Deceased Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which is a form of brain damage that likely resulted from too many hits to the head.
CTE was first reported in 1928 when it was known as "dementia pugilistica" because it was believed to only affect boxers.
Early on, CTE sufferers may display clinical symptoms such as memory impairment, emotional instability, erratic behavior, depression and problems with impulse control.
Henry died at the age of 26 when he fell out of the bed of a truck being driven by his girlfriend. His death was ruled accidental.
CTE develops after repeated hits to the brain (not just a single blow), which rules out the possibility of his fatal fall causing the disorder.
According to the Sean Leahy of the USA Today , doctors at the Brain Injury Research Center at West Virginia University examined Henry’s brain and reached the conclusion in their analysis.
Henry is the youngest person to date that researchers discovered to have CTE.
“As we got the results, my emotion was sad, it’s so profound, ” Dr. Julian Bailes, the chairman of the Brain Injury Research Institute told the New York Times .
“I was surprised in a way because of his age and because he was not known as a concussion sufferer or a big hitter. Is there some lower threshold when you become at risk for this disease? I’m struggling to see if something can come out positive out of this.”
Seattle Seahawks player Sean Morey, and co-chairman of the NFLPA’s committee of concussions, admits playing with such a head injury and said he was “rattled” by the findings about Henry’s brain.
“The fact that this has been found that guys played against last year, an active player, I think it’s sobering.” said Morey. “You have to ask yourself how many are playing the game today that have this and don’t even know about it.”
Henry was by far the youngest player and the only active one to have been diagnosed with CTE. He never missed a game due to head injury in his career—and that may be the most frightening aspect of the diagnosis.
Henry's career was marred by several brushes with the law including five arrests for a variety of charges and self-admitted problems with substance abuse.
Dr. Bailes theorizes that CTE may have been responsible for Henry's emotional volatility and irresponsible behavior, "starting with Mike Webster, we have seen common threads in these cases: emotional disturbances, depression, failed personal relationships and businesses, suicidal thoughts, sometimes alcohol or drug use."
Other players who were diagnosed upon their death exhibited frightening behavior that threatened their own safety and that of others.
Ex-Steeler Justin Strzelczk, for example, was killed in 2004 after experiencing hallucinations, leading police on a high-speed chase for 40 miles before driving his car into a tanker truck.
Tom Mchale, a guard for three NFL teams remembered by teammates as smart and dependable, sank into depression and died of a multiple-drug overdose in 2008.
In 2006, Andre Waters, former safety for the Philadelphia Eagles, put a firearm to the side of his head and pulled the trigger ending his life.
John Grimsley was a former Houston Oilers linebacker who died from what has been termed a gun-cleaning accident in 2008, although he has also been characterized as an expert around guns.
Terry Long was a Pittsburgh Steelers lineman who committed suicide by drinking antifreeze in 2005.
All five were diagnosed with CTE after their autopsies.
A recent congressional committee has criticized the NFL for its testing and research of new equipment, "questioning if player safety is indeed being given top priority in an infected system that needs to be cleaned up."
The NFL recently replaced Dr. Ira Casson and Dr. David Viano, who led the league committee on concussions since 2007 after they were discredited by Congress.
Drs. Richard Ellenbogen and Hunt Batjer, the new co-chairmen of the NFL's head, neck and spine medical committee only recently began studying the helmets provided by Riddell.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sent letters to 44 states imploring them to pass a law to protect the nation’s youth from brain injuries and has campaigned extensively on the topic.
Washington has passed Lystedt’s law, which keeps young athletes from returning to play too soon following a brain injury. The NFL may want to study it as a potential template.
One idea being considered is the adoption of no-helmet practices to reduce the number of hits players take during the season.
The league is also looking at a rule which would tie the amount of offseason snaps a player can take to the amount of snaps he took in the past season, with those who worked the hardest being spared more.
The expanded use of a neutral physician to treat head injuries would be a pragmatic tool to help address the problem.
"I think football is a great sport, and we want to make it safer," Bailes said, "but we have to continue to move forward with changes made recently and take the head impacts out of the sport as much as possible."