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Photo by Isaac Harrell
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Ray and Mary Ann in Atlanta in 1979. Photo courtesy Mary Ann Easterling
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Ray in a game against the Washington Redskins in 1979. Photo courtesy Mary Ann Easterling
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Mary Ann with Wolfie in her home’s basement. Photo by Jay Paul
The official Wilson NFL football, circa 1977 — one of three still on display in Mary Ann Easterling's simply appointed South Side brick rancher — says it all, really.
Just underneath the laces, the ball's smooth brown leather surface gives way to a section painted white long ago, meticulously inscribed with her late husband's name, the date — Sept. 18, 1977 — and the game result — Falcons 17, Rams 6 — in red, black, silver and white, the Atlanta Falcons team colors of the late 1970s. Below that is etched a tribute: YOU PAID THE PRICE.
For Ray Easterling, then a 28-year-old safety in his fifth pro season with Atlanta after a storied career at the University of Richmond, receiving a game ball for his stellar play against the division rival Los Angeles Rams was both a professional and a personal validation — a tangible recognition of the hours of hard work and sacrifice it had taken for him to play the sport he loved at the highest level. A sport, as it turned out, that extracted a very heavy price from a talented, if not preternaturally gifted, athlete. There was no such thing as an off-season for Ray, long before it became common practice for NFL players to train on a year-round basis. "Understand that [NFL] football players have very strong personalities — they wouldn't be where they are without that," says Mary Ann, 59, the director of Westminster Academy at Third Presbyterian Church off of Forest Avenue. "Their drive is incredible, and Ray was extra-gifted in that area. He did not view himself as a gifted athlete — it took him all of the off-season to prepare for the regular season."
The first sign of the lasting physical toll the sport would take on him was sudden pain and tingling, referred to in football parlance as "burners" or "stingers," down his arm during full-contact drills at training camp in 1980. A trainer took his helmet away and said he could not get back on the field until he obtained medical clearance.
Ray traveled back to Richmond to see a neurologist, who, after administering a series of tests, told him point-blank that he could end up paralyzed if he ever played football again. He had been playing with an undiagnosed vertebrae fracture in his neck. He had already missed most of the 1978 season with a dislocated left elbow that eventually resulted in some loss of sensation in his left hand. Falcons management, reluctant to pay Ray the 18 months of salary he was due for a career-ending injury, leaned on him to return but were eventually dissuaded by Vernon Spratley, his Richmond-based agent. Spratley pointed out that the liability risks for the team outweighed any potential benefits of his client's return to the field.
So Ray stepped away from the game in 1980 at age 30, falling back on an undergraduate business degree from the University of Richmond to launch a promising post-football career in financial services.
But the vertebrae fracture was just the beginning of Ray's post-career ailments. A decade later, he began to experience episodes of insomnia and depression. Over time, other symptoms appeared — trembling hands, growing mental confusion, argumentativeness, fits of anger and loss of impulse control. What neither Ray nor Mary Ann knew was that he was suffering from untreated and undiagnosed brain trauma related to the pounding his head had taken during an eight-year NFL career, and most likely during his years playing at the prep and collegiate levels as well.
Dr. Gregory O'Shanick, a Richmond neuropsychiatrist who formally diagnosed Ray with dementia in early 2011, says an exact count is impossible to determine, but he estimates that Ray easily sustained at a minimum, "a double-digit number of concussions, possibly even in the triple digits," playing football.
Through it all, Ray kept up his daily running regimen, tracing circles around the track at St. Christopher's School and navigating the winding roads of the Easterlings' leafy Bon Air neighborhood. He was determined to beat back the encroaching demons and to retain a sense of normalcy that had once enveloped the couple and their young daughter in a comforting cloak of shared family rituals and happy memories.
"Ray ran up until the last day of his life," says Mary Ann. "It was key to maintaining a sense of control for him. That last weekend, he had me out on the track critiquing his running … he couldn't pick up his feet or his knees, but he was continually fighting."
The Easterlings met in 1975 at an off-season Thursday-night Bible study off of Cherokee Road. She was a senior majoring in music at Westhampton College, and he had just finished his third season with the Falcons. He swept the young coed off her feet.
"Ray was utterly charming, handsome and charismatic," Mary Ann recalls. "I loved his leadership and boldness for Christ." Her choral director tried to alert her to the potential pitfalls of being married to a professional athlete, but the warning fell on deaf ears. The couple married a year later, linked by their shared spirituality and dreams of a bright future.
After leaving the Falcons, Ray started a local office of A.L. Williams (now Primerica), a term-life insurance and investment firm. For the next decade, life was very good, Mary Ann says. But in 1989, he walked away from the thriving business. His next endeavor was running football camps for high schoolers. "The camps were a success in every way except financially," Mary Ann says. "After that, he tried to market a weight-loss product, and that failed."
Ray's behavior started to become increasingly erratic a decade or so after his playing career ended. Normally very punctual, he would show up late to business meetings and blurt out bizarre nonsequiturs at inappropriate moments. "I had no idea what was causing the behavior," Mary Ann says. He sought help from doctors throughout, but the connection between his symptoms and his football career remained elusive, and the couple's life grew increasingly unmanageable. Typically conservative in his handling of the family finances, Ray took imprudent financial risks and became argumentative, distrustful and suspicious of his wife's motives.
Mary Ann bore the brunt of the ensuing changes in her husband's personality. "You're not fighting for me!" he'd cry, oblivious of the pains Mary Ann was taking to adapt to the alarming changes in his behavior and personality.
"I was the accommodator in our relationship," she says. "The first 13 years of marriage were wonderful. We talked through things and he listened to me and took my opinion very seriously … but once this all set in, it was like I was superfluous, and he had never felt that way about our marriage and about me before. It was [hurtful]. You get through things and look back and think ‘How did I ever do it?' and that image of God carrying you through things, across the desert. It was very much that way all the way through it.
"Life was a continual conflict with him," she says. "I would just go silent and try to be understanding and listen the best that I could. His behavior was unpredictable but some behavior was repetitive. He would go into monologues where he would have things that he was obsessed with, and he'd want to talk about those things over and over. Other times it was paranoia. He would suspect and question the motives of people that he knew well."
In the fall of 1995, the Easterlings had to sell their house to pay back business investors. For a while, they lived in Ray's office on Pocoshock Boulevard. After a series of jobs, including several years with the state Bureau of Insurance, he co-founded the Easterling-Zacharias Health Institute (now Zacharias Ganey) in 2003. He left the institute in 2007, wanting to take the concept of weight management to individual companies, Mary Ann says.
As Ray's behavior became increasingly puzzling and difficult, Mary Ann found refuge in her spirituality. "It was hard," she says, without betraying a trace of weariness. "I just by God's grace tried to love him as best as I could. I couldn't have done it without constant prayer and knowing that He was in control and trusting …" she says, before pausing thoughtfully and then continuing, "… that somehow the answer would come. I didn't know what that would be, but I was committed to [Ray], and I had taken a vow before God to love him for better or worse. And this was worse."
Then one night in late 2010, while Mary Ann was reading through online case studies of former players afflicted with similar symptoms, it all clicked — the personality changes, the combativeness and the steady erosion of Ray's formerly upbeat personality and outlook on life.
Three months later, at 61, three decades after Ray's playing career ended, O'Shanick diagnosed him with dementia. O'Shanick, the medical director of the Center for Neurorehabilitation Services near Johnston-Willis Hospital, determined that the condition resulted from concussions Ray had suffered while playing football.
It was a harrowing diagnosis with an equally grim prognosis, as dementia symptoms can only be managed to a small extent with medication and are irreversible, but it was also a relief of sorts in that it helped explain the previously inexplicable changes in Ray's character and temperament.
"If I had known what was going on, it would have been so helpful," Mary Ann says with a wry chuckle. "Once we got the diagnosis of dementia, it all made sense."
From a medical perspective, says O'Shanick, "There is tremendous individual variation between patients, so no two outcomes are going to be alike. As individuals experience more difficulties in more than one domain, say with depression, cognitive and balance issues, the more widespread it is and there's less capability of the brain to support itself or to compensate."
Adds John T. Povlishock, the director of the Commonwealth Center for the Study of Brain Injury at VCU, "You're dealing with the most complex disease known to man and the most complex organ that we know of. If you've had a severe to moderate brain injury, you're at two to three times greater risk for sustained dementia later in life."
Repetitive brain injuries also can lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive and degenerative neurological disorder. For yet-to-be determined reasons, the symptoms of CTE, which include depression, loss of impulse control and rages, typically show up years after the initial injuries are sustained. For soldiers or athletes who continue to play after having suffered multiple concussions, it's tantamount to playing a high-stakes game of neurological Russian roulette.
In Ray's case, says Mary Ann, "Five years ago, it just started to get gradually worse. There were points over the last year when he was on medication when it got better for a little while, but eventually the medicine lost its effectiveness, and he couldn't maintain the same evenness of temper or the feeling of sanity that he had. … You can dial up the medication, but they can only go so far with it."
Football is an inherently violent game played by progressively bigger and faster players at succeeding levels of the sport. Newton's second law of motion — force equals mass times acceleration — is particularly relevant. There's a sobering video, This is Your Brain on Football, on Time magazine's website in which Chris Nowinski, the director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University, likens the impact of a typical football hit to car-crash forces, hitting a brick wall or a car windshield at 30 mph.
Still, videos of the NFL's Greatest Hits variety are ubiquitous on both the league's official NFL Network and its longtime broadcasting partner, ESPN. The NFL, a $9 billion dollar a year behemoth, enjoys higher television ratings and a wider mass following than any other American sport.
Time was when orthopedic issues were the primary concern of football players and their families, with team reunions resembling sand crab conventions as players scuttled around on arthritic knees and other joints — hips, ankles, elbows and shoulders in various states of deterioration. But the current focus in the medical community is on the mounting anecdotal evidence showing demonstrable links between trauma resulting from repetitive blows to the head and a legion of serious post-career cognitive and neurological disorders.
"I see the people who have had one concussion too many," O'Shanick says. "When an adolescent player suffers a concussion, whether on the football field or cheerleading, they are at greater risk for a delayed recovery with subsequent concussions. It's a long-established scientific fact that there is a cumulative effect with brain injuries."
According to an August 2011 study published in the journal Pediatrics, the incidence of concussions in 7- to 11-year-olds who play tackle football is eight times greater than in their peers who play soccer, basketball and baseball. Only ice hockey has a higher concussion rate.
Some of football's legislative bodies have taken steps to make the game safer and to cut down on contact beyond that encountered in live-game situations. The hope in some quarters is that these moves may mark the start of a culture change.
Last July, the Ivy League presidents made a decision to cut the number of full-contact practices for its member schools from the NCAA-standard five practices to just two per week. Pop Warner, the nation's largest and most influential youth football organization, introduced new rules in mid-June for the upcoming 2012 season limiting contact drills to just one-third of practice time and banning full-speed, head-on drills in which players line up more than three yards apart. During the 2011 NFL season, certified athletic trainers were placed in press boxes to monitor for head injuries, and for the upcoming season, video monitors will be on all sidelines. Also, moving the kickoff up five yards last season tothe 35-yard line reduced concussions by 40 percent on that play, according to the NFL.
In August 2011, seven former NFL players and their wives filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the league in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia. Among the plaintiffs' main contentions are the following assertions: "Since the early 1970s, the defendant has known or it has had reason to know, from its supervisory and management role, that NFL players suffering repeated concussions were more likely to experience evolving symptoms of post-traumatic brain injury.
"Despite this knowledge, the defendant has continued to deny any connection or correlation between players suffering concussions and long-term chronic brain injury or illness. Further, the defendant has taken an active role in concealing or actively disputing any causative connection between concussions in football in the NFL and brain injury/illness."
Mary Ann and Ray Easterling were among the seven lead plaintiffs in the lawsuit. As of this writing, an additional 3,000 former players, including former UR tight end John Hilton as well as Hall of Famer and former Virginia Tech star Bruce Smith, the NFL's all-time sack leader, have joined as co-plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the NFL, its licensing and merchandising arm, NFL Properties, and the helmet manufacturer, Riddell. The sheer volume of complainants qualifies the case as a "mass tort" akin to the sort of litigation previously seen in prominent cases involving tobacco, pharmaceutical and asbestos manufacturers.
In early June, an 88-page master complaint summarizing the players' claims was filed in Philadelphia. Realistically, the cases could take several years to sort through, too late for the Easterlings, but perhaps in time to offer meaningful aid for the next generation of affected players and their families.
The NFL has denied covering up any knowledge of the long-term effects of concussions, though the league acknowledged a possible connection between concussions and cognitive issues in 2010.
"The NFL has long made player safety a priority and continues to do so," Brian McCarthy, the NFL's corporate communication vice president, stated in an emailed response on July 30. "Any allegation that the NFL intentionally sought to mislead players has no merit. It stands in contrast to the league's actions to better protect players and advance the science and medical understanding of the management and treatment of concussions."
In 2010, the NFL increased the annual amount that a retired player could receive from its 88 Plan, established in 2007 and named for NFL legend John Mackey, from $88,000 to $100,000 for medical and custodial care resulting from dementia, Alzheimer's, ALS and Parkinson's, McCarthy noted. Ray, with help from former Atlanta teammate Jeff Van Note, enrolled in that plan after his diagnosis in 2011. Mackey died in July of dementia-related causes.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell recently announced the launch of NFL Total Wellness, a new health initiative that includes a 24-hour "Life Line" staffed by mental health professionals, which strikes some observers as too little, too late.
Mary Ann is one of the skeptics. "The NFL is not adding anything meaningful with the wellness program," she says. "We're talking about an organic problem in players' brains. Creating a mental health hotline is putting a Band-Aid on the situation and is probably the least costly solution they could come up with [to ease some of the pressure they're getting]."
When asked about her motivation to continue pursuing legal remedies against the NFL, Mary Ann says, "Ray wished it. Retired players need help, and I also have friends who are suffering, and both the NFL and NFLPA [Players Association] have stiff-armed them. I have friends who are dealing with the dementia and the Alzheimer's and they need help. … For years [the NFL] stiff-armed all medical proof that there was a connection between mild traumatic brain issues and football. It wasn't until players started dying, and they started slicing up their brains and showing clearly that they had CTE, that they finally came clean and realized, ‘Oops, we've got to do something different.' "
She acknowledges that the NFL has taken some steps to address the violence in the game, but she questions the league's approach and motives. "Having pushed this away and denied it for decades, now they're trying to say they're taking care of their players. They've addressed player safety for years ... but have they done it the right way? Have they done enough?"
A Growing Awareness
The connection between repetitive head trauma and significant brain dysfunction in NFL players first came to prominence in early 2007 in a New York Times article. In the story, Dr. Bennet Omalu, a leading neuropathologist at the University of Pittsburgh, drew a direct link between repeated blows to the head sustained on the field of play and the November 2006 suicide of former Philadelphia Eagle Andre Waters, 44, an 11-year NFL veteran.
Waters was a notorious hard-hitter, viewed by some as a "dirty" player. Asked by a Philadelphia reporter toward the end of his career how many concussions he had suffered, he responded, "I think I lost count at 15 … I just wouldn't say anything. I'd sniff some smelling salts and then go back in there." Omalu conducted a post-mortem examination of Waters' brain and found brown splotches called tau proteins, the markers of CTE, clustered throughout the brain tissue. He equated Waters' brain function to that of an 85-year-old man with Alzheimer's, an assertion that commanded considerable nationwide media attention. Public awareness and debate on the connection between the head trauma suffered by NFL players and ensuing brain and behavioral dysfunction began to grow.
Subsequent studies and anecdotal evidence confirmed Omalu's original findings.
In a 2005 survey of more than 2,500 former NFL players, the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill found that those who had sustained three or more concussions were three times more likely to experience "significant memory problems" and five times more likely to develop early-onset Alzheimer's. A later study found a similar causal relationship between those sustaining three or more concussions and subsequent issues with clinical depression.
Yet, according to a 2009 GQ article titled "Game Brain," three members of the NFL's Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee attempted in 2005 to have an article by Omalu retracted from the medical journal Neurosurgery. The article stated that "repeated blows to the head sustained in football could cause severe, debilitating brain damage." The NFL scientists said that the study's findings resulted from a "complete misunderstanding."
In August 2007, the NFL produced a "Player Concussion Pamphlet" in which the league informed its players that "current research with professional athletes has not shown that having more than one or two concussions leads to permanent problems if each injury is managed properly. It is important to understand that there is no magic number for how many concussions is too many." An excerpt of the pamphlet is posted on the NFL website.
A War Within
In early April, just as pollen started to leave a fine yellow dust on the springtime streets of their neighborhood, Ray boarded a JetBlue flight bound for Logan Airport to participate in a clinical study at Boston University's Sports Legacy Institute. More than 150 former NFL players ages 40 to 69 had volunteered to participate in the study, funded in part by the National Institutes of Health, along with a "control" group of 50 same-aged athletes who played non-contact sports. Mary Ann stayed behind in Bon Air, something she regrets. "It was a mistake. I should have gone with him," she says. At the time, she had no idea that her husband would be dead 10 days later.
The BU study seeks to develop methods to detect CTE in living persons through a variety of tests including MRIs and analysis of proteins contained in spinal fluid. To date, CTE has only been able to be detected through laboratory analysis of post-mortem brain tissue. Numerous former players suffering from dementia and related symptoms have signed pledges to donate their brains to the institute to be examined for evidence of the disease, an initiative that has received widespread coverage in the national sports media.
Ray chose not to donate his brain for the study, but he felt good about his participation in the growing body of empirical studies on the links between brain trauma and CTE. Shortly after returning to Richmond, he went out to run some errands on a Monday afternoon and was unable to retrace the drive home. Disoriented and upset, he called Mary Ann at work, but she was able to calm him and guide him back home over the phone. More than once, she had needed to reel him in when he had wandered off-course on nocturnal runs, but this was the first time that he'd not been able to find his way home during daylight hours.
Three days later, early on the morning of Thursday, April 19, Richmond police arrived at the Easterling home at 6:14 a.m., responding to a 911 call placed minutes earlier by Mary Ann. The subsequent police report read in part: "Male found deceased by his wife from a self-inflicted gunshot wound." Sometime in the early-morning stillness, Ray had gotten out of bed and scrawled a barely legible note to his wife of 36 years, reaffirming his love for her and writing, "I'm ready to meet my Lord and Savior."
Among his many other qualities, including a pre-illness ability to inject lightness and levity into almost any situation, Mary Ann prized her husband's determination. "I loved his ability to fight through adversity," she says. "In eighth grade, he was 4 [foot] 10 and 98 pounds, and there he was at Huguenot High School, and they wouldn't even give him a uniform. But he grew the summer after 10th grade, and things like that just made him that much more determined to succeed. Even with the dementia … he just kept pushing and fighting against it," she says before a brief, wistful pause. "I guess it got to be too much for him. He couldn't push and fight anymore ... [the illness] was winning." She adds, "I don't like what he did, but it is a relief from the strife that he was going through. There was a tremendous war going on in his life, and I was privy to that every day."
For Mary Ann, the battle to ensure post-career medical monitoring and greater access to medical care for former NFL players continues. In late July, an autopsy report released by the Richmond medical examiner's office confirmed Mary Ann's, Ray's and O'Shanick's strong suspicions that Ray was suffering from CTE. The news did not come as a surprise to his widow. "It was more like confirmation," she says. "It gave me an even greater appreciation for how much he struggled and for his persistence and his tenacity." Her fervent wish is that other players and their families will be spared the indignities and pain of living with the effects of undiagnosed and untreated brain trauma.
Ray's former Falcons teammate Greg Brezina, now an Atlanta-area minister, says, "If people could just know the Ray that I knew [before the dementia]. He was totally dedicated as a player, a well-conditioned machine. He took his body beyond its limits and made excruciating tackles. [But] there are only so many licks a body can take."
By the end, Ray had lost his peripheral vision, his sense of smell, his short-term memory and his sense of direction. It was like living half a life, and this for a man who had always lived his life full-tilt.
Mary Ann is left with her memories — of a loving husband, a doting father who played make-believe games for hours with his young daughter, and a proud athlete who gave everything he had on the field before the effects of repetitive head trauma changed his personality and progressively robbed him and his family of their quality of life. She continues to find strength in her faith, comfortable in the knowledge that Ray's long struggle is over and that his soul is at peace. She says softly, "I know that God has a plan and that he has prepared a place for us."