Boston center, local institute want tissue from Seau
An unlikely battle has erupted over a linebacker's brain.
It pits Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy against the Pittsburgh-based Brain Injury Research Institute that is run by Garrett Webster, son of the late Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster.
Both want to run tests on brain tissue taken from Junior Seau, the retired NFL linebacker who died on Wednesday from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in his Oceanside, Calif., home. Both suspect Seau, 43, had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease known as CTE.
CTE plagues athletes who routinely experience blows on the head. Long tied to boxers, CTE is marked by impulse control problems, headaches, slurred speech, memory loss, "punch drunk" confusion, depression and dementia. Only postmortem brain examinations can definitively reveal CTE.
On Thursday, Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist with the Brain Injury Research Institute, stood over Seau's body as San Diego County medical examiners performed an autopsy on the 12-time Pro Bowl player known for his punishing play with his hometown San Diego Chargers, the Miami Dolphins and the New England Patriots.
"Dr. Omalu left thinking that we had the family's consent, but we're being very careful with this," said Wheeling attorney Robert Fitzsimmons, co-director of the institute. He was the attorney behind the Webster family's successful 2005 lawsuit against the NFL for dementia-related disability payments resulting from his lengthy career as anchor of the Steelers offensive line.
"We try to be very sensitive during these very tragic times for families. When you lose someone, it's already a very bad time. And when there's an event like Junior Seau's, it only makes it worse. And the media frenzy on top of it.
"To ask for a loved one's brain is very, very difficult, but we do it because it helps scientists find a way to test for the disease when people are still alive and, eventually, will lead to a cure."
Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy founder Chris Nowinski, a Harvard grad who was knocked out of pro wrestling by a series of concussions, did not return messages on Friday. His researchers last year determined that former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson had CTE when he killed himself last year -- like Seau, with a gunshot blast in the chest.
Dogged by bankruptcy and depression, Duerson left a suicide note begging his family to donate his brain to the Boston study group. Seau, however, left no suicide note or instructions but seemed to have intentionally left his head intact.
Partly funded by the NFL, Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy researchers found CTE in more than 50 former athletes whom they have autopsied. The Brain Injury Research Institute found CTE in the brains of troubled Steelers stars Justin Strzelczyk and Terry Long and Cincinnati Bengals wideout Chris Henry. Killed by a freak fall from a truck in 2009, Henry was only 26.
Seau displayed irrational behavior in recent years. He was arrested in 2010 for domestic abuse and later plunged his sport utility vehicle over a cliff, records show.
Fitzsimmons set a conference call for late last night with Webster, Omalu and West Virginia University neurosurgeon Julian E. Bailes to see if they could begin Seau's brain tests. He told the Tribune-Review that the time had come for a truce between the two groups. He holds out hope that they can start studying brains together.
"We don't accept money from the NFL, and we strive to be independent," Fitzsimmons said. "But this should be a cooperative process. The science is bigger than anything else."
Carnegie sports agent Ralph Cindrich -- also a former NFL linebacker -- said Seau's death rocked the NFL, which is reeling from lawsuits filed by more than 1,000 former players. The lawsuits allege the league failed to properly protect them from concussions. Cindrich, 62, has voiced concerns about the legacy of football-related concussions since 1993.
He said that Hall of Fame client Dermontti Dawson was scheduled to play golf with Seau on Wednesday.
"In hindsight, the car accident might've been a warning," Cindrich said of Seau.
Cindrich said striking the "right balance" will be difficult for football going forward.
"We want the players to be safe and healthy," he said, "but no one wants to get rid of football."