Football 'literally killed' 24-year-old Zac Easter of Iowa. His family vows to make the sport safer.
INDIANOLA, Ia. — Zac Easter's brain resides in a California laboratory.
That was his dying wish.
On Dec. 19, 2015, at age 24, Easter snuck out of his parents' house, retrieved his 20-gauge shotgun and blasted a hole through his chest, avoiding his brain so it could be preserved and studied.
He knew what doctors would find — chronic traumatic encephalopathy. He hoped that someday a scientist could take that tormented brain and pinpoint what caused a health-obsessed, all-American boy to devolve so quickly into a slurring shell of himself. And more importantly, maybe that knowledge could be used to save some other kid — some other family — from suffering the same anguish.
Shattered by what became of their precious middle son, Brenda and Myles Easter agreed to allow Zac's brain and some blood to be packed up and sent to California. There, Dr. Bennet Omalu of "Concussion" movie fame confirmed the CTE diagnosis.
That was step one. Zac also left instructions for his parents to use the money from his memorials to set up a foundation dedicated to studying concussions — thought to cause CTE — and to making football a safer sport.
So that’s what now consumes the Easter family, which includes sons Myles Jr. and Levi. In the midst of their grief, Zac gave them a calling. They wouldn’t dare ignore it, even as they struggle to understand how they got here. This close-knit family of rambunctious, football-loving, deer-hunting boys is at the forefront of efforts to uncover what happens to the brain when it is subjected to severe and repeated trauma.
Zac Easter was born June 2, 1991, the middle son. Myles Jr. was three years older, destined to be the football star of the bunch. Levi came along 18 months after Zac. Together, they ripped through life in rural Indianola. There were hunting dogs and shotguns and a creek that ran out back. There were trees to climb, four-wheelers to tear around in, fireworks to set off and mud to track into and out of the house.
Myles Sr. encouraged all of it, except for perhaps the four-wheeling. Brenda would get exasperated about the mud at times but was an eager participant in all the roughhousing and competition. As a child, she loved holding her own with her brother and his friends.
“Having three boys was a blessing, because I enjoyed the outdoors. I enjoyed athletics. I’m adventurous,” Brenda says.
Zac was the runt of the group but was also the fiercest. He was the peacekeeper between his brothers, never hesitating to step in and smack one or both of them when he thought it was warranted.
All of them played football. Myles Sr. was a safety at Drake University back when that college offered scholarships. When his boys were young, he coached at Simpson College in addition to his job as a mortgage loan officer and running the family car wash. Later, he was the defensive coordinator at Indianola High School and helped tutor his sons there.
Myles Jr. also was good enough to play college football — two years at Minnesota State-Mankato and three years as a starting safety at Grand View in Des Moines. Now 28, Myles was diagnosed with two concussions in college, but is convinced he suffered two others as well.
He never thought about quitting, though. The question back then was always: “When can we get back and play?"
Zac was a hard-hitting linebacker, despite growing to be only 5-foot-8 and 160 pounds. He never shied from contact, and even bigger teammates grew to fear tangling with him in practices. He wore No. 44, the same as his dad did in high school.
Organized football started at age 8. The Easters now suspect Zac may have gotten his first concussion shortly after that, though it was never diagnosed. They remember him complaining of headaches during middle school.
Brenda took him to a series of doctors, who performed computerized tomography scans on his head that were inconclusive. Doctors surmised that something hormonal was going on with Zac. In time, the headaches either went away or he just stopped complaining about them.
Shortly before Zac’s senior season in 2009, he suffered his first diagnosed concussion. Myles Sr. had taken him to a padded football camp at Truman State in Missouri, a chance to test himself against other high school players from the Midwest. On the second morning, Zac raced up to take on an opposing player, colliding head-on and coming away woozy. The on-site trainer quickly pulled him from play, and father and son returned to Indianola to get ready for the high school season that was rapidly approaching.
They gave it no more thought.
In the fourth game that season, though, Zac was concussed again. He was blocking on a punt return, but the helmet he had been given — which was designed to help prevent concussions — was a little tight on his head and prone to slipping off. It did on this play, but Zac threw a block anyway. Once more, he staggered to the sidelines, but he insisted he was fine and was allowed to keep playing.
The concussion was diagnosed the next morning. That meant three weeks away from football.
Zac returned for the homecoming game against Ankeny in Week 7. He started the game on the sidelines since he hadn’t been practicing, but was later inserted and couldn’t help himself when the opportunity arose to take on a lineman. This time, it was obvious to everyone that something was wrong. Indianola athletic trainer Sue Wilson confiscated his helmet and forbade Zac to return.
On the sideline, Levi Easter, a junior lineman, was glad she did. He went over to speak to his brother. Myles Jr., who had witnessed the collision from the stands, came down also. Both described Zac as “out of it.” Levi recalls Zac as having a strangely emotionless facial expression, a vacant look in his eyes.
“He wanted to play some more. I was like, ‘No, man, I think you should be done. Because you’ve had a few this year,'” says Levi, now 24, and working with Myles Jr. at Bankers Life in West Des Moines. “He just didn’t look right after that last one.
“I felt bad, because I knew he was going to be done playing.”
Indeed, Zac’s high school football career was over. He wasn’t allowed to wrestle that winter, either. People felt sorry for him, but he never planned on playing college football, anyway.
So what was the harm, really?
Zac’s dream since age 5 was to join the Army. Both of his grandfathers had served in the military. Brenda remembers him setting up elaborate formations with his toy soldiers and staging battles before he was even in kindergarten. Whenever Myles Sr. would go to the video store, Zac requested a war movie. “The Green Berets,” starring John Wayne, was a favorite.
His parents did nothing to discourage Zac's ambition, but his dad did dissuade him from joining right out of high school, suggesting a semester of college first.
Zac went to Kirkwood Community College and half-heartedly started work on an associate’s degree. But before the semester was up, he'd signed up for the National Guard. Myles Sr. talked him out of going into the Army full-time, fearful that once he left college, he would never return. The Guard was a good middle ground, he reckoned, allowing Zac to serve while also attending school.
Zac went through basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., returning home in May 2011 with a shaved head and an even more muscular build. He still harbored hopes of becoming an airborne Ranger. In the meantime, he suffered a fourth concussion while running an errand for his dad at the car wash. On the way home, he was rear-ended while he waited at a stop sign. The crash totaled his car, causing both whiplash and the concussion.
Again, Zac shrugged it off, not really wanting medical treatment, Brenda recalls.
Three months later, during a military training exercise, he got his fifth and final known concussion. A flash grenade bounded close to him and exploded, rattling his brain. This time, he told no one. It wasn’t until months later that Brenda overheard him talking to a friend about it.
She was alarmed. He assured her he just didn’t want anyone to worry.
Looking back, she wonders if that event was the tipping point for all that followed.
Zac had to give up on his attempt to become a Ranger. He was caught up in an era when military spending was being reduced, and the Iowa National Guard didn’t have money to sponsor his training. He was disillusioned, but he prepared to move on with his life.
That process included moving home to save money and finishing his degree at Des Moines Area Community College. He still served in the Guard, but got much more serious about school. He hadn't been a strong student in high school, but now he was studying night and day, reading more books than his parents could ever recall.
Myles Sr. would wake up on a Saturday morning to find Zac still cramming at the kitchen table. He transferred to Grand View and started pulling straight A's. His major was in finance, and his desire was to get a master's of business administration and head to Wall Street. He loved reading books by businessmen such as Donald Trump and dreamed of making big money. He also seemed to have the aptitude for it.
But Zac had been masking a problem. The headaches were back. His speech was becoming slurred and unintelligible. His vision was blurry. He increasingly didn’t want to hang out with his friends, or even his brothers.
As usual, Zac turned to Ali Epperson. The two had met at Indianola High School and bonded quickly.
Ali was a year behind Zac and wasn’t much of a football fan; she preferred baseball, to be honest. But they found they could confide everything in each other. Neither was as serious about academics then as they would become later. Ali used to cut her music class weekly to hang out with Zac during his open hour.
“We never shied away from the tough conversations. He was just always a really ambitious, determined, smart guy. He was really nice to everyone and really curious about the world,” Ali says of that initial connection, which extended only to friendship at first.
“We were both kind of scared of our own emotions. We were definitely unofficially off and on for a long time."
Ali went off to Center College in Kentucky. They texted often. Occasionally, Zac would talk about his headaches and the concussions he got playing high school football. She listened but didn’t understand the gravity of it.
She graduated in May 2015 and came home for the summer. By this time, Ali and Zac were a couple, and although marriage wasn’t discussed, they both believed they would be together forever. She planned to go to law school and wanted to move to New York or Washington, D.C. He shared that ambition.
Then Zac said he had something to tell her. It was something no one else knew. Ali grew alarmed.
He was afraid that he had CTE. She Googled the term and became even more terrified.
“I was really scared and nervous, because I was kind of at a loss for words. This person that was such a big part of my life, that I have on a pedestal in many ways, I didn’t know how to help,” Ali says.
“From that moment on, it heightened my awareness of it. He was very, very open to me about it, more so than anyone. I was just kind of that person for him, that face-to-face friend. It was always hard to hear, but he needed that.”
Zac told Ali about the doctors he’d been seeing. One of them recommended that he step away from his job at Alternative Brokerage in Clive, at least temporarily. Zac had started to become unintelligible in phone conversations with clients, and his co-workers noticed, Brenda says. The doctor recommended speech therapy.
There were also psychiatrists, sports medicine doctors and general physicians. Ali estimates that Zac was seeing at least six specialists. Some weeks, he had an appointment nearly every day. None of them could tell him what was wrong, so he was doing his own research and landed on CTE as the most logical conclusion. He also learned there is no treatment for it.
Zac was fighting a losing battle.
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a neurodegenerative disease akin to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. It occurs when trauma to the brain — such as a concussion — causes tau protein to pool or aggregate in brain cells. The buildup leads neurons to misfire, and that portion of the brain essentially rots. There are no FDA-approved medications to combat it, and the disease cannot even be truly diagnosed until after a patient dies.
The CTE-related deaths of prominent former NFL players and release of the 2015 docudrama "Concussion," starring Will Smith, have increased attention on the link between football and brain trauma. Sunday's Super Bowl, like other games from high school to college to the pros, will be played under evolving rules that prohibit targeting the head while tackling and mandate protocols for diagnosing and managing the treatment of concussions.
Symptoms of CTE include memory loss, depression and erratic behavior. Zac, despite being only 23 and six years removed from competitive football, recognized all of those signs in himself.
Ali believes he reached out to her only after all his efforts to treat himself — through Vitamin B and omega-3 supplements, a healthy diet and exercise — proved fruitless.
Next, Zac decided to tell his family. He chose his 24th birthday dinner, at the Sports Page Bar & Grill in Indianola. His parents were there, along with one of Zac’s cousins.
The couldn’t believe what they were hearing.
“Myles and I were both just dumbfounded,” Brenda says. “I knew that we had some things we were dealing with, but I had no idea how he was feeling. I think he was just really scared at that point.”
Brenda swung into action, insisting on accompanying Zac on his doctor visits. She tried to keep track of all the medications he was taking, dismayed to find at one point that he had been prescribed both uppers and downers. Another doctor suggested Adderall, which experts believe makes the condition worse. All the doctors were treating Zac as if he were a mental health patient battling depression and anxiety, not someone suffering brain trauma.
“It was disgusting. They were just feeding him medications,” Levi says. “I was looking at some of the things he was taking and I was like, ‘The symptoms from these pills you’re taking will mess you up.'"
One evening, as Brenda was preparing dinner, Zac came into the kitchen.
“‘Mom, I want my brain donated to science,’" Brenda recalls him saying. “’There’s no hope for me, so I need to help someone else.’
"I said, ‘Well, that’s fine, Zac, but you’re not done with that brain yet. Don’t give up hope yet. We will find the doctors who can help you.’”
Brenda could tell by the defeated look on her son’s face that her pep talk had done no good.
The Easters started noticing that Zac was withdrawing socially and acting strangely. He would drive to their house, then abruptly leave after 30 minutes or less. His sleep patterns were out of whack. They couldn’t always understand what he was saying. He took a part-time job as a landscaper but soon quit, saying he hated it. That was odd, his father thought, because Zac had enjoyed physical labor.
Once in top shape, Zac suddenly couldn’t walk up and down a hill without shortness of breath.
“He was really toned, and then he became chunky,” Myles Sr. says. “His body just went downhill in those six months. That’s what bothered me.”
Myles became especially alarmed when a bank statement arrived at the house saying Zac’s account was overdrawn. His parents knew him as a “money miser.” He was used to saving money, even passing on the chance to take spring break trips with his buddies. They estimated he had built up more than $10,000 in his account.
Myles opened the statement, even though it was addressed to Zac. He was angered by what he read.
Zac had been making a series of unusual purchases, such as dietary supplements by the box-full. He made repeated trips to convenience stores for soda and junk food, stuff he never used to eat and drink while competing in CrossFit competitions. On one day, his father counted 27 separate trips to the store. Zac bled his account dry $5 at a time.
In September, the Easters made Zac move home to keep a closer eye on him. He didn’t have any money left for rent, anyway. Ali went off to law school at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland.
But things got worse. Zac's drinking picked up. So did his sense of foreboding. No one could convince him that there was a way out of his spiral.
On Nov. 13, Zac scared everyone when he got drunk, grabbed his father’s pistol and headed to nearby Lake Ahquabi State Park, a favorite family gathering spot. He left a cryptic Facebook message, texted apologies to Ali and seemed hellbent on killing himself. Sheriff’s deputies got there first, and eventually Myles Sr. coaxed Zac into aborting his plan and surrendering. He was taken to the hospital.
Brenda grew desperate to find help for Zac. She discovered a program in California that treated soldiers who had suffered brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder that also dealt with chemical dependency issues. She wasn’t sure if Zac was addicted to alcohol or any of the medications he’d been taking. But it sounded like a place for him to heal. She hoped the doctors there would focus on head trauma as his core problem.
Zac was adamant he didn’t want to go. He even took off one weekend for an impromptu visit with Ali in Cleveland, venting to her while alternately acting like his old self. She remembers it as mostly a pleasant trip.
Brenda didn’t relent on the California plan, however.
“We were going to put him on a plane right after Thanksgiving,” she says. “He wanted to wait till after Christmas. He wanted to see Ali one more time. I just didn’t have the heart to put him on a plane before he was ready.”
“I don’t think he was ever going to go,” Myles interjects.
He was right. Zac never went.
The Easter family has owned land in Winterset since emigrating from Germany in 1855. The timberland there has become the family’s sacred ground. It was where Zac shot his prized 10-point buck back in high school. The antlers still hang in the middle of the living room.
Myles Sr. had taken all of the family’s guns to his brother’s house after the Ahquabi incident, but he planned one more hunting excursion for himself and his two oldest boys for early December. He needed to get Zac’s mind off his troubles. Levi had to work and couldn’t make it. Myles Jr. drove down and stayed the night in his old room, next to Zac’s.
Myles Jr. was nervous about how his brother might act. Through the wall, he could hear Zac talking to himself, repeatedly going into and out of the bathroom. He finally got a couple of hours of sleep, but woke up around 5 a.m. to find the light still shining from beneath Zac’s door.
Zac emerged, saying: “I don’t even know if I slept last night.”
Myles Sr. and Zac rode to Winterset together through the pitch-black pre-dawn and had a pleasant conversation. Myles apologized for not recognizing earlier the toll that football had taken on his middle son. He assured him they would get all of his problems sorted out. Zac told his father that he was glad he played football. He enjoyed being part of a team.
When they got out of the truck and Myles Sr. produced the guns, he joked with his son: “You’re not going to shoot yourself, right?”
Zac said: “No, I wouldn’t do that here.”
Myles watched his boys walk across the field, just like old times. Zac even smiled. No one shot a deer, but it was a great trip.
“I thought maybe we were going to get over this. Just for a little bit,” Myles says. “I thought, ‘Oh, you know, maybe we’re getting him back.’”
It was the last time he ever went hunting with Zac. Myles Jr. never saw his brother alive again.
Ali came back for Christmas break Dec. 11, 2015. She saw Zac every day. “He wasn’t great,” she says. But there were still fun times.
One of them was Dec. 18, a Friday. Ali picked Zac up and brought him to her house. They ordered pizza for lunch, binge-watched his favorite show, “Shameless,” on Netflix and put up Christmas decorations.
Zac had gotten Ali hooked on “Shameless,” about a dysfunctional family in Chicago with an alcoholic father. The show is funny and sad, she says. It appealed to Zac, she believes, because “you watch this show and it doesn’t make you feel as bad about your life.”
She drove Zac home, intending to see him later for dinner with friends. Zac fell asleep, though, and said he’d rather stay in. She went up to Des Moines without him.
Levi went upstairs to say goodbye to Zac before heading to his shift at a bar in south Des Moines. Zac popped his head out of his bedroom door and told him he’d see him later. Levi says Zac seemed to be in fine spirits.
Brenda, battling a cold, got home from work and went right to bed. She had been nagging Zac about getting a haircut and a shave, because family pictures were scheduled for the next day.
Myles Sr. gave him the keys to Brenda’s car, and off Zac went. In the meantime, Myles took the family’s dogs, Tito and Max, out into the woods, where Tito, a chubby white rat terrier, came upon a possum and got into a bloody death match. Myles snuck Tito through the basement and upstairs to his sons’ bathroom to clean up the mess before Brenda became aware.
Zac returned and opened the bathroom door to survey the scene. “Dad, you’re in big trouble,” he laughed.
Myles washed Tito and started drying him, looking up to realize Zac was still standing there. He had gotten that haircut.
“Boy, you really look good,” Myles told him before heading downstairs to the couch. He liked to sleep where he could keep an eye on the front door. He neglected to collect Brenda’s car keys from his son. He also hadn’t returned the shotguns to his brother’s house, although they were locked in his truck.
Zac was texting Ali throughout her dinner in Des Moines. “Just lovey-dovey couple stuff and joking around,” she says.
Then talk turned to his struggles, as it often did, and about their relationship and all they had gone through.
At 12:24 a.m., Ali’s heart sank when she saw Zac’s final message.
“Thank you for everything,” he began. “You've helped me through so much and never ever blame yourself for anything.”
The past tense signaled to Ali what Zac was about to do. She called Myles Jr. to alert him. He started texting and then calling his father.
Myles Sr., groggy on the couch, finally heard his phone and sat up in confusion.
“Is Zac there?” Myles Jr. asked.
“Yeah, he’s here,” his father said.
“Go check,” a frantic Myles Jr. replied.
Myles Sr. ran upstairs and saw his son’s bed empty, a piece of paper there instead. He had to go downstairs to get his glasses. When he returned, he skimmed the note and saw a telling line: “Sorry, Dad, I broke into the truck.”
“I knew we were in trouble then,” Myles says.
He raced to the truck, discovered one gun case missing — his son’s 20-gauge — and sped to Lake Ahquabi with Brenda at his side.
The sheriff met him at the park entrance, saying simply: “I’m sorry.”
Zac had called the 911 dispatcher, who, at 12:43 a.m., heard the gunshot that killed him. He also had written a note of apology to the first responder who discovered his body.
“I don’t think there was anything that could have stopped it,” Myles Sr. says. “Maybe if I would have caught him going out the door. I just don’t know.”
Myles and his two other sons had been bracing for the moment, though, ever since the first Ahquabi incident.
“If he’s going to do it, he’s going to do it. We knew how determined he was,” Myles says of that conversation. “You’ve kind of got to be prepared, but you’re not.”
Zac had been keeping extensive journals of his final months. Brenda had encouraged him to write down what he was feeling and what treatments he was taking. But she was surprised by how much detail they found in his diaries. They have chosen not to make Zac’s writings public in their entirety. Myles says much of it doesn’t sound like his son.
On his intention to commit suicide, Zac wrote:
"Only God understands what I've been through. No good times will be forgotten and I will always watch over you. Please if anything remember me by the person I am not by my actions. I will always watch over you! Please, please, don't take the easy way out like me."
And regarding his relationship with his father and the sport they shared:
"I've never really felt good enough for him. I know the remarks he will say. I'm sure he loves me but he's always had a hard time showing it. I feel like all my concussions were for him in the first place because I just wanted to impress him and feel tough. I regret all that now and wish I never even played sports."
Zac wrote of his frustration and bitterness. He described details about his medications. And he left instructions for what he wanted his family to do.
His brain has been studied. His ashes will be spread on the hill on the Winterset property where he shot his big buck. The family was unable to make that journey last year because Brenda was dealing with blood clots. They will probably do so in March, Myles says, when the roads become more passable, but before the rattlesnakes emerge from their winter slumber.
The Easters have formed a nonprofit, just as Zac asked. Brenda called it CTE Hope, since she felt her son had gotten to the point where that word was elusive. Mike Hadden, a longtime family friend and athletic trainer at Simpson College, is providing the scientific background. Sue Wilson, the Indianola athletic trainer, helps him. She has Zac’s diaries now, paying close attention to what he was taking and how that affected his disease.
CTE Hope is starting small, with only about $10,000 on hand, Brenda says. She jokes that if everyone who has given her a hug in the past year would just donate a dollar …
But the foundation has big ambitions. Hadden is leading an effort to develop a simple sideline concussion test using an athlete’s saliva. It could be a breakthrough in determining when it’s safe for an athlete to return to competition. The group supports legislation in Iowa that would require high schools to have athletic trainers present during all varsity “collision sports” to monitor the participants for possible concussions.
CTE Hope has planned a fundraising gala for April 21. Brenda, who is executive director of the Indianola Chamber of Commerce, is a dynamic speaker. She cannot yet get through Zac’s story without crying, but she knows she must keep telling it. He compelled her to.
Zac's father is more reluctant to speak out. If it were up to him, Myles Sr. would just close the curtains and grieve in private. But he, too, knows that’s not an option.
The family laid itself bare for the story in GQ Magazine this winter. Brenda even went on an Irish radio station to talk about it. She says she hears often from parents seeking advice about children who have had concussions. What’s the safe thing to do?
She tells them to have the child read Zac’s story and then decide. She’s confident that his words will reach them.
The Easters struggle to understand why Zac chose the path he did. Myles Sr. thinks Zac was driven by the fact that his disease was going to only get worse. Brenda can’t bring herself to acknowledge that her son was beyond help, but concedes it’s likely he would have ended up in a mental health institution.
“I’ve just grown to accept his decision,” Levi says. “I would love to have my brother back regardless of any mental state he’s in. …"
The members of Zac's family have dedicated themselves to protecting other people from the disease that killed their loved one.
"That’s how I look at it," Levi says. “I’m just looking forward now.”
Myles Jr. honors his brother's memory by wearing dog tags with Zac’s name on them. Each morning, he fastens on cuff links emblazoned with the letter “Z” before heading off to work as a manager at Bankers Life.
The Easters remain football fans. Brenda says the family is not out to abolish the sport, although if she had her preference kids would play flag football until high school.
There are signs parents are starting to heed stories such as the Easters’ and that of former Iowa Hawkeye safety Tyler Sash of Oskaloosa, another CTE victim.
A survey last fall by the Marist College Center for Sports Communication found that 44 percent of parents with a son under 18 would be less likely to allow their child to play football now because of the link between concussions and long-term brain injuries. That total is up from 36 percent three years earlier, and the result is closely in line with what a February 2016 The Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll found. That poll, surveying 804 adults in Iowa, found 42 percent saying they would not allow their children to play football. Nine percent were not sure.
Additionally, 17,829 boys played on 11-man Iowa high school football teams in 2015, down from 20,479 in 2005, according to National Federation of High Schools participation data.
Brenda says she never offers advice on whether a child should take up the sport. That’s for parents to decide, she says. She just wants them to have as much information about concussions as possible and hopes for the day when Zac’s nonprofit can discover a way to help keep children out of harm’s way.
“People love football. Zac loved football. He didn’t want it to go away. At the end, he just knew it needed to be made safer,” Brenda says. “Because it literally killed him.”