21 Dec Former Linebacker, 42, Now Losing his Last Big Game to Dementia
T.J. Abraham is a big guy who played football throughout high school and college. An offensive linebacker, he loved the tough-man fraternity of the team, the getting hit, clanking helmets, getting back up. He saw stars, he threw up, but he got back back in it. “I probably got my bell rung 70 times.”
Abraham had always been a top student and knew there was life after football. He became an OBGYN, delivering an estimated 3,000 babies. He was gregarious, had a nice home, a family and a very good life.
He began to notice his temper flaring
Abraham was in his late 30s when he began to notice that he would get angry without provocation; his memory was fading and he’d lost his problem-solving skills. He finally scheduled an appointment with a neurologist and received an inconceivable diagnosis: neurodegenerative dementia.
“When you hear the words ‘no cure’ and ‘you’re only going to get worse,’ well, that is tough,” Abraham said. “This was not supposed to be my life.”
The cause: Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)
Abraham consulted with doctors in Boston, Philadelphia and California; all agreed that the signs pointed to football as the root of Abraham’s cognitive issues. They raised the strong possibility that one day his survivors will learn that he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disease linked to repeated hits to the head. This is found — almost always posthumously — in the brains of many football players.
An advocate for banning football for those 12 and younger in New York
Abraham testified at a New York State Assembly hearing on a proposed bill to ban tackle football for children aged 12 and younger. He loved football, played and coached it, and the sport gave him pleasure on a number of levels. “I do not want to see anyone lose what I’ve lost or experience this disease,” he has written in his testimony, which he labored on for days. “I strongly urge you to ban tackle football at the age of 12 and younger in the state of New York.”
Abraham had tried to ignore the growing brain fog
Abraham had for several years tried to ignore the gathering clouds in his brain. He filled his daily phone calendar to overflowing, dozens upon dozens of reminders. He forgot the names of patients and nurses. He misplaced his pager and lost his hospital badge. He attributed this to the wages of too many hours and stresses. He downloaded apps so that he’d know which antibiotics to prescribe, which birth control pills to recommend. Some days, by evening, he grew scared and would think to himself: Tomorrow I’ve got to see someone about this. But of course, he forgot that by the time he awoke.
“I had been lying to the nurses and told them I had to pee so that I could go and look up how to finish a surgery,” he said. “Finally I said enough. No more.”
His memory goes back to many years on the “O” line
Much of the new research on CTE is consistent with Abraham’s experience. Football’s threat to the brain now is less about concussions than repeated hits, the sheer repetitive smacking around of the brain inside the skull. Boston University’s CTE center has estimated that the average college football player experiences 800-1,000 hits in a single season. Kids start playing football in little leagues, then in junior high, high school and college. For those who go on to have successful careers in the pros, the cumulative number of hits over their entire football careers of 12+ years is staggering.
The training grew tougher in college
Abraham was 6-foot-1, 260 pounds and quick for his size. When he transitioned from high school to college at Duquesne, he found himself facing bigger, stouter, faster players. Coaches demanded freshmen prove themselves by facing off against the junior and senior starters. “They wanted to see who was not afraid to hit and get hit,” he said. “There were guys with biceps the size of my head.” The coaches yelled: “Don’t be a sissy, hit him!” This is major college football. It’s a violent game.
Surrounded by shards of his life
He remembers but not really, comprehends but not completely. “I remember nothing about the birth of my daughter,” he said. “I remember nothing about my wedding.” For all the medical evidence pointing in the direction of CTE, his doctors can only determine that I have this after my death.”
These days, he’s spending as much time as possible with his children
“My daughter asks me: ‘Daddy, is your brain getting better?’” Abraham said. “And my heart breaks because I know the answer is no.”
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