The late former Parkland and Penn football star Owen Thomas sustained the kind of brain trauma more commonly seen in much older athletes who played contact sports for years, a detailed examination has shown.
According to an account first reported in the New York Times, Thomas' brain exhibited the early stages of chronic traumatic encephalopathy a disease linked to depression and impulse control, primarily among NFL players. Thomas, 21, of South Whitehall Township, was found dead of an apparent suicide in April.
Kevin Guskiewicz, director of a sports brain trauma institute at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, said studies of retired NFL players showed a three-fold increase in the likelihood of suffering from depression if they had at least three concussions.
Scientists don't yet understand the toll of repeated blows to the head that don't cause obvious concussion symptoms, said Guskiewicz, who directs the Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related TBI Research Center, which is named for a boy who died after taking a blow to the head in his first high school game. UNC researchers have found that players average 950-1,200 blows to the head in a season, Guskiewicz said.
Athletes may not show the "classic" signs of concussion — loss of consciousness, vomiting, forgetfulness or confusion — but that doesn't mean blows to the head aren't taking a toll, doctors said.
"Some of those injuries may be so subtle that they may not be able to be picked up by a physician or trainer," said Dr. James Frommer of Bethlehem, who operates the Lehigh Valley Institute for Sports and Musculoskeletal Medicine. Individuals could become sensitive to light or sound or experience a change in their academic performance or personality, he said. In teens, Frommer said, those changes could be mistaken for "that's just their teenage years."
The bottom line, Frommer said, is that athletes, coaches, athletic trainers and parents should take an "aggressively conservative" approach when someone reports or appears to have sustained a concussion.
No one saw anything wrong with Thomas, however.
"I had no idea, I couldn't imagine," the Rev. Katherine Brearley, Thomas's mother, told The Associated Press. "I felt like a failure at not having understood my own child. But now I think to myself, if someone tells me he had a degenerative brain disease, I didn't understand that part of him."
Former Parkland teammate Marc Quilling said he never heard Thomas complain about concussion symptoms.
"Not once did Owen ever complain of a headache, or an injury really that I can recall," he said, adding the 6-foot 2-inch, 240-pound Thomas was more likely the one to deliver a blow on the football field.
Thomas didn't show signs of withdrawal, either. He was Parkland's unquestioned leader and a great friend, Quilling said.
Frommer also said fans got the wrong message watching the Philadelphia Eagles game this past weekend, when quarterback Kevin Kolb and linebacker Stewart Bradley both were taken out of the game for concussion symptoms and soon thereafter returned to play. They later were taken out and remain under observation.
In Pennsylvania high school sports, a player most likely couldn't return that quickly to the field. Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association rules specify that a player who shows signs of concussion cannot be returned to play without being cleared by a doctor.
At Lafayette College — which will play the University of Pennsylvania after it honors Thomas this Saturday — coach Frank Tavani said all the players are pre-screened and observed over a period of days if they sustain a concussion. For instance, the team held out quarterback Rob Curley in 2008 for several games while he recovered, making it back in time to play in the annual game against Lehigh University.
What's troubling to Frommer and others is that they are seeing younger athletes with concussions more frequently.
"What's a concern from a neuropsychological point of view is, young brains are still growing," said Dr. Martin Diorio, a clinical neuropsychologist at Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network. He said children under age 10 have been referred to him, although 12- and 13-year-olds are more common.
Freelance writer Paul Reinhard and The Associated Press contributed to this story.
What is CTE?
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes (and others) with a history of repetitive concussions and blows to the head.
•Who does it effect? Has affected boxers since the 1920s, and more recently, retired professional football players and wrestlers.
•How does it work? Multiple concussions or blows to the head trigger progressive degeneration of brain tissue, including buildup of a protein called tau. These changes can begin decades later.
•What are the effects? Memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, paranoia, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and, eventually, progressive dementia.
Source: Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy
Trauma found in late football star's brain
Owen Thomas' case suggests damage might occur early, without signs.
We've upgraded our reader commenting system. Learn more about the new features.
The Baltimore Sun encourages civil dialogue related to our stories; you must register and log-in to our site in order to participate. We reserve the right to remove any user and to delete comments that violate our Terms of Service. By commenting, you agree to these terms. Please flag inappropriate comments.