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First four former North American Soccer League (NASL) players diagnosed with stage 4 CTE
(Boston) – The families of four former North American Soccer League (NASL) players are announcing today that Boston University CTE Center researchers diagnosed their loved ones with stage 4 (of 4) chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The families of Jimmy Conway, Jim Fryatt, Jimmy Gabriel, and Franny Pantuosco are releasing the findings of their brain study through the Concussion Legacy Foundation (CLF) to raise awareness for the risks of heading in soccer in hopes that US Soccer and the North American soccer community will implement new safety protocols to prevent future CTE cases.
“Soccer poses a clear risk for the development of CTE,” said Dr. Ann McKee, chief of neuropathology for the VA Boston Healthcare System and director of the Boston University CTE Center and UNITE Brain Bank. “We've found CTE in soccer players, young and old, non-professional and professional. There needs to be greater emphasis on reducing or eliminating heading during soccer, as heading is a major source of concussions and the repetitive nonconcussive injuries that cause CTE.”
“I am frustrated that American soccer organizations have, so far, refused to acknowledge that repeated heading in soccer can cause CTE,” said CLF CEO Dr. Chris Nowinski. “CTE is entirely preventable, and every day they don’t confront it, we give soccer players new cases of CTE. Considering how many children play between the ages of 11 and 18, when heading is allowed, this is simply unacceptable.”
Dr. McKee’s research team diagnosed Jimmy Conway with stage 4 (of 4) CTE after his death in 2020 at age 73. Jimmy’s wife Noeleen noticed he began to struggle maintaining conversations starting in his mid-50s. At 63, Conway went public with his dementia diagnosis. Conway played for top-flight clubs in Ireland and England in the 1960s and 70s, including a 10-season run with Fulham FC. He also made 20 international appearances for Ireland. The midfielder moved to the US in 1978 and played three NASL seasons with the Portland Timbers before moving to the coaching ranks, where he became a pillar of the Oregon soccer community. Conway was the director of coaching for the Oregon Youth Soccer Association for 28 years. He spent five seasons as the men’s head coach at Pacific University and became Oregon State’s first head coach when the men’s program launched in 1988.
BU CTE Center researchers also diagnosed stage 4 CTE in the brain of Jim Fryatt after his death in 2020 at age 79. Fryatt started playing club football at age 12. He became a productive striker for eight lower division English Football League teams from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s. Fryatt entered football lore in 1964 when he scored just four seconds into a match, setting the fastest goal record which still stands today. The 5-foot-11 center forward earned a reputation for utilizing a powerful header in the opponent’s box, a skill that contributed to many of his 205 professional goals. Fryatt crossed the Atlantic to join the Philadelphia Atoms in 1973, helping the club win the NASL championship in its inaugural season. Fryatt moved to Las Vegas to manage the short-lived Quicksilvers franchise in 1977 and stayed in the area to raise his family. When he died, Jim’s wife Val donated his brain for study because she believed it was likely he had CTE.
Jimmy Gabriel was born in Dundee, Scotland and debuted for his hometown club as a 17-year-old in 1958. He moved to England after three seasons and helped lead Everton to a league title in 1963 and an FA Cup in 1966. He remained a fan favorite in the 1960s and 70s with Southampton and Bournemouth before joining the NASL’s Seattle franchise, where he was known as the original Mr. Sounder. Gabriel quickly became a staple of the local soccer scene, serving as the first captain for the Sounders franchise and becoming Seattle’s second head coach in 1977. Gabriel was also the first coaching director for Washington Youth Soccer, and later worked as an assistant coach for the University of Washington’s men’s and women’s soccer programs. In his late 60s, Gabriel began experiencing cognitive difficulties. After his death in 2021 at age 80, Gabriel’s family donated his brain tissue to the UNITE Brain Bank, where BU researchers diagnosed him with stage 4 CTE.
Franny Pantuosco passed away in September 2021 at age 64 with dementia after struggling with cognitive issues for the last decade of his life. Pantuosco started playing soccer in Springfield, MA at age 7, and went on to be a two time All-American and a key member of Babson’s 1975 NCAA National Championship team. He was selected by the New England Tea Men in the 1979 NASL draft where he played for one season. Pantuosco went on to earn his MBA from UConn in 1990 and coach youth soccer for 23 years. After his death, BU CTE Center researchers diagnosed him with stage 4 CTE.
Conway, Fryatt, Gabriel and Pantuosco are the first former NASL players to be diagnosed with CTE. BU CTE Center researchers diagnosed the first former MLS player, Scott Vermillion, with stage 2 CTE after his death at age 44 in 2020. Dozens of other soccer players at various levels have also been studied at the UNITE Brain Bank, including semi-professional player Patrick Grange, the first American soccer player diagnosed with the disease in 2014, and former high school player Curtis Baushke.
The National Institutes of Health, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), United Kingdom’s National Health Services (NHS), Football Association (England) and Professional Footballer’s Association (England & Wales) all state that CTE is caused by repeated traumatic brain injuries. Studies showing an elevated risk of dementia among field players, but not goalies, in soccer are among the research backing the conclusion that heading, and not rare concussions, are the cause.
Help is available for former soccer players who may be struggling with suspected CTE symptoms. The Concussion Legacy Foundation HelpLine provides free, personalized support to patients and families battling concussion or suspected CTE symptoms. Anyone who needs assistance or support can reach out at CLFHelpline.org.
Former soccer players interested in joining research efforts to prevent future cases of CTE are encouraged to join the CLF Research Registry to enroll in relevant studies and pledge to donate their brains. Learn more here.