The really heartbreaking thing about today's Associated Press profile of former college linebacker Michael Keck, who died last year at age 25 from unrelated causes, is just how damned banal it is. Normal kid plays football. Normal kid suffers head injuries. Normal kid turns violent and depressed and forgetful, dies young, and researchers discover his brain shows a shockingly advanced form of CTE. How many times have we heard this story?
Keck redshirted for Missouri in 2007 and played two games for the Tigers in 2008 before transferring to Missouri State, where in 2009 he was a standout for the Bears, tallying 65 tackles, 2.5 sacks and two fumble recoveries. But in camp that 2009, Keck was knocked unconscious during a drill, and that was already the beginning of the end.
Keck began forgetting the play call. He had vision problems. He couldn't sleep. He began taking medication for head pain. And his personality changed: He was moody, sometimes violent and depressed.
"He told one of the trainers there's something wrong with his head. They gave him a concussion test and told him to count backward from 20 by threes," Cassandra Keck said. "Some other players couldn't do it, either. So they just said football players are dumb."
He played through it, starting every game at outside linebacker, even as he racked up more concussions. His symptoms would cause him to miss the entire 2010 season, and doctors advised him to retire from football, which he did in the spring of 2011. "I couldn't tell you what I'm going to do," Keck said at the time. "It definitely gives you a feeling of emptiness."
Keck's wife says his condition left him unable to read without severe headaches, and that he left school just six credits shy of a degree. A quick decline followed: drinking, anger, confusion. Keck's wife says he believed all along his head injuries had done something irreversible to him.
That was something he would tell me: He never thought suicidal thoughts ever, but sometimes he would say 'Sometimes I wish I would just die so I could donate my brain to Boston University to prove that there was something wrong with me.'"
Keck died last October for reasons unrelated to brain trauma—at the time it was reported as complications from a staph infection, and the AP article cites a heart condition.
His brain was sectioned and examined at the CTE Center, part of Boston University's Alzheimer's Disease Center, and researchers found clear signs of an advanced case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative condition that has been controversially linked to head injuries and found disproportionately in former football players.
"When you talk in terms of his age, being young, and you talk about his limited years of playing, it is one of the more severe cases," said Dr. Robert Cantu, a co-founder of the CTE Center at BU. "Had he lived to 70 or 80, we would have expected this to be a Grade 4 (the most severe form) case."
The finding served as a weird sort of validation for Keck's widow, who told the AP, "he was really suffering, and nobody believed him." But maybe it's the sheer repetition of stories like Keck's that will make the difference, at least in how we treat athletes suffering from the mental and physical ills that we know can affect them after their playing days end. It's a very real problem that we're only now realizing can't be separated from what happens on the field.