Autopsy: Penn star had brain disease

Owen Thomas, a team captain, committed suicide in April.
Owen Thomas, a team captain, committed suicide in April.

Owen Thomas' condition could be linked to head trauma, researchers said.

Posted: September 14, 2010

A study of the brain tissue of Owen Thomas, a University of Pennsylvania football captain who committed suicide in April, reportedly revealed the beginning stages of a degenerative disease that is believed to be caused by repeated head trauma.

A brain autopsy of Thomas showed chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the same disease found in more than 20 deceased NFL players, including former Eagles safety Andre Waters, who committed suicide in 2006 and was found to have suffered from late stages of the disease.

Thomas' mother, Kathy Brearley, said she believes that her son never experienced a concussion in all his years playing football. The junior defensive end apparently hanged himself in his off-campus apartment.

"Up to this point, this concern about head concussions was not on my radar," said Brearley, a minister in Allentown. "That Owen had the onset of this disease at the age of 21 should be a concern to everyone."

Brearley said there is not enough evidence to conclude that a brain injury contributed to her son's death. But she believes the issue should be studied further since she had thought the issue was a concern only for NFL players.

"The evidence coming in from Owen - and it will have to be confirmed from much further study - is that this [injury] is not just a question of a person getting big hits and then ignoring them," Brearley said. "This is a person getting many little hits, starting from a young age. Football linebackers might get 1,000 little hits. Now we're thinking these are like teaspoons. A thousand teaspoons of water could be the same as a big jug. It's possible."

Thomas' disease may have developed from subconcussive collisions, or repetitive blows, doctors told the New York Times, which first reported the results of the research at Boston University.

Dr. Daniel Perl, a professor of pathology at the U.S. Defense Department's Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, said he was amazed that the disease had manifested itself in a person as young as Thomas.

"It may just be an isolated case, but if it is not, it could be very important," said Perl, who was speaking personally and not on behalf of the government. "I think this broadens the range in which we look for this disease."

Perl said the disease is basically the same that has been reported for years in boxers and is now being reported in hockey players.

However, much more research is needed, said Perl, who is studying traumatic brain injuries sustained in combat.

Perl recently reviewed the slides of the tissue at the request of the doctors at Boston University and confirmed the diagnosis was correct.

"It's clearly this disease," he said.

Brearley made it clear that she is not on an anti-football crusade.

"My father-in-law played for Millersville. My husband played for the University of Virginia. My son Matthew also played for Penn. My son Morgan played for East Stroudsburg," she said. "It's a household that just lives, sleeps, and breathes football. We have the interests of the game at heart. We like a robust game. People can say, 'You don't want these head injuries, just don't play it.' We don't say that. We're very passionate about the sport."

Penn football coach Al Bagnoli said Monday that the school had no record of Thomas, a two-year starter, ever suffering a concussion.

"We've been very proactive for the last four years," Bagnoli said. "Every single kid coming in has to take a baseline neurological test. If he has shown any signs of a concussion, he cannot practice until he gets back to that baseline. It takes the guesswork out of it."

Brearley said she and her husband, Tom Thomas, also a minister, got a call two weeks ago from a researcher at the Boston University School of Medicine informing them of the autopsy result. "When she announced he had this CTE, I was astounded," Brearley said. "It was very bittersweet, to tell you the truth. It adds one missing piece. Maybe there are others.

"Suicide is a very complex issue. It's very painful for everyone involved. There are very subjective factors. It's a huge field of research."

Brearley said she wanted to be careful not to try to presume she had a complete picture of her son's thoughts in his final weeks.

"We had regular contact with Owen," she said. "We did notice that he was a lot more subdued [in the] first part of 2010. He did seem to find his classes overwhelming. Owen set very high standards for himself. I tried to counsel him. . . . He was a normal, energetic outgoing person. That last week, I think he really changed. It's sad. My husband and I feel very sad that we never even thought about this sort of thing."

Brearley said she was surprised when Chris Nowinski, a former professional wrestler who has become an activist on the issue of brain trauma, requested her son's brain for an autopsy. The family expected little to come of it. The BU research team was the same one that recently found pathological evidence that repetitive head trauma experienced in collision sports is associated with motor neuron disease, which affects voluntary muscle movements.

"One of the things with Owen, it's so bittersweet - he did not have a history of depression in his life," Brearley said. "He was such a vibrant person. The police have never come around to us about Owen. Maybe he's gone off and done stuff. But it never came to our attention. He was never in a car accident. He never fell out of a tree. There's no other head injury. I think you have a clear a clinical subject as you could ever want to have, to ask: Why does this disease start its path? I think it's a gift in some ways."

Thomas was the second Penn player to commit suicide in five years. Running back Kyle Ambrogi killed himself in 2005.

Brearley said these findings do not mean the family holds anybody responsible; it is not considering any legal action. She knows many studies are tracking head trauma at several age levels.

"I think it's a good opportunity for the Ivy League schools to take the initiative," Brearley said. "They care deeply about our brains. I think this is an opportunity to take a leadership role. I'm sure they will."


Contact staff writer Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489 or mjensen@phillynews.com.

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