The Faces of CTE
This podcast interviews many families who have lost loved ones to CTE:
Ryan Hoffman, July 15, 1974 – November 16, 2015
Zac Easter, June 2, 1991 – December 19, 2015
Scott Ross, December 7, 1968 – September 21, 2014
The Kia was parked at a church on East Broussard Road in Lafayette, La. The coroners thought Ross had been there for seven to 10 days. The official cause of death was extreme hypertension with alcohol poisoning.
What it really was, was football.
Officially, Ross died Sept. 21. When his body was discovered, 3 1/2 hours to the west, Marshall and Janie Ross were sitting on their back patio, having dinner.
Scott was their son. He was 45, a former USC linebacker and a Pac-10 defensive Player of the Year. His decline had preoccupied their golden years.
The Rosses lived at the end of a cul-de-sac in a golf community near Lake Conroe, northwest of Houston. As they sat at the dinner table, they saw the policeman coming through the gate. They were more shocked than surprised.
“We had discussed it many times,” Marshall Ross said months later, one gloomy Sunday as he and Janie sat in their living room. The Packers and Cowboys were playing on millions of TVs across America, but not theirs.
“You’re rolling the dice. One of these days, we were going to get a knock at the door,” said Marshall, he and Janie aware of their son’s eventual fate.
“He couldn’t exist in this world,” Janie said.
THOSE LEFT BEHIND
The story of a football player felled by years of brain trauma caused by his own game is not new. The downfall of Ross’ former USC teammate, Junior Seau, as well as Dave Duerson, Mike Webster and other NFL greats, is well-known.
But the collateral damage to those left behind, particularly the parents, also piles up. Each day it lives within the walls of the house by the lake.
Scott Ross was funny and magnetic, the life of all parties. His was the loudest voice on three Rose Bowl teams. When he met Laura Fitzgerald, his last girlfriend, he asked her to watch a movie with him. It was “North Dallas Forty,” adapted from Pete Gent’s book about carousing football players and their extreme ambivalence about their game. That, Ross told her, was his story.
At the end, he was depressed and violent and slept almost around the clock, his parents said.
He was misdiagnosed. He was accepted at mental health facilities and turned away. He lost two marriages. He was drowned in a cascade of pain medication and alcohol.
And, in one of his final expeditions before he died, he volunteered to help disabled young men at a Louisiana church, took them hunting and fishing, took pictures that Marshall still has on his phone.
“Fifty or 60 guys with smiles, sitting in wheelchairs, some without arms or legs,” Marshall said.
At one point, the Rosses could recognize their son, could hear his laughs and feel his warmth 80 percent of the time. The bleakness slowly usurped the cheer.
• Whicker: Service pays tribute to Ross
When Scott Ross rose, he brought a lot of people with him. The same thing happened when he fell.
His memorial service was in October at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest. Marshall Ross hid a lot of scars that day. Part of the USC band was there, and he said that Scott loved that band, once trading a football helmet for a band helmet. Teammates and friends described Scott’s mischief and passion, the way he would fight them on the practice field and hug them on the way to the locker room.
Todd Marinovich, the quarterback who has journeyed to, and returned from, his own inferno, also talked of Ross’ inspiration.
He also said, “We’re just serving our youth up for brain damage.”
• Wolf: “First time I saw Ross…”
Ross was drafted in the seventh round by the New Orleans Saints and signed for $10,000. He played on special teams and lasted only one year. He got his degree at USC and was married with a son. The marriage dissolved, angrily, and the Rosses, unaware of any problems, sided with Scott.
“But Raynell (Scott’s wife) did watch a special on Junior Seau and noticed that Seau would wear this blackout shades in the house,” Marshall said. “Scott wore them, too. That was the first indicator.”
Scott met and married Marla Works, and they had a daughter, Caroline. They and Scott’s parents moved to Texas.
“His in-laws wanted us here, badly,” Janie said. “We didn’t know why.”
Scott’s days of rage became more frequent. He had a degenerative hip problem and was taking highly addictive painkillers, and he was also diagnosed as bipolar, which required more medication. He had jobs, including a good one with 3M, and lost them. Finally that marriage ended, too.
After 10 years of trauma, the Rosses took Scott to Dr. Frank Adams, a retired neurotherapist who asked Scott if he had the results of his brain scan.
“I never had one,” Scott said.
That surprised Adams, who performed one. It showed frontal lobe dementia. His opinion was that it came from repetitive head contact.
“Psychiatrists use ‘bipolar’ as the flavor of the month,” Adams said. “I can say that because I was a psychiatrist. This was an extreme case. Dementia is a progressive disease that will eventually kill you.”
“That threw Scott into a tailspin,” Janie said. “He would say, ‘I’m sick, my brain’s not right.’ It got worse.”
At times Marshall would see Scott sitting on a curb, crying. At one point he had to break into Scott’s apartment and get him off the floor.
A psychiatric hospital in Conroe decided it wouldn’t deal with him. The parents finally brought him to their house, to the rooms upstairs for two years. That didn’t work either.
“He would tell me, ‘I don’t know what happens,’” Marshall said. “‘It’s like a dark cloud that’s coming. There’s pure evil going on in my head. I have to take a drink or a pill to stop it.’”
“He would be awake all night long,” Janie said. “He lived for that cellphone, would spend hours talking to his friends. Things would change quickly. One day USC was playing football on TV and he watched, seemed so happy. He was wound up, pacing the floor, yelling. First time we’d seen him happy in a long time. But then he would go berserk.
“We were afraid physically,” Janie said. “I told people that Scott would never hit us. … once he got me in a headlock. It scared the daylights out of me. There were nights I had to spend with my girlfriend. We had to ask him to leave.”
Adams told them, “This is killing you guys. You have to be prepared for the consequences. The best place for him is in prison.”
Ross thought the best place was Southern California. He found Laura Fitzgerald there, and he still had his high school and USC friends. There was the night he found himself on the roof of an apartment building, trying to get in. There was another night he was wearing only a raincoat, driving a tractor in the rain in San Luis Obispo.
“He thought it was funny,” Janie said. “But he didn’t remember any of that. He didn’t remember getting physical with me.”
Fitzgerald might have braved the most intense storms. She said she could almost see the dementia in his eyes, in the “squishy” feeling in the back of his head. She said his hip problems were real and severe, but so was the drinking.
She had always told him she wanted yellow diamonds someday. The day came when Ross presented her with a ring with those diamonds. He had sold his own football possessions and memorabilia to buy it. She cries every day, she said, over the thought of Ross’ passing, but she also knows how difficult it would have been to accept his marriage proposals.
“He was sweet and charming and quirky and kinda out there,” Fitzgerald said. “He was my soulmate.”
Echoed Adams: “I can’t emphasize enough how charming Scott could be.”
No real help
The NFL has a Plan 88 for dementia victims, named for the number that Baltimore tight end John Mackey wore. It provides $88,000 a year for those who are institutionalized. The catch for Scott Ross is that it only works for players who were in the NFL for three seasons.
The NFL did pay for Ross’ 30 days at the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage. He got a grant from the Rosey Grier Foundation to stay in a Florida facility for 90 days. The Rosses speak warmly of Dana Lihan of the NFL, who got Ross housing for two different three-month periods.
But when the time ran out, Ross still needed help.
Ross had an appointment with Dr. Serggio Lanata, a clinical instructor at UC San Francisco. Lanata called Marshall and said Scott had called him, saying he was unable to follow his directions to the facility.
The NFL Players Association got Ross a grant to live in a facility in Louisiana, near ex-wife Marla and daughter Caroline. Marshall and Janie didn’t hear from him anymore, not until the policemen came.
CHANGING THE GAME
Bob DeMars is a producer/director and a former USC defensive lineman. His upcoming film, “The Business of Amateurs,” gives voice to the college athletics reform movement. Northwestern’s football players have voted to unionize, the Pac-12 has guaranteed scholarships for four years instead of one, and the NCAA is introducing “cost of attendance” payments for athletes.
DeMars was Scott Ross’ friend as well. He calls him a “kaleidoscope,” a lot of jagged, mismatched pieces forming a vivid whole. He has joined Ramogi Huma’s National College Players Association to try to remove football’s unnecessary risks. One way, he says, would be to curtail in-season contact to one day per week. Even the NFL’s “hitting” rules are more restrictive than college rules.
Adrian Arrington, a former player at Eastern Illinois, began a class-action suit against the NCAA and his group won an $80 million settlement. Arrington rejected that settlement and fired his lawyer, and Huma called it a case of “players getting sold out for $15 million in legal fees, and the NCAA couldn’t be happier.”
In April, a judge approved a potential $1 billion settlement to resolve thousands of NFL concussion lawsuits filed by former players.
Janie Ross has joined a group called Mothers Against Concussions. She, Marla and Caroline have been in therapy.
“I’m the only stubborn one that hasn’t been,” Marshall said in an email. Anger and guilt form concentric circles, all because a talented son threw himself headfirst into a game he loved.
Ideally Ross’ brain would be another marker on the road to reform, but there was too much alcohol and built-up heat for those tissues to survive.
Janie does not watch football anymore. Marshall does, with ambivalence.
“I get so upset even with friends,” he said. “Football fanatics talk about the NFL concussion lawsuit. They call the players crybabies who bit the hand that fed them.”
Janie sat nearby. Soft, instrumental music came out of the TV, the Packers and Cowboys hidden deep inside.
“There are more warning labels on a tube of toothpaste,” she said, “than on an NFL contract. They need to do something about that.”
For 10 years, Greg Ploetz battled CTE, the degenerative dementia caused by brain damage from playing football. He was an artist, loving husband and father, teacher for 40 years… All that was taken from him and his family too soon by CTE. This short documentary tells of his journey, and seeks to educate others about the horrible price he paid long after playing college football.
Vincent Cournoyer- January 12, 1972 – March 26, 1994
This is the story of my brother, Vincent Cournoyer. I wrote it as much for myself as to add to the witness of this disaster that is CTE and youth football. I wish I could add photos here –he was so handsome!– but alas, it is not an option. Thank you for reading.
My brother Vincent was born on January 12th 1972. He was an incredibly talented artist, nature-lover, and avid fisherman; handsome, sentimental, intelligent, tall and strong. Ever so the “all-boy” type, he started playing football at age twelve on a suburban neighborhood team. Since he was much bigger than the average player, he was often used as “the ram”, plowing into other players, head down, over and over again. He was praised for his toughness and endurance. He suffered a few visible concussions, and was sent right back to playing, since he was so essential to winning the game. He played until he was 18, and after a year on the junior college team, he left the sport because of multiple physical injuries and the fact that he disliked the culture and increased level of violence involved at that level. He continued his studies to become an architectural technician.
At 18, he had already been struggling with increasing depression for some time. There had been many major changes in his life: his parents’ divorce, a move to the city, family challenges. After consulting following emotional and social difficulties, he was diagnosed with chronic depression and started therapy. Over the next years, he read just about every psychology and psychoanalysis book out there to figure out how to crawl out of this hole. He reached out to an Emotions Anonymous group. He sought solace in nature, exercise, music, and in friends, as much as he could… But it became increasingly difficult for people to be around him for he was becoming darker and started experiencing bouts of extreme anger and odd and frightening behavior. With his worsening condition and seeing him progressively retreating into himself, his therapist had prescribed antidepressants. In those days, in Québec, the medication prescribed was not fine-tuned to adolescents, neither was it progressively introduced, thence his treatment left him dazed and confused, and feeling like a zombie. In his twenties, he lived with my mother, now divorced, since it had become evident that he was not able to live on his own, or work, and we had started fearing for his welfare when he was away. This was an incredibly difficult time for all that loved him, but no one had it harder than my mother, as both she and my brother tried everything they could to mitigate his despair, without success. He then suffered another major concussion in a cycling accident. He eventually stopped taking his medication. The following months, he went into a mostly quiet downward spiral as he fought the demons in his mind. I say mostly, because there were a few outbursts of destructive anger, which terrified my small statured mother. And a few phone calls. One was to my father, where he just screamed his pain into the phone before smashing it to bits on the floor. And some cal ls where he tried to talk to me, but mostly nothing would come out and he would hang up in utter frustration, another lifeline thrown that didn’t reach the anchor. He took his own life on March 26th 1994. He wrote that he had tried everything, and that he was too tired to go on. I cannot think of anyone who has fought harder, anyone who has displayed more courage than in fighting that loathsome beast for all those years.
We were all left despondent, grappling for a cause, some sense out of this utterly unfair hand he was dealt, fighting guilt over not having done enough, or somehow having done something to cause his downfall. With the years, the pain eventually dulls, and we go on. But the picture never became clearer.
A few years ago, I came across PBS’ Frontline documentary on concussions in the NFL. A light turned on in my mind. I consulted their Concussion watch website and came across the stories and recent findings on middle and high school football players who had committed suicide…and then it all made sense.
Because of his tremendous talent in drawing and sculpture, we were able, after his death, to gain some insight into the evolution of my brother’s mental state. He has very literally depicted this beast over the course of the last few years and until the very end of his life. I have recently read an article in National Geographic in which there were photographs of art made by veterans affected by PTSD. I was dumbfounded, astonished by the similarities in themes and imagery depicted in their art and that of my brother’s. It is thought that some of the symptoms of PTSD are also linked to invisible brain injuries. The injuries are sustained by being in proximity to blasts which send waves through the body and brain, causing invisible damage as they go through the soft brain tissue. Some of those symptoms are very similar to the symptoms of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.
There was no autopsy after my brother’s death. But I can’t help but conclude that he was suffering from CTE. It is a difficult thing to talk about today. Who wants to think that they sent their child into this, in good will, thinking that football would be a good thing for them; allowing them to keep in shape, work out that teenage angst, build team skills, work ethic and mostly friendships. I learned that another player on my brother’s team had committed suicide around the same time my brother had. How does their coach feel today? He did not know. WE did not know. When I hesitantly broached the topic of CTE with my aging parents, it was difficult. I could tell they initially welcomed some sort of explanation for my brother’s illness, but they soon grew somber as they realized that they had supported, encouraged him in playing football. But they did not know. And then I wonder: what am I doing today that is detrimental to my son, my 15 year old, handsome, intelligent, tall and strong son? All I know is I am doing everything I know, today, to raise him well and keep him safe, just like my parents did. But, today, I know that my son will never play football.
How I wish my brother could meet my son…they look so much alike.
Thank you for reading this.
When the former Giants safety Tyler Sash was found dead at age 27 of an accidental overdose of pain medications at his Iowa home on Sept. 8, his grieving family remained consumed by a host of unanswered questions about the final, perplexing years of Sash’s life…
A young football star ‘in the prime of life,’ and the disease that destroyed his brain-