Max Tuerk was a star lineman for the University of Southern California before being drafted in the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft by the San Diego Chargers. Shortly after, Tuerk began experiencing severe behavioral and mood changes. His symptoms contributed to his NFL career ending. On June 20, 2020, Tuerk passed away unexpectedly at age 26. His parents, Greg and Val Tuerk, donated his brain to the UNITE Brain Bank after his death, where researchers diagnosed him with stage 1 (of 4) Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).
Val Tuerk wrote her son’s Legacy Story to share how hard he fought the disease before his death, and to advocate for Flag Football Under 14.
By Val Tuerk, Max's mother
Max Tuerk was a force to be reckoned with from birth: he came into the world a whopping 9 pounds, 8 ounces, ready to make his mark. His massive smile lit up his face. He was gregarious and outgoing. He was never hesitant nor fearful and jumped into new experiences with excitement and an eagerness for adventure. Max loved to be around people and had many friends. He was known for his warmth, loyalty, and fun-loving spirit. He had a personality to match his size.
Under the smile and playful, adventurous spirit, was a will of steel. He knew what he wanted and was relentless in pursuing his goals. In middle school, he secretly carved “USC – NFL – HOF” onto his desk. He was able to achieve two of those lofty goals during his short life.
Max was very close with his siblings and was unquestionably the leader of the Tuerk squad. He was sometimes affectionately called "Officer Max" because he always kept Drake, Abby, and Natalie in line! He was fiercely loyal and was their mentor and protector. He always encouraged his siblings, especially in sports. He loved to watch a fierce competition as much as he loved to participate in one – once offering Natalie $5.00 if she could get a red card in soccer! Max had special relationships with his parents as well. He bonded with his dad over sports, competition, grilling, and beer. He and I enjoyed travel, adventures, and playing games together. As anyone who knew Max can attest, he loved to eat and appreciated good food. It was a true pleasure to cook for him and we shared many wonderful meals as a family.
Beyond his determination, Max’s defining characteristic was his loyalty. He was devoted to his family, friends, teammates, and coaches. He loved football, not for fame or for money, but for the camaraderie and bonds he established with his teammates, whom he considered brothers. He had zero tolerance for negativity or backbiting, which he would quickly squelch. He never complained about coaches, playing time, or teammates. He was known to stand up for the underdog on the team. This is one of Max’s most important legacies: every time we find ourselves gossiping or criticizing, we remember Max and pause. We want to live up to the high standards he set.
Max loved sports from an early age – any sport, any time. He just loved to be part of a team and to be with his friends. He started out in taekwondo, soccer, and baseball, but found his true love when he began playing tackle football in the 4th grade. Max was the ultimate competitor. He never took a play off. He gave every bit of himself to his game and inspired those around him to do the same. He was a natural leader who inspired confidence in teammates and coaches.
Football came to dominate Max’s life in high school, and it became clear he was blessed with great talent to go with that amazing determination and work ethic. Max helped lead his Santa Margarita High School Eagles to win the State Championship his senior year, playing both offensive tackle and defensive end. He was selected as an Army All-American his senior year and received 30 D-I football scholarship offers. Max signed with USC, ticking the first item off the list he carved into his desk years before.
Max made history at USC as the first freshman to start at left tackle. Max’s first game at left tackle was also coach Clay Helton’s first game as offensive coordinator, and it was a big one against Oregon in the Coliseum. Coach Helton was a bit nervous before the game and asked Max, “Are you going to be OK?” Max smiled and assured him, “I’ve got you, Coach.” There Max was inspiring others, as usual.
Throughout his USC career, Max played all five offensive line positions. He was admired and respected by his teammates and was twice voted team captain. Although there was a great deal of turmoil at USC during his time there, including multiple head coaching changes and a different offensive line coach each year, Max loved USC and was a true Trojan. He made wonderful friends, joined a fraternity, and fell in love. Unfortunately, Max’s senior season was cut short when he tore his ACL against Washington on October 8, 2015. Not to be deterred from fulfilling his dream to continue in football, Max decided to leave USC to prepare for the NFL draft. Despite his injury, Max was selected by the San Diego Chargers with the 66th overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft. The second item on his list was checked off.
We first noticed changes in Max’s behavior after the draft. Normally outgoing and gregarious, Max began to isolate himself and stopped communicating with his family. This concern intensified once Max moved to San Diego with the Chargers. He became extremely paranoid and suspicious, and his behavior turned increasingly erratic. The move from the camaraderie he had known and loved his whole life to the world of professional sports was a challenging transition. He was convinced that members of the Chargers were trying to sabotage him and his paranoia soon extended to his family. He began to believe we were collaborating with his enemies to harm him.
This behavior was extreme, alarming, and confusing. Initially, we worried drug use was causing this erratic behavior. But it soon became clear Max was experiencing a mental health crisis. Max’s mental illness led him to make choices that were extremely detrimental to his future. To make matters worse, he had no insight into the fact he was ill, which absolutely devastated us. We wanted nothing more than for Max to get the help he so desperately needed, but he was unable to recognize he needed help. Instead, he thought we were trying to harm him. All those years of playing through the pain and refusing to acknowledge any weakness had made it virtually impossible for Max to ask for or accept help.
He continued to isolate himself from his family, friends, and support system. In this altered state of mind and in isolation, he sought alternatives to enhance his chances of success in the NFL, leading to his choice to take performance enhancing drugs. This was completely out of character for Max and led to his suspension by the Chargers before his second season. At this time, Max was persuaded to see a psychiatrist, who prescribed Max with antipsychotic medication. The medicine did seem to help Max for a time. He was dropped to the Chargers practice squad after his suspension but was picked up by the Arizona Cardinals and looked to make a fresh start. But the second season unfolded much the same as the first. Max was simply not the same physically or mentally and at some point, stopped taking his prescribed medication. He was dropped by the Cardinals after the 2017 season.
Max returned home to southern California and tried to remake his life. His symptoms made it difficult for him to maintain a job – he struggled with hallucinations, psychosis, and extreme depression. Although still lacking insight into his condition, he was aware something was seriously wrong and made every effort to take care of himself. He believed he could fix what was going on in his brain and was extremely disciplined about his food intake and exercise. He had always been able to take care of things on his own. Why should this be different?
Max’s symptoms became increasingly severe and could not be managed without medication. Max had several serious incidents and was hospitalized twice. The second hospitalization was triggered by threats of violence to his family. Max was not violent before this incident and had always been considered a gentle giant. This was devastating for all of us, but particularly for Max. He could no longer recognize himself. He had been the protector of family and friends his whole life. This was not who he was. Finally, Max gained insight into his illness and voluntarily accepted treatment.
Max approached treatment as he approached everything in his life, with steely determination. He was going to have the life he dreamed of and deserved, and we were filled with admiration watching him fight. He had to deal with paranoia, psychosis, hallucinations, and a depression he described as the deepest darkness he had ever faced. He also dealt with mental fog, headaches, and what we later found out to be cardiac symptoms. He was battling a mental illness while watching everything he had ever dreamed of evaporate before his eyes. Max’s pain was unbearable and excruciating for our family. The mental demons Max faced were wreaking havoc on him, but he puffed out his chest and “fought on.” He never complained or despaired. He believed he would be able to get his life back.
Max managed his mental health and maximized his new reality. He was working part time, going on daily hikes with me, eating, exercising, and taking care of himself. We know he was struggling with all of this, but he was very stoic and never let on that he was in pain.
On June 20, 2020, Greg, Max, and I took a beautiful hike together. Max collapsed on the trail. Paramedics were called and helicopters arrived, but Max died on the trail with us. We learned after his death that he had an undiagnosed cardiac condition known as cardiomegaly, or an enlarged heart, which caused his death. His death was a tragic loss and has left a gaping hole in our lives. But we feel comforted that he was in a beautiful place doing something he loved, with the people who loved him most in the world.
We were looking for answers in the dark days of Max’s mental illness – why was this happening to this proud and capable young man? We knew something was terribly wrong with his brain but there was no help to be found. No one understood what was happening and no one could help Max when he did not want help. We suspected Max had CTE and Greg reached out to Dr. Chris Nowinski at the Concussion Legacy Foundation for help in these dark days. Chris provided warm understanding and helped us to feel a bit less alone.
When Max died unexpectedly on that trail, one of our first calls was to Chris to arrange for Max’s brain donation. We hoped and prayed we could get to the bottom of what had happened to our beautiful, strong boy. Max’s brain was studied by Dr. Ann McKee, and he was diagnosed with stage 1 (of 4) CTE. In addition, his brain showed significant white matter damage and there was a cavum septum pellucidum between the hemispheres of his brain. His brain had been damaged by all the years of impact he sustained playing the sport he loved. We were not surprised as we knew something was dreadfully wrong in Max’s brain.
Max never had a diagnosed concussion, but there is no doubt he had several. Sometimes after a particularly tough game, he would seem unusually sad, quiet, and aloof. Of course, he never acknowledged that anything was wrong or he was in pain. Once he was in the NFL, he had debilitating headaches and would require darkness and silence. But more important than these probable concussions, he experienced subconcussive head impacts repeatedly from the age of nine. As a lineman who played offense and defense until reaching college, Max’s brain absorbed hit after hit, setting the stage for the disease that would take everything from him and take him from us.
Football was Max’s life. But that love cannot begin to compare with the pain and suffering he experienced at the end of his life. It was absolute hell physically and emotionally. And we now know it was all preventable. He could have played the sport he loved in a much safer way. He could have played flag football until he got to high school, saving his brain from the countless hits he absorbed between fourth and ninth grade.
Max and I hiked daily in his final months of life, and I feel very connected to him each time I walk on “our trail.” One day when I was hiking, I felt Max speaking to me very loudly - my determined boy had something to say. I dictated these words on the trail; I have never written a poem in my life, and I am certain this came directly from Max and was meant to be read and to make a difference:
They are born with the heart of a warrior.
That heart swells with the words of those around them:
“Play through the pain”
“Take one for your team”
“Never give up”
And their brain responds.
This is who they are. They are buoyed by the words of those around them:
“You’re a leader”
“You’re so strong”
“Never show weakness”
“You’re a beast”
You understand that you cannot stop to answer the call of pain. That would be a weakness and above all, you cannot show a weakness.
Your brain takes this in and adapts.
They make you a hero. A star. Everyone knows your name.
It creeps in slowly.
Headaches that won’t go away. The confusion. The blackouts. How can it be there? That doesn’t happen to you.
You continue to play, but your shimmer slowly starts to dull.
You understand there’s a tangle inside your brain. Something isn’t right. But that same strength of character that led you to excel will not allow you to ask for help.
Eventually, the monster inside your brain robs you of everything. You can no longer do what you love. You can no longer trust those around you. You are in so much physical and mental pain.
You are so very, very alone.
Your suffering is immense.
Everyone who made you into a hero are quick to turn away.
The fame is ephemeral. And the cost was immense.
The very sense of self at its core is shattered from the pinnacles of success to the depths of despair.
To be so capable and successful and to be reduced in so many ways. It’s just intolerable.