Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disorder found in many former football players, was found to be a contributing cause in the death of former NFL quarterback Cullen Finnerty back in May, according to an autopsy report released Thursday.
Greg Bishop of The New York Times reports that Finnerty's official cause of death was pneumonia caused by the inhalation of his vomit. However, he also asserts that the disorientation and paranoia Finnerty sensed while lost in the wilderness was brought along in large part by heavy doses of the painkiller oxycodone and CTE.
Finnerty, 30, was found dead in Lake County, Mich., in May two days after failing to come home from a fishing trip. At the scene, there were no signs of foul play nor any markings on his body that would have suggested self-harm. He was found about a half-mile away from where he began a solo fishing outing near his cabin in Bray State Forest in Eastern Michigan.
While Finnerty was said to have been drinking, forensic pathologist Dr. Stephen Cohle claimed that it did not contribute to his death.
"Although witnesses stated he had been drinking before he went fishing, his blood alcohol level was negligible and did not contribute to his incapacitation," the autopsy read, according to MLive.com's John Tunison.
CTE, a disease associated with multiple traumatic blows to the head, causes memory loss, dementia and depression, according to Boston University. Though relatively new in its prominence, CTE has been found in higher numbers among athletes, particularly those in sports in which repeated blows to the head are common (such as football and boxing).
A report from ESPN's Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada in January noted that 34 former NFL players had been diagnosed posthumously with CTE. A study done by UCLA researchers this year has also made headway in diagnosing the condition among living players.
Finnerty was a star quarterback at Grand Valley State, leading the Division II outfit to national championships in 2003, 2005 and 2006. A dual threat through the air and on the ground, he became the first player in Division II championship history to ever pass for 200 yards and rush for 100 in the same game.
In a statement released after the autopsy report, via Peter J. Wallner of MLive.com, Grand Valley State claims Finnerty only suffered one concussion during his time at the school. He was not immediately taken out of the game. However, the school did note it went through proper medical channels after taking him out at halftime:
Only one time during his collegiate play at Grand Valley did Cullen suffer a concussion, which was determined to be mild. He was removed from the game shortly after halftime and did not play again that day. He was thoroughly checked by doctors and was later cleared for play in a subsequent game.
Finnerty was unselected in the 2007 NFL draft but later signed with the Baltimore Ravens and was an active member of the roster for two games. He then signed with the Denver Broncos the subsequent offseason but was let go in June of 2008.
Finnerty's last professional football experience was with the Muskegon Thunder of the Continental Indoor Football League.
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