Former NFL and Iowa safety Tyler Sash, who died last September in his Oskaloosa home at age 27, has been diagnosed with a degenerative brain disease found in dozens of former professional football players.
Chris Nowinski of the Boston University-affiliated Concussion Legacy Foundation confirmed the diagnosis of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, on Tuesday night to The Associated Press. The New York Times was the first to report the finding.
CTE, which can be diagnosed only after death, is directly linked to repeated brain trauma. It is associated with symptoms such as memory loss, impaired judgment, depression, and, eventually, progressive dementia.
According to the Times’ report, the disease had advanced to a stage rarely seen in someone his age.
The Times report says the severity of CTE in Sash’s brain was similar to the level found in the brain of former NFL hall-of-famer Junior Seau, who committed suicide in 2012 at age 43.
“With Tyler being so young, it’s very surprising to me,” linebacker A.J. Edds, who played at Iowa with Sash in 2008 and 2009, told The Register on Tuesday night. “But when you start looking back and connecting the dots, some of the symptoms and signs were there.
“It’s eye-opening. It tells you about the state and the standing of what football is continuing to do to guys, not just physically but mentally as well.”
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Family members had been growing concerned for Sash’s safety in recent years, indicating that he had battled memory loss, minor temper issues and bouts of confusion, according to the Times.
“It seems to be the story with this CTE stuff,” Edds said. “Hindsight is 20-20 and in hindsight people will look back and say there are some things that didn’t add up, but even when you have stuff like that, you can only do so much to alleviate or rectify any sort of those issues that are going on. It’s a tough deal.”
Sash, who won a Super Bowl during his rookie season with the New York Giants, was found dead at his home on Sept. 8. The Iowa State Medical Examiner’s office found he died from an accidental overdose after mixing two powerful pain medications, and a history of painful injuries was a contributing factor.
Months after the Super Bowl victory, Sash was suspended for four games in 2012 for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing substances policy by testing positive for Adderall, a stimulant used primarily to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and the sleep disorder narcolepsy. The Giants cut ties with Sash prior to the 2013 opener, reaching an injury settlement after he sustained a concussion in the preseason finale against New England.
Sash’s mother, Barnetta, had blamed much of that behavior on prescription drugs he took to combat pain resulting from the shoulder injury.
Doctors grade CTE on a severity scale from 0 to 4; Sash was at stage 2, according to the Times’ report. In comparing the results to other athletes who died at a similar age as Sash, Ann McKee, the chief of neuropathology at the V.A. Boston Healthcare System and a professor of neurology and pathology at the Boston University School of Medicine, told the Times she had seen only one case, a 25-year-old former ex-college player, with a similar amount of the disease.
McKee told the Times that “very classic lesions of CTE” found on Sash’s brain help “explain his inattention, his short fuse and his lack of focus.”
Sash was reported to have at least two concussions while with the Giants. But it’s just not the big hits that worry brain experts — less-severe head collisions can also contribute to the onset of CTE. In high-contact sports such as football, those types of traumas frequently go undiagnosed, the Times’ report said.
Near the time of his death, Tyler Sash was discovered by Barnetta, who went to a neighbor’s house for help. She had visited her son’s home the night before and saw him lying on a couch. When Barnetta returned the following morning, she discovered Sash dead on the couch. Police arrived at Sash’s residence at about 10 a.m.
Barnetta Sash told police her son had seemed disoriented, wasn’t sleeping well and had been dealing with allergies.
Sash’s girlfriend, Heather Dickinson, told police he had injured his shoulder after falling from a ladder. Barnetta told police that one of Tyler’s shoulders had been out of place and a sister helped him reset it.
At Iowa, Sash started 37 games from 2007-10, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors in his final season. He bypassed his fourth year of eligibility to enter the NFL draft.
Barnetta Sash did not immediately return phone calls placed by the Register on Tuesday evening.
Information compiled by The Register's Danny Lawhon. Register sportswriter Andy Hamilton and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
The Iowa head football coach speaks a day after the death of one of his former players.