Jim Proebstle, author of “Unintended Impact: One Athlete’s Journey from Concussions in Amateur Football to CTE Dementia,” shares his brother’s heartbreaking descent into dementia with Alzheimers.net.
After suffering football concussions in high school and college, Dick struggled unknowingly with the onset of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) dementia.
For decades, he fought the demons trapping him in an ever-shrinking world: diminished short-term memory, limited executive functioning, interpersonal shortcomings, paranoia and failed physical capabilities.
As an athlete, he was revered, yet success turned traitor as getting his “bell rung” in football led to a world of confusion and confinement.
Nobody will remember a backup college quarterback, but Dick’s story bridges the glamour of NFL football — its high-profile athletes and the billion dollar settlement for CTE dementia — with the harsh reality that millions of former amateur players may be suffering anonymously with the same concussion-induced devastation of CTE dementia.
Dick Proebstle was my brother, and when the family donated his brain to the Brain Bank at the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy we didn’t know what to expect.
It was Chris Nowinski, co-founder of the Sports Legacy Institute, that lead us to this connection once we had made the link with Dick’s symptoms and those of Dave Duerson of the Chicago Bears who had committed suicide.
Neuropathological and behavioral examinations were conducted by the university. The neuropathological examinations of Dick’s brain tissue were conducted by Dr. Ann McKee’s team. Dr. Robert Stern’s role was to separately find out as much as possible about my brother, the brain donor, and his life, including: medical history, brain trauma, sports history, and the details about the type and course of any changes in cognition, mood, behavior and movement.
The results from both the neuropathological and behavioral examinations demonstrated that Dick had the telltale signs of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE. His brain had been slowly destroyed by a widespread deposition of an abnormal form of a protein called tau. The loss of brain tissue and the destruction of neurons had led to his decline and, ultimately, his death.
Unfortunately, CTE, like most other neurodegenerative diseases, can only be definitively diagnosed postmortem. Combined with the Stage IV diagnosis of CTE was a diagnosis of Stage IV Alzheimer’s disease, a combination in athlete’s suffering from concussions that is not uncommon.
“Unintended Impact” is a creative, non-fiction book where we learn about a wonderful man — a husband, father and brother — a man who once was a talented amateur athlete and competitive business opportunist. A man who died at the age of 69, after years of struggling with memory impairments, disorganization, poor problem-solving, significant personality and behavioral change, and problems with movement.
Our family had been given no adequate medical explanation of his condition and had suffered for years through the dramatic and tragic changes in Dick’s life.
The book is a sensitive, moving and gripping account of my brother Dick’s downward spiral of CTE. It is a compassionate, personal and honest account of my brother’s struggle with the outward manifestations of changes to parts of the brain with names like amygdala, hippocampus, orbitofrontal cortex, diencephalon and brainstem. It is a glimpse into the real world of someone struggling with this brain disease.
We hear about concussions on the news, we watch documentaries about “the concussion crisis,” we see prime time television shows attempting to depict cases of CTE, and, at the water cooler, we hear discussions about the future of football. There has been tremendous hype about this brain disease and yet, very little is really known.
The book shows the devastation of CTE to us all — doctors, scientists, sports fans, everyone — with a beautiful description of this complex disease that transcends the simplistic descriptions portrayed in the media and in scientific publications.
Jim Proebstle is the author of “Unintended Impact: One Athlete’s Journey from Concussions in Amateur Football to CTE Dementia.”
Have you read “Unintended Impact?” Did you know that CTE dementia can have this effect on athletes? Share your story with us in the comments below.