eric Hipple played his entire nine-year NFL career with the Detroit Lions. A quarterback, Hipple was drafted in the fourth round of the 1980 NFL Draft out of Utah State University and now works with the University of Michigan Depression Center.

Hunter Hillenmeyer is currently a starting linebacker for the Chicago Bears. He was originally selected by the Green Bay Packers in the fifth round of the 2003 NFL Draft out of Vanderbilt University.

Jack Thompson played for the Cincinnati Bengals and Tampa Bay Buccaneers during his playing career which spanned from 1979-1984. He was selected in the first round of the 1979 NFL Draft out of Washington State University.

Jason Belser played his ten-year career as a defensive back for the Indianapolis Colts (1992-2000) and Kansas City Chiefs (2001-2002). He is currently a Senior Regional Director for the NFL Players Association. He was drafted in the eighth round of the 1992 NFL Draft out of the University of Oklahoma.

Jim Kalafat was a member of the 1987 Los Angeles Rams as a linebacker. He attended Montana State University.

John Mackey played ten years at tight end for the Baltimore Colts and San Diego Chargers. Mr. Mackey was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1992. Mr. Mackey now suffers from dementia and was the inspiration for the NFL Players Association’s “88 plan” which provides financial support for ex-players with dementia. Mackey was drafted in the second round of the NFL Draft out of Syracuse University.

Keith Krepfle was a tight end with the Philadelphia Eagles and Atlanta Falcons during his either-year NFL career and served as captain of the Eagles. He also played for one season in the World Football League prior to his NFL career. He attended Iowa State University.

Kyle Turley played for the New Orleans Saints, Saint Louis Rams, and Kansas City Chiefs as an offensive lineman before retiring after the 2007 NFL season. He was a First-Team All-Pro Selection in 2000, and a Second-Team All-Pro selection in 2003. He was a first round draft pick out of San Diego State University.

Lofa Tatupu entered the NFL in 2005 and has played his entire career with the Seattle Seahawks. He was selected to the Pro Bowl in 2005, 2006, and 2007, and was an All-Pro selection in 2007. He was selected in the second round of the 2005 NFL Draft out of the University of Southern California.

Matt Birk entered the NFL as a sixth-round pick in 1998 by the Minnesota Vikings. He is a two-time All-Pro and six-time Pro Bowl Selection. He played for the Minnesota Vikings from 1998 to 2008 and for the Baltimore Ravens in 2009. He was selected in the sixth round of the 1998 NFL Draft out of Harvard University.

Mike Haynes is a Hall of Fame cornerback, having split his career between the New England Patriots and the then-Los Angeles Raiders. He was the 1976 NFL Defensive Rookie to the Year. He was named to nine Pro-bowls in his 13 year career, and was named to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary All-Time Team and the 1980s All-Decade Team. He was the fifth pick in the 1976 NFL Draft out of Arizona State University.

Scott E. Perry played four seasons in the NFL as a defensive back with the Cincinnati Bengals, San Francisco 49ers, and San Diego Chargers. He was drafted in the 5th round of the 1976 NFL Draft out of Williams College.

Sean Morey has played with the New England Patriots, Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Arizona Cardinals of the course of his NFL career. He was selected to the Pro Bowl in 2008, and was a member of the Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XL. He was selected in the seventh round of the 1999 NFL Draft out of Brown University.

Tony Davis played in the NFL as a running back from 1976-1981 as a member of the Cincinnati Bengals and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He was the Cincinnati Bengals team MVP for the 1977 season. He was selected in the fourth round of the 1976 NFL Draft out of the University of Nebraska.

Zach Thomas was selected to seven Pro-Bowls and seven All-Pro teams over the course of his career as a middle linebacker for the Miami Dolphins, where he had over 1,700 tackles. He played his final season for the Dallas Cowboys. He was drafted in the fifth round of the 1996 NFL Draft out of Texas Tech University.