John Gaal Jr.
John Gaal Jr. was a star athlete from Ballwin, MO with a kind and charitable heart. Gaal made big plays for the football and soccer teams at John F. Kennedy Catholic High School in St. Louis and was heavily involved with local charities to support the homeless population in his community. Gaal suffered multiple concussions while playing high school sports, but neither Gaal nor his family were aware of the potential long-term effects of repeated head impacts. His concussions led to years of anxiety and depression before he took his life on March 24, 2017 at age 24. His brain was later studied at the VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank. Dr. Ann McKee, Director of the Brain Bank, diagnosed him with Stage 1 (of 4) CTE. Three years after his passing, John Gaal Sr. shared what his son meant to so many and how the Gaal family is honoring John Jr.’s Legacy.
By John Gaal Sr.
John Gaal Jr.: A giver, not a taker
My son, John Stefan Gaal, Jr., was a smart, good-looking, strong, funny, and kind person. He was the second oldest of four children who dearly loved his mother Mary and his two sisters, Dana and Leah, and one brother, Jake. Mom served as his sounding board, Dana as his compass, Jake as his best friend, and Leah as his partner in practical jokes. To me, he was everything I never was as a young man. John grew up loving the outdoors and sports. Although winning was fun, he cherished every opportunity to take the field win or lose, be it baseball, soccer, football, or frolf (frisbee golf).
On and off the field John truly led by example. He played by the rules, believed in helping the underdog, and equally important, despised cheaters. One of the main reasons John left SLUH (St. Louis University High School) after his sophomore year was to gain more playing time in football. Much to his delight at Kennedy Catholic High School, he was cleared early on to play football and soccer - in the same season - during his junior and senior years. In John’s junior year, the boys’ soccer team finished third in the state. One year later, he scored the only goal of his high school career (the only one that mattered) that sent his team again to the final four. Afterwards, John was honored by being named as a Missouri Second Team All-State soccer player.
As a proud papa, I looked forward to watching John and his little brother play soccer and football each and every weekend. Unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge, John suffered four concussions over the course of those two years at Kennedy. Playing both ways as a running back and safety in football and nearly the entire soccer game as a center midfielder exposed my son to dangers most parents were not aware of back in 2009.
It appears that John Jr. suffered from traumatic brain injuries (TBI) which lead to anxiety, depression, and eventually him taking his life on March 24, 2017. Upon his death, we donated his brain to Dr. Ann McKee at the Boston University CTE Center. She is one of the nation’s foremost experts on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). On December 6, 2017, her team concluded that John Jr. suffered from Stage 1 (of 4) Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).
My son was a giver. He cared dearly about those who did not have supportive and loving families like his. John worked with the mentally ill and often served food to the homeless and underserved in the Columbia, MO area. On one occasion, a regular patron of his told John she appreciated his PBJ sandwiches but “would give anything for a shower.” John immediately tried desperately to help this woman but to no avail. Whenever he repeated this story his voice would crack and eyes would tear up.
One of his final wishes was not to merely feed the homeless but to bring shower facilities to them. So, in his memory, we created the 21-14 Concussion Awareness Foundation. To date, the 21-14 CAF has provided resources to various regional groups serving the needs of the homeless and underserved (i.e., food, shelter, clothing, showers/laundry, hygiene products, assistance for SUD/OUD and mental health, etc.) as well as funding to military and civilian TBI-related research projects. In addition, each Christmas, John’s friends and family continue to honor his memories by holding clothing/hygiene products/food drives for the needy at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in St. Louis.
John Jr. loved to cook with and for his friends and family. He was known for his backyard slip-and-slide parties and often held fire-pit sessions until the wee hours of the morning. Although I wish my John Jr. was still physically in my presence, I know that his caring spirit lives on through his family and friends far and wide. As his proud papa, I promise to do my best to honor his legacy by stopping the stigma associated with mental illness, addiction, suicide, and CTE.
Make no mistake, my son was a good boy!
John Gaal Jr.’s story was also told in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. In it, John Sr. said, “I think we need to stop the stigma of mental illness and raise the awareness of concussions in sports. John paid the ultimate price. I’d give all that pride and glory back to have him here.” You can read that story here.
Suicide is preventable and help is available. If you are concerned that someone in your life may be suicidal, the five #BeThe1To steps are simple actions anyone can take to help someone in crisis. If you are struggling to cope and would like emotional support, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 to connect with a trained counselor. It’s free, confidential, and available to everyone in the United States. You do not have to be suicidal to call. You can also text "HOME" to 741-741 to reach the Crisis Text Line.
If you or someone you know is struggling with concussion or suspected CTE symptoms, reach out to us through the CLF HelpLine. We support patients and families by providing personalized help to those struggling with the outcomes of brain injury. Submit your request today and a dedicated member of the Concussion Legacy Foundation team will be happy to assist you.