Not long ago, CTE was considered an obscure and not well-defined disease. A pivotal moment that propelled CTE into the spotlight occurred when researchers at the Boston University (BU) CTE Center conducted a press conference during the week of Super Bowl XLIII in 2009. Based on the results of a post-mortem autopsy, the BU researchers reported that nine-year NFL veteran Tom McHale had suffered from CTE when he died on May 25th, 2008. New York Times writer Alan Schwarz attended the event and then authored an article entitled: “ New Sign of Brain Damage in the NFL ”
At the time, the medical community believed that CTE diagnosis was solely the result of multiple concussions or severe head trauma. However, in the case of McHale, he was Ivy League educated, a successful businessman and he never had a documented concussion during his football career. Researchers would soon understand that repetitive non-concussive blows to the head were a hallmark of CTE diagnosis.
The BU press conference became an inflection point that would forever change the way that the NFL and other sports franchises would respond to head injury. Lesser known is that Tom McHale’s death inspired our effort to establish a non-invasive test to identify and monitor CTE progression in living individuals.
Tom and I both grew up in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Like myself, Tom and his older brother Jim both played football and competed in track and field at Gaithersburg High School. Their coach in both sports was my father, Fred Joyce. Tom and I would later become teammates on a University of Maryland football team that would win the 1983 ACC Championship under coach Bobby Ross. When a knee injury sidelined me during my senior year, it was Tom who took over my starting position on the defensive line. Our last game as teammates was at The Florida Citrus Bowl against a University of Tennessee team captained by the great Reggie White.
Tom was destined to become a star, yet he was also an independent thinker. Instead of continuing his career at Maryland, which likely would have assured that he became an early round NFL draft pick, he transferred to Cornell to earn a degree that he would leverage to become a successful restaurateur. Still, that decision didn’t inhibit him from living his dream to play in the NFL.
Tom McHale died at age 45. He left behind a wife and three young children. I sincerely hope that our CTE related endeavors help to keep Tom’s spirit alive in the hearts of those who miss his presence.
Founder of Exosome Sciences