Dead at 27: Ex-NFL Player's Rare Brain Trauma

By Erik Lief — Jan 28, 2016
Tyler Sash, a former NFL player, officially died from a drug overdose -- a lethal combination of prescription drugs. But more and more, when it comes to football players succumbing to a surprisingly early death, it seems that brain trauma is often a major contributor. And Sash, who died at just 27, had more trauma than most.
Brain Scans via Shutterstock Brain Scans via Shutterstock


Yes, Tyler Sash, a former New York Giants player, officially died from an accidental overdose -- his death was a result of a lethal combination of prescription medication. But more and more, when it comes to football players succumbing to a surprisingly early death, it seems that brain trauma is often an underlying cause and a major contributor.

In this case, what's remarkable and equally tragic is that the NFL safety was just 27, making him one of the youngest players diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, to die with the condition that's seemingly sweeping the sport. Also eye-opening was that the extreme trauma Sash's brain suffered was rare for someone so young.

The Super Bowl winner played football for 16 years -- starting at age 11 -- and he reportedly suffered at least five concussions. CTE is a progressive, neurodegenerative disease caused by brain trauma. It is common among athletes, football players chiefly among them, who both play contact sports and have a history of concussions.

Since CTE's discovery nearly 10 years ago, dozens of cases have been linked to former football players. But the main difference here is that players such as Mike Webster, Andre Waters and Frank Gifford, to name a few, were decades older than Sash.

Unfortunately, CTE can only be detected post-mortem -- no clinical tests currently exist to evaluate the living. Which means that today in terms of prevention, players, both current and retired, must be cognizant of the symptoms associated with brain trauma, which, may eventually lead to CTE.

While Sash's death was preceded by him making several questionable decisions, it's only after his CTE diagnosis that his family can now make some sense of his recent past. In addition to mixing and consuming prescription pills, being publicly intoxicated and getting arrested after being cut from the NFL, the New York Times noted that Sash suffered from confusion, memory loss and uncharacteristic aggression. It's only in retrospect that family and friends can understand that he was operating with a damaged brain, which severely impaired his decision making, which in turn may have led to his overdose. But the findings that the Iowa native was afflicted with CTE may, in some ways, be helping those close to him find peace with his death.

"My son knew something was wrong, but he couldn't express it," said Barnetta Sash, Tyler's mother, who found him dead on Sept. 8. "He was such a good person, and its sad that he struggled so with this not knowing where to go with it. Now it makes sense. ... The part of the brain that controls impulses, decision-making and reasoning was damaged badly."

And Barnetta Sash was not the only one struggling for answers. Suspicions of an underlying condition were confirmed when Frank Gifford's family chose to have his brain examined "in hopes of contributing to the advancement of medical research concerning the link between football and traumatic brain injury." Gifford died of natural causes, but his autopsy revealed the presence of CTE.

With CTE constantly making news, more and more football players -- both current and retired -- are reflecting on their long history with the sport, hoping to pick up any symptoms of brain trauma early and get any possible treatment. But some are choosing to opt out of the game entirely.

Take Chris Borland, a former linebacker with the San Francisco 49ers. At just 24, Borland retired from the NFL last March after just one season -- passing on an opportunity for a long, prosperous and potentially lucrative career -- after learning more about the dangers of CTE.

"I just honestly want to do what's best for my health," Borland told ESPN's Outside the Lines. "From what I've researched and what I've experienced, I don't think it's worth the risk."

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