CTE turned ex-NFL star McNeill from top lawyer to ‘other person’

Fred McNeill was no big, dumb football player.

After completing an NFL career that included two Super Bowls, he got an advanced law degree and practiced law. But within just a few years, he began to fall apart, losing his temper, losing his memory and losing job after job.

When he died in 2015, he was bankrupt, unable to eat or care for himself.

Now he’s become a medical first. A positron emission tomography (PET) brain scan done in 2012 showed he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE — the degenerative brain disease being linked increasingly to professional football and to head injuries sustained in combat.

A thorough autopsy done after his death confirms the diagnosis, pathologists confirmed this week. It's the first time CTE has been diagnosed in a living person with a post mortem confirmation.

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Prominent cases of NFL players with CTE
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Prominent cases of NFL players with CTE
San Diego Chargers Junior Seau during a game against the New York Jets at the Qualcomm Stadium Sunday November 3, 2002, in San Diego, CA. (Photo by Matt A. Brown/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Frank Gifford provides the classic throwing motion in his University of Southern California Trojans uniform. Following his college days, Gifford went on to star for the NFL's New York Giants, then worked as a broadcaster for CBS and ABC's Monday Night Football. (University of Southern California/Collegiate Images via Getty Images)
CLEVELAND - OCTOBER 9: Quarterback Ken Stabler #12 of the Oakland Raiders on the ground after taking a hit during a game against the Cleveland Browns at Municipal Stadium on October 9, 1977 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Raiders defeated the Browns 26-10. (Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - OCTOBER 14: Defensive back Tyler Sash #39 of the New York Giants on the sidelines against the San Francisco 49ers during the third quarter at Candlestick Park on October 14, 2012 in San Francisco, California. The New York Giants defeated the San Francisco 49ers 26-3. Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images)
Inside linebacker Jovan Belcher #59 of the Kansas City Chiefs watches from the sidelines during his final game against the Denver Broncos at Arrowhead Stadium on November 25, 2012 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH - SEPTEMBER 13: Offensive lineman Terry Long #74 of the Pittsburgh Steelers talks with offensive line coach Hal Hunter (R) on the sideline during a game against the San Francisco 49ers at Three Rivers Stadium on September 13, 1987 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images)
Mike Webster #52 of Pittsburgh Steelers looks on during a game circa 1987 at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Webster played for the Steelers from 1974-88. (Photo by George Gojkovich/Sporting News via Getty Images)
Quarterback Earl Morrall #15 of the Miami Dolphins looks on from the sidelines against the New York Jets during an NFL football game at The Orange Bowl November 19, 1972 in Miami, Florida. Morrall played for the Dolphins from 1972-76. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
Defensive tackle Shane Dronett #75 of the Atlanta Falcons in action during the game against the New York Jets at the Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The Jets defeated the Falcons 28-3. Mandatory Credit: Todd Warshaw /Allsport
Dave Duerson #22 of the Chicago Bears looks on during a game in the 1985 season. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, D.C. - DECEMBER 31: Guard John Wilbur #60 of the Washington Redskins rests on the sideline against the Dallas Cowboys at RFK Stadium in the 1972 NFC Championship Game on December 31, 1972 in Washington, D.C. The Redskins defeated the Cowboys 26-3. (Photo by Nate Fine/Getty Images)
PHILADELPHIA, PA - DECEMBER 10: Defensive back Andre Waters #20 of the Philadelphia Eagles looks on from the sideline during a game against the Dallas Cowboys at Veterans Stadium on December 10, 1989. in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Eagles defeated the Cowboys 20-10. (Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images)
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - SEPTEMBER 21: New York Jets players tackle New England Patriots player Mosi Tatupu during a game at The Meadowlands Sports Complex in East Rutherford, N.J. on Sept. 21, 1987. The game was the last game before a strike in the NFL. (Photo by Bill Greene/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH - AUGUST 31: Offensive lineman Justin Strzelczyk #73 of the Pittsburgh Steelers on the sideline during a game against the Dallas Cowboys at Three Rivers Stadium on August 31, 1997 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images)
CIRCA 1968: Defensive Tackle Bubba Smith #78 of the Baltimore Colts is seen watching the action from the bench circa 1968 during an NFL football game. Smith played for the Colts from 1967-71. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES - AUGUST 1: Running back Ollie Matson #33 of the Los Angeles Rams poses for a publicity photo during training camp at Chapman Colleg on August 1, 1961 in Orange, California. (Photo by Vic Stein /Getty Images)
FILE: Baltimore Colts HOFer John Mackey during a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. (Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
BALTIMORE - OCTOBER 11: Chris Henry #15 of the Cincinnati Bengals runs with the ball against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on October 11, 2009 in Baltimore, Maryland. The Bengals defeated the Ravens 17-14. (Photo by Rob Tringali/Sportschrome/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 15: John Grimsley #59 of the Houston Oilers lines up during a football game against the Chicago Bears on October 15, 1989 at Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois. The Oilers won 33-28. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
SAN DIEGO, CA - SEPTEMBER 24: Defensive end Pete Duranko of the Denver Broncos watches from the sideline against the San Diego Chargers at San Diego Stadium on September 24, 1972 in San Diego, California. The Chargers defeated the Broncos 37-14. (Photo by James Flores/Getty Images)
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The confirmation comes too late to help McNeill. But if the findings hold up in other patients with similar symptoms, such a scan may be able to diagnose CTE in time to give patients hope for recourse while they are still alive and, perhaps, eventual treatment.

Early diagnosis may also help families struggling to understand what is happening to their loved ones, said Tia McNeill, Fred McNeill’s widow.

Related: NFL wives say money won't fix their husbands' injuries

“Here is this person who was so kind, so intelligent, so special, so loving, so easygoing. He made things look easy. And then he flipped to be this other person,” McNeill said in an interview.

“We were just looking at him, not knowing what’s going on.”

She said they quarreled as her once-reliable husband forgot to pay bills and lost jobs.

“He was a partner in a law firm. He had brought in a big class action case … worked on breast implant litigation,” she remembered.

“He was doing big cases. And then he was voted out. At first I thought it was depression.”

Visits to doctor after doctor told them little but that he may have brain damage related to his many years of playing football. Fred, she said, tried to cover up his struggles.

7 PHOTOS
Dr. Bennet Omalu, who discovered CTE in football players from concussions
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Dr. Bennet Omalu, who discovered CTE in football players from concussions
Forensic pathologist and neuropathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu participates in a briefing sponsored by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) on Capitol Hill on January 12, 2016 in Washington, DC. Dr.Omalu is credited with discovering chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, in former NFL players. (Photo by Pete Marovich/Getty Images)
Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA) (L), and forensic pathologist and neuropathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu (C), participate in a briefing sponsored by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA), right, on Capitol Hill on January 12, 2016 in Washington, DC. Dr.Omalu is credited with discovering chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, in former NFL players. (Photo by Pete Marovich/Getty Images)
Forensic pathologist and neuropathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu participates in a briefing sponsored by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) on Capitol Hill on January 12, 2016 in Washington, DC. Dr.Omalu is credited with discovering chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, in former NFL players. (Photo by Pete Marovich/Getty Images)
Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA) (L) and forensic pathologist and neuropathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu participate in a briefing sponsored by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA), right, on Capitol Hill on January 12, 2016 in Washington, DC. Dr.Omalu is credited with discovering chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, in former NFL players. (Photo by Pete Marovich/Getty Images)
Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) greets forensic pathologist and neuropathologist, Dr. Bennet Omalu before a briefing sponsored by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) on Capitol Hill on January 12, 2016 in Washington, DC. Dr.Omalu is credited with discovering chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, in former NFL players. (Photo by Pete Marovich/Getty Images)
Forensic pathologist and neuropathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu participates in a briefing sponsored by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) on Capitol Hill on January 12, 2016 in Washington, DC. Dr.Omalu is credited with discovering chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, in former NFL players. (Photo by Pete Marovich/Getty Images)
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“Fred would say, ‘don’t say anything. I am going to lose my law license. I don’t want anyone to know,’” she said.

And he would get uncharacteristically angry. “Simple stuff — he would lose it. It was not Fred.”

The story is starting to become familiar — athletes or veterans who are healthy and vibrant, becoming forgetful, angry, combative and often suicidal. Sometimes it happens at astonishingly young ages — former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez was just 27 when he was found dead in his jail cell, convicted of one murder four years earlier and recently acquitted in two more.

Retired tight end Frank Wainright, who played for the Miami Dolphins, New Orleans Saints and Baltimore Ravens, was 48 when died in 2016 and his wife Stacie said he had struggled for more than seven years with confusion, memory loss and behavior changes.

Trisha Bell told NBC News in 2014 that her husband Nick, who played three seasons for the Raiders, suffers from depression and by age 45 was no longer driving, shopping or paying bills.

Related: Is Football Safe for Kids? New Study Finds Brain Changes

CTE has been found in the brains of more than 100 former football players.

After years of denying any responsibility, the NFL acknowledged there is a link between head blows and brain disease and signed a $1 billion settlement to compensate former players.

Tia McNeill hopes for more help now that the links between CTE and football have become more clear.

“I have to believe that the league will become more humane. I just have to believe it. I have to hope they will support families more,” she said.

She tries to help the families of other men affected.

“You know your loved one. You know there is something going on. There’s always a reason when there is a change in behavior or health, and you want an answer.”

Related: NFL wives pick up the pieces

At the very least, it helps to predict what might happen, Tia McNeill said.

That happened the first time she spoke to Dr. Bennet Omalu, the pathologist credited with discovering and describing CTE.

“He was finishing my sentences,” she said.

The changes caused by CTE have become depressingly familiar, Omalu said. “You begin to lose your intelligence. You begin to lose what makes you a human being,” he said.

“You become more impulsive. You become more violent. You may become an alcoholic.”

Omalu is trying to develop his PET scan method into a commercially available test.

“When you are alive and you think you have CTE, we could scan you,” he said.

"This could differentiate CTE from Alzheimer’s disease and from other dementias.”

Having a scan could help settle disputes with the NFL and other former employers and might eventually lead to treatments, Omalu added.

The behavior that put so many pro athletes into the headlines in past decades may not have been due to life in the fast lane, fame and fortune won too early in life, Omalu said.

It may have been CTE, perhaps not killing them directly, but driving confused young and middle-aged men to early deaths caused by alcohol, drugs or accidents.

“People would say, ‘oh, he had it all and how could he do that?’” said Tia McNeill.

“Now we know it’s a disease. It’s not a ‘how could he’ thing.”

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