Cyndy Feasel, the widow of a former NFL player, says that she believes her husband Grant’s struggle with alcoholism triggered his depression, agitation and anxiety. After his death, his brain was donated to Boston University for a study on concussions. She learned that while addiction may have exacerbated those issues, Grant, who had played football since he was eight years old and played in the NFL for 10 years, was close to end-stage chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease common in athletes, veterans and those who have suffered repeated hits to the head. Shortly before his death, Cyndy said he told her, “If I’d only known that what I loved the most would end up killing me and taking away everything I loved, I would have never done it.”
- In a 2017 study, The Journal of the American Medical Association discovered that of the 111 brains of deceased NFL football players that were donated to a brain bank at Boston University, 99 percent of them had CTE
- The researchers note that there may have been some selection bias, since families who may have already suspected their loved one suffered from CTE could have been more likely to be interested in participating in the study
The shocking results from the Boston University study made headlines, and like Cyndy, families are speaking out about the dangers of football and the NFL. Being Patient spoke to Cyndy about her book, After the Cheering Stops. The book tells her story about how Grant’s football career may have fueled his addiction to painkillers and alcohol, and ultimately resulted in a neurodegenerative condition she thinks contributed to his death.
Being Patient: You mentioned that Grant became an alcoholic. Is that correct?
Cyndy Feasel: I think he got hooked on Percocet and Vicodin whenever he played due to the brain injury. People forget that these are human beings. They’re not a robot—they’re real people—and so by the end of his career, he had a lot of substantial injuries. He’d had a lot of surgeries. He’d had a staph infection and he was getting Vicodin and Percocet on a pretty regular basis. So once he quit playing football, what are you supposed to do? You don’t get a prescription for life, so I think that’s when he really transferred into drinking heavily.
Being Patient: Until recently, people didn’t realize how harmful concussions can be for brain health. When Grant was playing football, were there any concussion protocols or advice on what people should do when they got hit in the head, or would they just continue to play?
Cyndy Feasel: Mainly, they would continue to play. I can remember one specific incident when Grant was playing in Denver and he went out for a series and at the time, we didn’t have cell phones, so I had no clue what happened. When he came home that night to Seattle, I said, “What happened when you went out for the whole series?” He said, “Oh, I got my bell rung.” Only he said it was different this time than before. I said, “Really?” He said, “Yes.” He put out his hands to illustrate that everything became blurry and said, “Everything went real small and it was all black around.” He used all of these words. He wasn’t a big talker, but he was very specific about being able to just see like in a tunnel. He said he remembered the pressure. Some player hit his head really hard from behind and smashed it into his chest and he remembered that everything went black. Then he came back in and finished the game.
I didn’t realize that after every hit, your brain sloshes around in your skull.
There was no protocol. I remember thinking if he didn’t come in with a cast or crutches, that we were good, right? I never dreamt how his injuries would affect his brain, but we should’ve known that the brain was the most important thing. I had never heard that the brain was soft like jello and like an egg yolk. I had never heard these words used for the brain. I thought that the brain had the hard skull around it and it was protected where it wouldn’t move. I didn’t realize that after every hit, your brain sloshes around in your skull.
Being Patient: How did you find out that Grant had CTE?
Cyndy Feasel: It was after he died, actually. His brain was donated to Boston University. Dr. Ann McKee did the autopsy his brain came back as Stage 3. There are four stages of CTE and Grant had Stage 3. It was hard for me to believe. I started poring over all of the information that I could find in the media. I just looked at every source that I could. It was so hard for me to believe that he had died of something that suddenly was kind of becoming a current event. They were talking about it more and more after his death and I don’t even think he understood it. We never really talked about it much other than Mike Webster dying of it and Junior Seau, but we had never really spoken about it a lot. He thought that he might have it. He said, “You know, I think maybe I have what Mike had.” And so all of these things were starting to come together for him at the end of his life. He’d gone his whole life not knowing. We lived this traumatic life of addiction having no idea that addiction and brain injury went together.
Being Patient: In retrospect, did you notice changes in his behavior, even though it may be difficult to separate the addiction from CTE?
Cyndy Feasel: It is and a lot of the symptoms mimic each other. At the end of his life, things started really making sense with the CTE symptoms. Over the years, Grant had suffered from depression, anxiety, forgetfulness, mood swings, all sorts of personality changes and his vision had changed. All of the classic steps of CTE, Grant had lived through our entire marriage together.
Being Patient: I think pressure from families and people like yourself has really helped raise awareness about this issue.
Cyndy Feasel: Actually, he was a center and they just had plain, old, basic helmets. There was padding in it, but I personally don’t feel that there will ever be a helmet made that’s going to protect your brain. I’m contacted by people on a weekly basis who say they have the greatest helmet that they’re coming out with and they want me to look at it. But I just don’t think that there’s ever going to be a helmet made that’s going to be able to protect an egg yolk or a bowl of jelly, so I have a hard time with football now just because of that. I know that it’s going to continue and I’m not saying I’m trying to put an end to it. I’m not fighting anybody over it. I’m just saying that this is what happened to my loved one and it’s happening to a lot of other people on a regular basis.
Being Patient: Now that we know more about CTE, do you think more athletes are getting diagnosed? Do you think an earlier diagnosis is helpful, or should you make a choice to play or not play football?
Cyndy Feasel: I always say I feel really sorry for anybody who’s playing college and professional ball now because they know the dangers. You have to be proactive. You have to be your child’s advocate as well. There’s just too much scientific evidence. If you’re going to buy a pair of sneakers, you’re going to get on Amazon and look at all of the reviews. Why wouldn’t you look at all of the reviews about a head-banging sport if you’re going to sign your child up to play or if you yourself were going to play as an adult? I think that Grant would’ve much rather been alive with our family than to have had an early death because of a sport he played. It was preventable. So I don’t think that the NFL is doing that much more. I think that they need to own up to it and say, “Yes, this causes brain damage and it can become more of a gladiator-type sport. Then, if you’re 18 years old and you want to play a brain injury-inducing sport, go for it, but I don’t think children should be signed up for it without their knowledge of what’s going to happen to them in the long-term.
Being Patient: How much research is there on CTE today? What studies are being done and do we know enough about it, or is there still a lot more we need to know?
Cyndy Feasel: We know now that CTE is a degenerative brain disease. We also know that if you play head-banging sports, you have a chance of getting Parkinson’s, dementia, Alzheimer’s and ALS, so we understand so much more now about head-banging sports than we knew even 10 years ago. I think that we’re learning more and more, but there’s so much more that we’ll find out about, probably in the next 10 years.
Being Patient: How has the NFL responded to CTE issues to-date? Have they been making changes to concussion protocol?
Cyndy Feasel: Well, I know that the protocol is in, but people continue to play and come back in a season. I mean a brain injury is serious so people probably shouldn’t play again after they have a brain injury. Last year, I think we saw that players continued to play. Maybe they stayed out for a week or two and then they went back in and played again, so that’s not enough being done. But again, they know. The players know. They understand now that when they play this game, there’s a great chance that they’re going to suffer in the long run.
Being Patient: Do you think by the time players reach the NFL, it’s too late for this issue to be brought up?
Cyndy Feasel: It needs to happen really early on. The whole key here is not taking down the NFL. The whole key here is talking to mothers and saying, “Please don’t let your children play football until they’re 14 years old. Play flag football.” And then after that, again, like Dr. Omalu, who is one of the leading CTE researchers, says, “If you’re 18 years old and you want to play a head-banging sport, go for it because the world says you’re an adult at that point.” But up until then, you should definitely look at the evidence. There’s too many other things that kids can do. They can swim, they can play baseball, they can play basketball. There’s a lot of other things that kids can do and not damage their brains. Of course, there’s accidents. You can fall off a chair and get a concussion, but if you’re intentionally putting your child in a sport where every play of every game, they’re getting their brain rattled, you’re setting your child up for a lifetime of heartache.
Being Patient: You talked about the depression and anxiety that led to Grant’s addiction. Can you tell us a little more about the signs you noticed about his condition?
Cyndy Feasel: Grant was having a lot of short-term memory loss. I would tell him a story that happened a week or two ago and he would say that he didn’t really remember. He was having trouble focusing on anything. His vision was bothering him. He would go to the eye doctor and get prescriptions changed and yet they were still bothering him a lot. He would run out of energy. He had to take a lot of naps. And now what I understand is that if you have a brain injury, you have to rest more. I couldn’t figure out why he was always so run down and tired. He was processing everything slower than ever before. He was more irritable. It was like I could never say anything to him that he was happy about. He was always irritated, especially with me.
I’ll give you an example. One of the things he said to me was, “Cyndy, when I hear your voice, it sounds like nails on a chalkboard.” I irritated him. My voice irritated him. He had anxiety. He took anxiety medication, but there was even an incident where he had to go to the emergency room because his heart palpitations were causing so many problems. He was thinking he couldn’t breathe and having problems with that, so anxiety was a huge issue. He couldn’t talk about anything long-term because it would give him anxiety. He did have problems with depression and probably the last seven years of his life, he spent a lot of time trying to adjust medications for depression. Those were all signs. There’s another sign I think is really interesting that people don’t put together. Because Grant was an alcoholic, I thought that when he was walking and wobbling, it was due to the alcohol, but now, I think a lot of that was because his gait was off because of the brain injury. I didn’t even put those two things together until I researched that more myself, but he was having a lot of problems with balance. He had a lot of problems with sleep and people don’t understand that sleep and brain injuries go hand-in-hand, too.
Being Patient: CTE presents itself a lot like dementia in the brain. Plaques and tangles lead to degeneration.
Cyndy Feasel: Yes, definitely. I know they can’t tell if you have CTE while you’re alive until they do the pathology after your death, but I do think that now that we know more of the symptoms that doctors can pre-diagnose people more than ever before. It makes me incredibly sad that Grant spent his whole life so misunderstood and our marriage so misunderstood as well. Even though he was an addict, he was a brain-damaged addict. I didn’t know what drove him to that and I hate that he didn’t have any peace in knowing that.
Being Patient: Tell us about your book.
Cyndy Feasel: The name of my book is called “After the Cheering Stops.” If I could save one person from putting their child in a sport that could hurt them, I feel like that is the reason why the book was written. Alzheimer’s is near and dear to my heart. My grandmother died of Alzheimer’s. So I’m interested in the brain and I’m interested in helping people understand.