For the Mother of a College Football Player Who Died, Painful Questions About Head Injuries

Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

The Rev. Katherine E. Brearley shows members of a House committee a football helmet once worn by her son, Owen Thomas, a U. of Pennsylvania football player who committed suicide in April. His brain showed signs of a disease connected to depression that can develop from chronic head trauma.
September 23, 2010

The Rev. Katherine E. Brearley says she came to Capitol Hill this week to put a human face on the policy debate over concussions among young athletes. She brought with her a scuffed football helmet—silver, and adorned with a smattering of black stars—to help make the case.

The House Education and Labor Committee summoned Ms. Brearley just days after medical researchers shared some surprising news about her son, Owen Thomas, a football player at the University of Pennsylvania who unexpectedly committed suicide in April. It was only last week that the researchers announced that Mr. Thomas's brain tissue showed evidence of a disease, known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, that was previously associated only with former professional football players who had histories of repeated concussions. He is believed to be the youngest athlete found with signs of the condition in the small but fast-growing body of research on the disease.

Ms. Brearley's son had never reported a concussion in the 12 years he had played football. His disease could have been the result of concussions that went unnoticed, or of countless subconcussive hits.

Still, she came on Thursday to testify before members of Congress on an injury that her son may—or may not—have suffered from. In her arms was the silver helmet. It was the one Mr. Thomas wore during his high school days near Allentown, Pa., before he became a defensive lineman for Penn and before he was named a co-captain of that team.

As she took her seat next to a retired NFL player, Sean Morey—who went on to tell the committee he had suffered "more concussions than I care to admit"—Ms. Brearley placed the helmet on the table for the committee members to see. Photographers crouched over it, snap-snapping with their cameras.

As a young football player, Ms. Brearley said during the hearing, her son loved to compete so much that he often played offense and defense, spending much of every game on the field. At Penn, he was equally fierce but showed a playful side, too, sometimes removing his helmet after a key play and shaking his shock of bright-red hair.

The dozen or so lawmakers present at the hearing asked about concussions at the youth-sports and high-school levels. When is it safe for athletes to return to play? How expensive are the latest computer-based tests used to evaluate recovering athletes? They spoke at length about the NFL, about the "warrior mentality" of football and a "culture" that prevents players from speaking up about injuries. They shared stories of children and grandchildren who played sports.

But, perhaps because the bill would apply only to youth and high-school programs, there was little discussion of concussions among college athletes. And there were few, if any, questions for the mother of the only college player known to have suffered from a brain disease so closely linked with the heavy hits of NFL play.

College Students Are 'in Between'

Throughout the two-hour hearing, Ms. Brearley sat quietly behind the silver helmet, listening intently, her clerical collar peeking from behind a lilac blazer and her brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. But it was what she said later, after the hearing room had cleared out, that was most reflective of the challenges college athletics programs face in detecting and treating head injuries.

College athletes are caught in a "gray area" when it comes to heeding the warning signs of head trauma, Ms. Brearley told The Chronicle after the hearing. When athletes are in high school, their parents see them every day and can pick up on health or behavioral changes, and NFL players are paid professionals who take responsibility for their well-being.

"But college students," she said, "are kind of in between."

Coincidentally, three days after Mr. Thomas took his own life in the Philadelphia house he shared with four teammates, the National Collegiate Athletic Association announced a new policy intended to help colleges protect athletes from head injuries and treat those who get them. Ms. Brearley gave a rueful laugh when told of this.

"I'm glad to hear that," she said. "But it wouldn't have helped us, because he didn't have concussions."

Maybe it's not just major concussions that are the problem, she said. Maybe it's the countless subconcussive hits that Mr. Thomas and other football players absorb during years of competing.

So she's left to wonder: "Why did he get CTE when he never had any concussions that anybody ever saw or knew or understood about? We don't know. This could be a common phenomenon for someone starting when they're age 9. Or it could be a one in a million chance. We don't know."

In any case, she said, college students are in a tight spot: Without the scrutiny of parents nearby, or, in the pro players' case, an army of medical professionals to monitor every twist and turn of their health, warning signs can go unnoticed. If Mr. Thomas, for instance, had struggled in the months before his death or showed symptoms of the brain disease—depression, problems with impulse control, or memory loss—it wasn't family members or even professors who were likely to see that, she said. It was up to his friends.

"A lot of responsibility, in some ways, fell on Owen's housemates to monitor what is normal behavior," Ms. Brearley said. "Well, what is normal behavior for a college student? That's pretty difficult to figure out anyway. Is this bizarre behavior, or is this a college student being a college student? I think there's a lot of responsibility there for college students."