As the national spotlight is on the first acknowledgement by an NFL official of a link between football and the brain disease CTE this week, Karen Zegel of Philadelphia wants to tell her family’s story, too.
She blames her son’s suicide in 2014 on CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, found in autopsies of many former football players.
Patrick Risha was a coach’s son and a football star in a Western Pennsylvania town deeply engrained in the game and then went to the Ivy League at Dartmouth.
Ten years out of college, Patrick struggled to manage the demands of his daily life and his frustrations grew. He hung himself at age 32.
“Contact sports needs to be on the death certificates, because they’re getting their head bashed in a lot,” Karen says. “You can see a link to smoking, you can see a link to military service, but I want to see a link to contact sports. If there is a link, then we can start addressing it. It will be on people’s forefront to research and try to solve.”
Zegel and members of nine other families who have been affected by brain injuries took their stories Wednesday to Capitol Hill for Brain Injury Awareness Day, hosted by Reps. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-N.J.) and Alex Mooney (R-Fla).
Karen and Doug Zegel have started an organization, the Patrick Risha CTE Awareness Foundation, and a website, StopCTE.org, where they offer support to other families. Their mission, they say, is twofold: getting parents of young athletes to understand the risks of impact sports in childhood and to get medical examiners to look for CTE in those who have died. CTE also has been found in people who did not play contact sports.
“[CTE] gets all mixed up with drug abuse or anger issues or depression and it becomes ‘Oh, Harry just never got his act together.’ And we dismiss it, and we don’t see the silent epidemic,” Doug says. “If we can encourage medical examiners to … [ask] for history of impact sports, we’re going to learn a lot.”
The Zegels’ visit to DC also was meant to deliver a message to law and policy makers: No rough contact in youth sports under 14. The Zegels and the other families are pushing for federal legislation to govern contact in youth sports.
A brochure they hope to share is titled “Kids’ Brains Matter.”
“We’re asking for no repetitive head trauma, no heading in soccer, no tackling in rugby or football, no checking in hockey until the age of 14,” Karen says.
In an interview with USA Today High School Sports, Karen Zegel recalls how her Patrick loved football. His dad, Patrick Sr., was the treasured Clairton High School football coach in the Monongahela Valley. Patrick idolized the players and absorbed his dad’s talks in the locker room, soon drawn to the Friday night lights himself. He was playing for the Elizabeth Forward Mighty Mites at the age of 10.
“I don’t think he was great in the beginning, but he had a lot of hard work, a lot of ethic. He wanted to be a Steeler hero in Steeler country,” she says. By the time Patrick was in eighth grade, “he was being shipped up to the ninth grade team to play with them.”
Patrick, nicknamed “The Horse,” for never letting the first hit take him down, became a record-setting player for the Elizabeth Forward Warriors. He played strong safety for the defense, and on offense, Patrick rushed for nearly 4,000 yards. He stacked up the school records for most career yards, touchdowns, and attempts, for most season yards, touchdowns, and attempts, and for most game yards. By then, the accolades were numerous.
Patrick, an honor society student, set his sights on playing for an Ivy league school, and hoping for a career in politics or law, his mom says. His dream was soon realized — he was playing for Dartmouth.
But in his junior year, she says, “things were starting to break down.” He was having issues with coaches. He started using Percocet for a back injury, battling addiction. Senior year another symptom popped up: He had trouble taking a language. Tests pointed to an audio processing disorder.
“For someone who could memorize whole books, I thought that was strange,” she says. “He was having trouble hearing what people were saying.”
By the time he graduated, he had little drive. He wanted to stay in his room, and his mom says there were anger flareups. He was diagnosed with ADHD.
“That had never been a factor. That was a red flag…where was ADHD coming from? You never had it before and now you have it?” she asks.
Patrick returned to Pittsburgh after college, where he joined his father and helped him, as his health was failing. But his behavior continued to trouble his mom. And then he suffered an enormous loss: his beloved dad died in 2010, just two days after the birth of Patrick Jr.’s son, Peyton Jordan, named for the athletes. The boy became the light of Patrick’s life, Karen says, but he didn’t always want to leave his room to see Peyton.
And then, in 2014, Patrick was gone.
Karen Zegel believes the suicide was a result of the degenerative disease. Patrick’s CTE was diagnosed in an autopsy by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center as well as Boston University, she says. Zegel, now remarried, and husband Doug believe the processing and memory difficulties, and drug abuse were early symptoms stemming from CTE.
Football in focus
Contact restrictions have been put in place across youth sports. U.S. Soccer has banned heading for children 10 and under, and limits heading in practice between 11-13. USA Hockey prohibits checking for children 12 and under.
The Concussion Legacy Institute has advised against tackle football under the age of 14. However, in its policy statement in October, the American Academy of Pediatrics did not specify an age but said coaches should “strive to reduce the number of impacts to players’ heads and should offer instruction in proper tackling techniques.”
USA Football, the national governing body for the sport and a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee, has said full contact should be limited to 30 minutes during practice and has developed a teaching protocol through its Heads Up Football program.
Steve Alic, USA Football’s senior communications director, said new youth tackle guidelines were endorsed by leading medical organizations and include clear definitions of contact and time limits on player-to-player full contact. He also noted the American College of Sports Medicine, National Athletic Trainers Association and American Medical Society for Sports Medicine have endorsed the national practice guidelines for youth tackle football.
He said CTE is an important finding and deserves more research. Continual evaluation and coaching standards are vital for all sports, Alic said, and they are seeing changes for the better.
“The scientific community is unclear how risk factors such as genetics, age, gender and others may contribute to the development of CTE,” he said. “As experts in medicine seek those answers, USA Football and other sports’ national governing bodies continue to work to make sports safer while teaching them better and smarter.”
USA Football was recognized Tuesday among the winners of the Youth Sports Safety Ambassador Awards during the annual National Athletic Trainers’ Association and Youth Sports Safety Alliance summit on preventing catastrophic and acute injury and illness.
The Zegels also attended the event. Karen Zegel said she was thrilled to meet a policy manager from the NFL. “The opportunity to meet the woman from the NFL was beyond my wildest dreams. I didn’t think I’d get to meet people that influential.”
She spends time and energy talking to others who contact her through her website, who blame themselves for a suicide, drug addiction or dangerous behavior. “A lot of moms are thinking, ‘Oh I had a fight with my son.’ So many moms and dads feel they did something wrong.” She tells them, “It’s not them, it’s their brain came unwired.”
She said she had tried everything—from addiction treatment to tough love– when Patrick first started with what she believes to be the first CTE symptoms in his 20s.
“I tried a lot of things with him. The love, the give you everything you want, the tough love thing, that’s the part I regret. Tough love doesn’t work with CTE,” she says. “Our website tries to give families in crisis a little bit of direction, because right now there isn’t much.”
Doug Zegel has another message, too, as they grapple with regrets. “If you think your child is failing to grow up because he’s using drugs, or because he’s acting depressed, you may try, as a good parent, to say, “Come on, tough it up, life is difficult, we all get depressed at times. You don’t have to take drugs or painkillers, you just need to get a job and go to work.
“But if you know your child is sick [with CTE]—there’s some news coming out about development of tests for CTE—well, if we would’ve known that Patrick was sick as opposed to just having ‘issues,’ it would’ve been different for us. We would’ve treated him entirely different.”#