Unveiling the Silent Threat: Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) 

A photo of a football player during a game.

In 2019, the sports world was shaken by the tragic suicide of 18-year-old Wyatt Bramwell, who, posthumously, became the first high school football player diagnosed with late-stage chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). His case underscored the severity of brain trauma at a young age, shedding light on the alarming consequences of youth football.

Wyatt’s heartbreaking journey

Wyatt had been playing football since age 5, dedicating over a decade to the sport. A video shared by his parents with the New York Times revealed his struggles, both with numerous concussions and with depression. Moments before taking his own life, Wyatt expressed in the recording, “The voices and demons in my head just started to take over everything I wanted to do.” His poignant farewell highlighted the mental toll of his football-related injuries.

CTE: A silent threat in youth sports

CTE, a degenerative brain condition, is not exclusive to professional football players. Military veterans and individuals with a history of repetitive head trauma are also susceptible, according to the Concussion Legacy Foundation. The disease is linked to repeated traumatic brain injuries, including concussions and non-concussive impacts, like exposure to blasts.

The discovery of stage 2 CTE in an 18-year-old like Wyatt is a stark indication that youth sports, particularly football, may contribute to its development. Director of the Boston University CTE Center, Dr. Ann McKee, diagnosed Wyatt a year after his death. She emphasized his significant brain damage, despite his involvement only at the high school level. McKee expressed hope that Wyatt’s case would inspire intensified efforts in CTE prevention. She urged the adoption of CTE Prevention Protocols in sports, emphasizing the need for proactive measures to safeguard young athletes.

NFL’s response and safety measures

Jeff Straka, an elementary physical education teacher for Fremont City Schools, highlighted the broader issue of CTE in football. Acknowledging the sport’s inherent dangers, the NFL has invested in advanced helmets and training equipment. Straka mentioned a recent incident where a player from the Denver Broncos faced suspension for a dangerous tackle, prompting the NFL to emphasize player safety in professional leagues and across all levels, including college, high school and pee wees.

Youth sports and CTE awareness

The NFL has implemented on-field neurologists to monitor collisions and head injuries, but this has not been adopted at the young adult level, where CTE effects might not manifest immediately. Straka advises parents to be vigilant about concussion symptoms, stressing the importance of recognizing signs and seeking prompt medical attention.

While football is often associated with CTE, Straka points out that all contact sports present similar risks. Youth soccer has seen a rise in concussions, leading to specific rules for younger players. Straka, having undergone concussion training, emphasizes the seriousness of even minor head injuries on the playground.

CTE prevention at the grassroots level

Straka acknowledges that it is difficult to pinpoint the beginning of CTE, but emphasizes the cumulative impact of repeated head injuries. Some parents opt to withdraw their children from high-contact sports, due to concerns about long-term effects.

Straka encourages correct form and falling techniques in sports, while urging parents to stay vigilant in watching for signs and symptoms, emphasizing consulting a doctor promptly if any concerns arise. 

Meanwhile, the NFL Players’ Union advocated for post-retirement healthcare, driven by the observed CTE symptoms leading to behavioral changes and, in extreme cases, suicide. Wyatt Bramwell’s tragic story serves as a powerful reminder of the pressing need for comprehensive measures to address and prevent CTE in youth sports.

Symptoms of a concussion may include:

  • Headache or a feeling of pressure in the head.
  • Nausea or vomiting.
  • Balance problems or dizziness.
  • Double or blurry vision.
  • Sensitivity to light or noise.
  • Feeling fatigued, sluggish, groggy or dazed.
  • Trouble paying attention.
  • Memory problems.
  • Confusion.
  • Being slow to understand and respond to others.
  • Sleeping problems.
  • Mood changes and irritability.
  • Changes in behavior.
  • Changes in personality.

If there’s any suspicion of a concussion, it’s best not to return to play until symptoms improve. In other words, “If in doubt, sit it out.” Children can have a concussion without losing consciousness. Also, a blow to the body that jars the head can result in a concussion. Make sure your child’s coach knows if your child has had a concussion.