(Boston) – Lee Reherman, a college football star before he achieved global fame as “Hawk” on television phenomenon “American Gladiators,” was diagnosed with Stage 2 chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) (out of 4 stages, with Stage 4 being the most severe) by researchers at the VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank, a collaboration between the VA Boston Healthcare System, Boston University and the Concussion Legacy Foundation.
“CTE is not just an issue affecting professional football players,” said Lee’s father, Lee Reherman, Sr. “We hope that by announcing Lee’s diagnosis, we can drive more awareness of the need for CTE research at all levels, and encourage parents to delay enrolling their children in tackle football until high school.”
Reherman was a two-time All-Ivy offensive lineman and co-captain at Cornell University before graduating in 1988 and earning his MBA at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. He became a breakout star as Hawk on the syndicated competition show “American Gladiators” in the 1990s. Reherman was a successful actor, host and producer after “American Gladiators,” including parts in “The X-Files,” “NCIS,” “Chuck,” “General Hospital,” and “The First Family” and he hosted “Hot Rod TV” on Speed.
The Concussion Legacy Foundation also announced today that 147 colleges have had former football players diagnosed with CTE, including 26 schools with three or more confirmed CTE cases, one of which is Cornell. A study published earlier this year from researchers at the VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank found that 190 of 202 football players (94%) studied who played in college or the NFL have been diagnosed with CTE.
Among former college players who did not play professionally, like Reherman, CTE was diagnosed in 57 of 66 (86%). 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. 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.
“The brain does not discriminate. Traumatic head impacts can be caused by football, boxing, military service or many other activities,” said Dr. Ann McKee, chief of neuropathology at VA Boston Healthcare System and director of the VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank. “Any activity that involves impacts to the head is associated with risk for CTE. The more hits, the higher the risk.”
Reherman died in 2016 at age 49 from complications following hip replacement surgery. In the time before his passing, he expressed to family and friends that he had difficulties remembering details, was feeling depressed, and was frustrated with his declining health. Prior to his death, he expressed to his loved ones his wish that his brain be donated to the VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank.
Reherman first played tackle football in fourth grade, and BU and VA researchers have identified starting tackle football before age 12 as a risk factor for earlier onset of symptoms associated with CTE. Brain bank scientists published in Annals of Neurology in May that among 211 football players diagnosed with CTE, those who began playing tackle football before age 12 had an earlier onset of symptoms by an average of 13 years, independent of concussion history. This and other research led the Concussion Legacy Foundation to launch the educational campaign Flag Football Under 14 earlier this year.
Reherman co-starred on “American Gladiators” with former NFL player Mike Adamle, who went public last year that he has been diagnosed with dementia, likely due to CTE. Adamle is leading The Mike Adamle Project: Rise Above, an initiative to provide patients living with symptoms of CTE, and their families, with tools, resources, a supportive community, and hope, in partnership with the Concussion Legacy Foundation. Reherman was teammates with Tom McHale, the former All-American offensive lineman for Cornell who played nine years in the NFL. McHale died in 2008 at age 45, and was the second former NFL player to be diagnosed with CTE by researchers at the VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank.
CTE is a neurodegenerative disease that is associated with deficits in cognition, behavior, and mood. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is believed to be caused by repetitive head impacts, including concussions as well as subconcussive trauma.
The VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank, founded in 2008, is the world’s largest CTE brain bank with subspecialties in concussion, ALS and other consequences of brain trauma. More than 600 brains have been donated, resulting in over 360 CTE diagnoses, more than 70 percent of confirmed CTE cases globally. More than 4,000 former athletes, military veterans, and controls have taken the #MyLegacyPledge to donate their brain, and individuals with any head impact exposure history are invited to pledge at ConcussionFoundation.org/pledge.
Reherman played in the Ivy League, which as a football conference has taken the most steps to reduce risk since the Brain Bank discovered CTE in the first college football player, Mike Borich, in 2009. The Ivy League formed the first collegiate conference concussion committee, and in 2011 was the first to limit full-contact football practices to no more than twice per week. In 2016, the Ivy League football coaches voted to eliminate full-contact hitting from practices during the regular season and made changes to the kickoff that have resulted in a 68% decrease in concussions.
 Bieniek KF, Ross OA, Cormier KA, et al. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy pathology in a neurodegenerative disorders brain bank. Acta Neuropathol. 2015;130(6):877-89.