DENVER — A former Denver Broncos player is hoping news of Demaryius Thomas' CTE diagnosis leads to more awareness of the types of injuries players endure during their time on the field.
Broncos legend Demaryius Thomas was posthumously diagnosed with CTE by Boston University doctors Tuesday. It is not clear what role CTE played in his death in December of 2021, but it has other football players speaking out about more research needed on the subject.
PhD David Howell works as the lead researcher for sports medicine at Children's Hospital Colorado and is the assistant professor of orthopedics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. He said CTE is thought to have many different causes, ranging from subconcussive head trauma to an accumulation of smaller head traumas.
“You look at people with a history of head trauma, and this does exist in a lot of them. And it can exist in people without head trauma as well," explained Howell. "We don't know all of the causes at this point.”
The CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, Chris Nowinski, said CTE is caused by repetitive hits to the head. He described it as a brain disease that is similar to Alzheimer's and eventually will cause dementia. However, there is no direct connection between a concussion and CTE.
“With CTE, it's starting when you're a teenager in your 20s and you're getting hit in the head and playing sports like football or soccer or rugby. And then it continues to progress after you stop getting hit in the head," said Nowinski. "Sort of a crack in the windshield that keeps spreading and eventually, as you lose brain cells, you start to have symptoms that really start to affect your life.”
Nowinski said those symptoms can be problems with emotions, like impulsivity and aggression. He said CTE can impair the ability to think straight, manage a job, or remember to take medications.
Nowinski believes Thomas' diagnosis is a wake up call, saying even though it may be a safer era for the sport, it may not be enough to prevent CTE. He hopes it inspires more people to work at finding solutions, but does not believe helmets are the answer.
“Football helmets are not going to prevent CTE. That would be like focusing your entire discussion of auto safety on getting better bumpers," Nowinski said. "The only way to really prevent CTE is to stop getting hit in the head. And so, for football players, we're advising get hit in the head fewer times, and maybe start later in life.”
Howell said more and more studies are coming out that do not show early exposure to football is specifically causing problems later in life.
“It could be genetics, it could be environment, it could be behavior," Howell said. “All of this research is retrospective. So it's hard to know, again, chicken or egg, and what's causing what. If you or your child sustains a concussion, it's not, 'Oh boy, I'm gonna have CTE.'”
It is difficult to diagnose CTE, but there are ways to alleviate symptoms like depression and anxiety, Howell said. He encourages anyone to seek professional help for mental health struggles.
“What's so scary about CTE is that we don't know we have it until we're dead," said former Bronco Nate Jackson. “A lot of my friends who are struggling, it's hard to tell why. And there's no way to tell. There is no test for CTE in the living, and I think that's the hardest part.”
Unfortunately, Jackson was not surprised to learn Thomas had CTE.
“It's pretty much in every single brain of every single football player who played for an extended period of time. Because that is part of the job, that's the job description. And the more of those hits you can take, the more you're celebrated," Jackson said. “The whole point of football is how much punishment can you take? How far can you push it? How tough are you? How big of a hit can you take and get back in the huddle? That's what makes you a hero, but that's also what's killing your brain.”
Jackson is grateful his parents did not let him play tackle football until he was in high school. He does not believe children should be playing the sport so young. He also does not think more advanced helmet technology is the answer. Instead, he wants to see more emphasis on education and humanizing the players, who often feel pressure to hide symptoms of a head injury.
"Separate the way we look at these athletes, with the fact that they're human beings that have pain, that have emotion, that have lives," said Jackson. "When the lights go off, and the adrenaline dies down, there are real consequences to what they're doing out there."