AFL standout Gilchrist suffered brain trauma
Former WPIAL and Buffalo Bills star running back Cookie Gilchrist suffered from paranoia as well as behavioral and cognitive difficulties later in life — symptoms compatible with an advanced case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, according to researchers at the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University.
The center determined that Gilchrist was in Stage IV of the disease, the most advanced category. At Gilchrist's request, his family donated his brain to the center after he died of cancer Jan. 10 at age 71. He was staying at an assisted living facility in Penn Hills.
"We're only at the very beginning of understanding this disease, so each and every brain that we're fortunate to be able to examine is a real critical addition to our sciences," said Dr. Robert Stern, the clinical researcher and co-director of the center.
Gilchrist was a star at Har-Brack High School in Natrona Heights and led the team to a co-WPIAL championship with Donora in 1953. He later was all All-Star in the Canadian Football League, winning a Grey Cup with the Hamilton Tiger Cats in 1957 before joining the Bills.
He was a star in the early days of the AFL. He was named Player of the Year in 1962 when he won the rushing title with 1,096 yards. He led the Bills to the AFL title in 1964 with a league-high 981 yards on the ground.
Stern interviews family members and reviews medical records to get an understanding of the subject's symptoms, while his colleague, Dr. Ann McKee, examines brain tissue. While Stern does not discuss details of individual cases, the family of the Brackenridge native wanted the results made public.
"Many former athletes and their families have suffered in silence from the effects of CTE," the Gilchrist family said in a statement provided by the center. "While the athlete suffers the physical effects, their family and friends suffer emotionally watching their loved ones fade away, with symptoms that range from episodes of forgetfulness to violent outbursts. Soon, the person that they knew no longer exists."
Stern's group has been studying the disease for only three years, but already has examined the brains of more than 90 former athletes. The center has said another 500 athletes have promised to donate their brains after they die.
"So much more work needs to be done," Stern said. "Critical questions still exist, like what are the risk factors for CTE other than repetitive brain trauma• Everyone found to have the disease has had a history of being exposed to repetitive brain trauma, but obviously not everyone who experiences repetitive brain trauma will develop this disease. We need to understand why do some people get it and some people not, including potential factors like genetics and overall exposure - is it the type of hits, the severity of brain trauma, the number of hits overall, duration of exposure, age at which someone starts having their head hurt, etc."