CTE in Former College Football Players


(Updated Nov. 1, 2018) Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disease that evidence indicates is caused by brain trauma, has now been diagnosed in former football players from 147 college football programs. The data is from the VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank, a collaboration between the VA Boston Healthcare System, Boston University, and the Concussion Legacy Foundation.

Every conference within the college football Power 5 conferences (Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12 and Southeastern Conference (SEC)) has at least one of its schools represented among the 26 college football programs with three or more confirmed cases of CTE. The 26 programs which have three or more confirmed cases have combined for 83 national championships.

A study published in 2018 by researchers at the VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank found that 190 of 202 football players (94 percent) studied who played in college or the NFL have been diagnosed with CTE. Among players who played in college but did not play professionally, CTE was diagnosed in 86 percent (57 of 66). 86 percent does not represent the prevalence of CTE in former college football players, as families are more likely to donate if their loved one had symptoms associated with CTE. Scientists are trying to understand how these football families, without medical training, have correctly diagnosed their loved one with CTE nearly nine out of 10 times, as there are no published methods for diagnosing CTE in living people.

CTE is not seen outside of individuals with a history of exposure to brain trauma, frequently from contact sports. A 2015 study by the Mayo Clinic could not find a single case of CTE in 198 control brains, including 33 who had a traumatic brain injury in their medical record.

Georgia has the most documented CTE cases with nine, followed by Michigan State with eight. Auburn, Iowa, Ohio State, Purdue, South Carolina, University of Southern California (USC), and Wisconsin have five cases each. Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona State, Boston College, Colorado State, Kansas State, Michigan, Notre Dame, San Diego State, Texas, and UCLA have four cases each. Cornell, Penn State, Ole Miss, North Carolina, and Washington have three cases each.

Colleges with one or two CTE cases include: Abilene Christian, Baylor, Bucknell, Cal Poly, Cal State, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, California Berkeley, Clemson, College of the Pacific, Colgate, Colorado, Compton Junior College, Dartmouth, Drexel, Duke, Elmhurst, Emory and Henry College, Emporia State, Ferris State, George Washington, Georgetown, Georgia Institute of Technology, Gettysburg, Grambling State, Grand Valley State, Hampden-Sydney College, Harding, Harvard, Hofstra, Holy Cross, Howard Payne, Howard, Indiana, Jacksonville State, Kansas, Kent State, Lakeland College, Long Beach City College, Miami University of Ohio, Mississippi State, Missouri Southern, Montana Tech, New Mexico State, North Carolina A&T, Northern Colorado, Northwestern State, Northwestern, Oregon State, Otterbein, Pittsburgh State, Prairie View A&M, Presbyterian College, Rice, Rutgers, Saginaw Valley State, San Jose State, Snow College, South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, South Dakota State, Southeast Missouri State, Southern Connecticut, Southern Methodist, Southern, St. Johns, St. Leo University, Stanford, Syracuse, Temple, Tennessee-Chattanooga, Texas A&M, Texas Southern, The Citadel, Trinity, Tulane, U.S. Naval Academy, Arizona, University of British Columbia, Charleston, Cincinnati, UConn, Houston, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, Manitoba, Maryland, Memphis, Miami, Minnesota, Mizzou, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, UPenn, Pitt, Richmond, University of San Francisco, Tennessee, UMass Amherst, UTEP, University of the Pacific, Utah, Virginia, Upper Iowa University, Utah State, Vanderbilt, Villanova, Virginia Military Institute, Wake Forest, Washington State, West Chester University, West Point, West Virginia, Western Illinois, Western Michigan, Whitworth, Wichita State, William and Mary, Wittenberg, and Yale.

This information raises awareness that CTE is not just an issue in professional football players. The data should not be interpreted to say that players from certain schools are at greater risk than other college players. Instead, the data shows the widespread reach of this disease, and the commitment by the alumni and their families of these schools to support CTE research by participating in brain donation.

Lee Reherman is one of the college football players represented in this cohort. An All-Ivy League offensive tackle at Cornell University, he went on to global fame as “Hawk” on the television phenomenon “American Gladiators,” and was later a successful actor and television host. Prior to his death at age 49 in 2016, Reherman expressed to family and friends that he had difficulties remembering details, was feeling depressed, and was frustrated with his declining health. Read more here.

Greg Ploetz is also one of the college football players represented in this cohort. A defensive tackle at the University of Texas who was part of the 1969 national championship team, he died of complications of dementia in May of 2015 at the age of 66. Ploetz never played football professionally, but started playing at the age of 10 and began to show signs of cognitive decline at the age of 60. His symptoms, which began as memory loss, confusion and headaches, worsened in his later years and led to loss of speech and dementia. Ploetz’s niece created a short film, “Art of Darkness: A Story of CTE,” capturing his decline and its effect on his family. View the film here.

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