Cookie Gilchrist ran harder than anyone in the American Football League. His toughness and tenacity were his strongest assets, but could have caused lifelong damage to the bruising fullback, according to a new report released this weekend.
Mark Gaughan of the Buffalo News first had the report from the Sports Legacy Institute at Boston University. According to doctors at the university who studied Gilchrist's brain after his death, he suffered severe brain damage as a result of repeated blows to the head. I can't say it any plainer than Gaughan did, so here's his paragraph:
Researchers there found that Gilchrist had a severe case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neuro-degenerative disease known to cause cognitive decline and behavioral abnormalities. Gilchrist's disease was in Stage IV, the most advanced category, said Dr. Robert Stern, co-director of the center and professor of neurology and neurosurgery at BU.
Gilchrist playing in the Canadian Football League and the AFL from 1956 through 1967. He was the first 1,000-yard rusher the AFL ever had, and earned AFL MVP honors in 1962 with 13 touchdowns to go with his 1,096 yards. In 1963, he set the pro football record with 263 yards in a single game and was named the All-Time AFL fullback.
Despite these accomplishments, many aren't familiar with Gilchrist's story because he became very reclusive later in his life. It's a trait associated with CTE, says Dr. Stern.
"It seems he did fit a very typical clinical picture of having traumatic encephalopathy," Stern said. "Starting at approximately the age of 35, he demonstrated difficulties in behavior and cognition, with the most striking difficulties in the last several decades."
"That included paranoia, problems with impulse control, strange behaviors and being rather reclusive," Stern said. "He also had a very short fuse and was aggressive at times. In the last 10 years of his life, these symptoms apparently worsened, and in the last year or so, he demonstrated more significant cognitive difficulties, including problems with memory, judgment and problem solving."
I spoke with Gilchrist family spokesperson and Cookie's biographer, Chris Garbarino, this Sunday. Garbarino says the news didn't provide comfort for the behaviors they saw from Gilchrist, but it did provide understanding.
"I think now you can view a lot of things through the prism of knowing that he was suffering from this condition," said Garbarino. "It really puts a lot of things into perspective."
"I have mixed feelings," Scott Gilchrist, one of Cookie's two sons, told Gaughan. "It gave me a little peace of mind, but not really peace of mind. If it had occurred to me he was suffering from the effects of concussions, then that would have explained some of his actions. He was very unyielding in his thought process."
The family wants as much information as possible to be shared with professional athletes in the hope that they can avoid a similar fate with severe brain injury.
"We felt it was needed," said Garbarino about going public with the news. "These things are for real. Now you're seeing that this is consistently happening - even the major players and the major stars from that era. If you don't make it public, it's not going to register with people, and it's not going to change."
Not only is there hope to prevent these injuries from taking their toll in the future, Garbarino hopes that former players dealing with these types of injuries can understand them just a little better.
"There are a lot of guys out there suffering that have made themselves recluses and have shut themselves off from the world because they can't deal with the symptoms that they are going through from CTE.
"I think that by releasing the information, it will also help others families of professional athletes who may have other questions of why their loved one is suffering from repeated headaches, or forgetfulness, or premature onset of dementia," continued Garbarino. "Maybe this information will give them something to look to and research how to handle what they are going through. It's about letting them know, 'I'm not the only one going through this. Look, there's somebody else. Now I have an outline of where I can go and find this information on where to go to deal with this.'"
Going forward, the results of this and similar studies could lead to an even greater focus being placed on concussions in the NFL.
"You need more people to know about it, and there need to be changes made to how concussions are handled in the league. In the last year or so, they have made a lot of changes with that, but still more needs to be done," said Garbarino.
It's the family's hope, as well as the hope of researchers, that more athletes will take notice when bigger names like Gilchrist are mentioned in the studies.
"We figured by putting a face to it, we'd help the work of the Sports Legacy Institute, and we'd help them get more donations from retired players' families for the brain study," explained Garbarino. "The more case studies you have, the more information you can compile to help for the future."
The effects of brain injuries can be hard to diagnose in the early stages. In the more advanced stages, the symptoms can be very different from person to person.
"It's not like a knee injury or a shoulder injury where it shows specific symptoms and everybody is going to have the same type of problems if they have that type of injury," notes Garbarino. "This type of condition affects everyone differently, and you really can't categorize everybody the same with this. A lot of the symptoms mirror people with Alzheimer's or dementia."
The family released a statement. Here is the statement in its entirety:
The Gilchrist family wants to thank the Doctors and Staff at the Sports Legacy Institute and the Boston University Center for the study of Traumatic Encephalopathy for their tireless work in researching the effects of repeated head trauma. The research they are conducting will undoubtedly improve the lives of future generations of athletes, at all levels of competition, from childhood to the professional ranks. The results from the research conducted by the study also provide needed closure for many families. Many former athletes and their families have suffered in silence from the effects of CTE. While the Athlete suffers the physical effects of CTE, their family and friends suffer emotionally watching their loved ones fade away, with symptoms that range from episodes of forgetfulness to violent outbursts. Soon the person that they knew, no longer exists. The families go from being wives, sons or daughters to becoming caretakers. For many that have played contact sports, prior to the movement and research started by the Center for the study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, it is too late to protect them from the harmful effects of CTE. But their families can now be well informed and prepared for how to handle what lies before them. We highly recommend that, if possible, all families of former athletes take part in the study's brain donation program. Only through continued research will they truly be able to protect the future generations of athletes.
Gilchrist will be inducted into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame this Wednesday. Garbarino's biography of Gilchrist will be released later this year. The final chapter includes his struggles with CTE.