UPenn Football Player's Autopsy Reveals Brain Disease

The disease could have played a part in the linebacker's suicide

By Kelly Bayliss
|  Wednesday, Sep 15, 2010  |  Updated 12:43 AM EDT
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<a title=Owen Thomas was the captain on UPenn's football team when he took his own life earlier this year. His family is left searching for clues as to whether blows to his head suffered during football could have played a role in his death." />

NBCPhiladelphia.com - Doug Shimell

Owen Thomas was the captain on UPenn's football team when he took his own life earlier this year. His family is left searching for clues as to whether blows to his head suffered during football could have played a role in his death.

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An autopsy of the brain of a University of Pennsylvania student who was found dead inside his off-campus home in the spring reveals the beginnings of a degenerate disease, reports The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Owen Thomas, then a Wharton junior and captain of the Penn Quakers football team, hanged himself in April.

Thomas had no history of depression and family and friends were surprised by his sudden death, so when the Sports Legacy Institute at Boston University requested permission to examine Thomas’ brain tissue, the family agreed.

What doctors discovered was the early stages of chronic traumatic encephalopathy or C.T.E., according to the New York Times, a disease believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head. C.T.E. is associated with depression and impulse control, especially among players in the NFL. In fact, in the last 10 years, two players with C.T.E. have committed suicide.

Thomas, the youngest football player to be diagnosed with the disease, had no history of concussion, or even a headache, although his mother, Kathy Brearley, doesn’t rule out the possibility.

“Up to this point, this concern about head concussions was not on my radar," said Brearley to the Inquirer, but she admits that her son “loved to hit” on the football field.

“Any young man that has played as hard as he has for as long as he has in high school and junior football and college football, he’s had his bell rung,” Hovda said. “He’s had a concussion,” University of California doctor, Dave Hovda, confirms to The Daily Pennsylvanian.

At this point, researchers are hesitant to blame the 21-year-old’s death solely on the development of C.T.E. through football injuries as the suicide rate among college students is high. However, the University of Penn and the NFL are taking steps to warn players of the dangers of playing through head injuries.

“I think this can be changed, The Ivy League teams are in a good position to step up and play a leadership role in this,” Brearley told the University’s newspaper.

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