It was Zac Easter’s last wish that his family spread the word about his “silent struggle” with CTE.
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, is a progressive, degenerative brain disease in people who have suffered severe head trauma. Easter had suffered seven concussions over the course of his 24 years, most of them from playing high school football. All of them led to a life of pain, medical uncertainty and emotional inconsistency.
Easter died in December, and to help accomplish his goal, his family and friends, his former athletic trainer and a college professor hosted a forum for about 100 Sunday at Simpson College through their nonprofit CTE Hope.
“His last wish was for us to provide education and awareness to families, athletes, people with trauma, so they can have information, hope, awareness and a prevention plan to help make football safer,” said Brenda Easter, Zac’s mother. “But most importantly, to help prevent another family from going through the nightmare that we went through.”
Mike Hadden, a professor in Simpson’s department of sports science and health education, has been a certified athletic trainer for more than 25 years. There’s so much we don’t know about CTE, he said, which has degenerative patterns similar to Parkinson’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, which also is known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Symptoms of CTE include memory loss, confusion, mood problems, anxiety, depression, dementia and aggression.
“The most important symptom is when they say, ‘I don’t feel right,'” Hadden said.
CTE can only be officially diagnosed during an autopsy, and there are few confirmed cases for researchers to study.
Easter suffered five concussions while playing football at Indianola (Iowa) High School. The pressure to do well in sports and be the football star was documented in his writings, titled “My Silent Struggle.” His mother read some excerpts from his journals written before his death, in which Easter documents his struggles with post-concussion syndrome and CTE, starting in his sixth-grade year.
“I would literally use my head as a battering ram because I loved being able to bring it ,” Easter wrote, saying that he would use his head to blow down other players on the field who were bigger than him.
Easter’s former athletic trainer at Indianola, Sue Wilson, said that was part of the problem — that children playing tough contact sports at such a young age don’t know the fundamentals of the game.
“We have to teach them how to control their bodies,” Wilson said.
Easter suffered from chronic pounding headaches, shoulder and neck aches and arm spasms throughout high school. He wrote that he was scared to tell anyone, because he knew he wouldn’t be allowed to play. And football is what made him feel good.
Eventually, he told his mother and he began a series of doctor visits that led to expensive testing and a range of unnecessary medications.
“Not one doctor asked me if I played football,” Easter wrote.
Easter began suffering from constant and severe headaches, slurred speech, blurred vision, loss of balance, brain tremors and dementia. He sunk into a deep depression, and while attending Grand View University, he abused alcohol and his Adderall prescription, which was given to him after a misdiagnosis for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. He ended his life in 2015 in order to donate his brain to medicine so he could “tell his story.”
“I know there’s a kid out there going through something similar,” Easter wrote. “I beg that you get help.”