Former Seahawk Grant Feasel’s family hit hard by football’s trauma
There is no disputing what killed Grant Feasel at age 52. He drank himself to death. But bubbling below the surface was an undercurrent his family didn’t know about until after his death: He had been dogged by CTE, a degenerative brain disease caused by the repetitive trauma of football.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Chronic brain trauma
What is CTE?
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a degenerative brain disease that appears to be caused by repetitive trauma. The condition appeared in medical literature as early as 1966 but wasn’t studied extensively until recently. It can be diagnosed only post-mortem.
“Simplified, it’s your brain rotting from trauma,” said Chris Nowinski, co-founder of the Sports Legacy Institute (SLI), a nonprofit brain-trauma research group.
What are the symptoms?
CTE symptoms include memory loss, depression, a lack of impulse control, inability to focus, problems with executive functioning, paranoia, aggression and progressive dementia.
Who is affected?
Athletes, members of the military, abuse victims and people who experienced trauma in car accidents, among others.
It’s unknown how many are affected. SLI has reviewed 200 brains as part of its research. Those include 54 from former NFL players, 52 of which have been positive for CTE.
Is the NFL doing anything about CTE?
The league settled a lawsuit in August, filed on behalf of more than 4,500 former players, that claimed the NFL knew about concerns with head injuries and didn’t do enough about them. U.S. District Judge Anita Brody rejected the initial settlement amount of $765 million, “fearing the sum may not be enough to cover injured players.” The NFL now must show the settlement is fair and that retired players will be covered.
The league also has instituted stricter guidelines for evaluating players with concussions and deciding when they can return to the field.
Researchers are trying to learn how to diagnose CTE in living people so they can begin treating the condition. A UCLA study of five former NFL players, released in January 2013, found images of the protein that causes CTE, but experts say they still haven’t identified a widely accepted indicator of the disease in living people. Nowinski said the medical community is learning new things “every few months.”
Source: Sports Legacy Institute
Signs of traumatic brain injury
Grant Feasel left behind letters. His family wrote them on the crammed three-hour RV ride from San Diego to Barstow, Calif., Grant’s hometown in the Mojave Desert. Here, they would bury his ashes next to three generations of Feasels.
They pulled into the gravel parking lot and stepped into the late June heat — Grant’s three children, his mom, his sister, his older brother and their families.
The cemetery was still. A crow squawked in the distance. A dog barked in a nearby yard.
They formed a circle in the back around a freshly cut square of sod. One by one, they read their letters and cried. They told Grant how much they loved him, how much they missed him as a dad, son, brother and uncle.
No one ever mentioned that he had played for the Seahawks.
Finally, Grant’s older brother, Greg, spoke:
We are sad and happy today. We are sad because he leaves many loving friends and family who miss him and think of him often. We are happy because when we think of him, it’s not how he died that we remember but rather how he lived. Oh, how he did live. We love and miss you very much.
These are the things he left behind.
He left behind a brain. He left behind a brain that got him accepted into medical school and convinced people he could do anything.
He left behind a brain that failed him.
There is no disputing what killed Grant Feasel on July 15, 2012. He drank himself to death and died of liver failure at 52. But bubbling below the surface was an undercurrent his family didn’t know about until after his death, something that put Grant’s final years in perspective.
Grant suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease better known as CTE. That diagnosis offered an answer to an elusive question for friends and family: What in the world had happened to Grant Feasel?
Once so organized, his finances were in disarray. Once only a social drinker, he gorged on fifths of vodka. He couldn’t hold conversations, spent most of his time in dark rooms and watched his family fracture.
His 6-foot-7 body shriveled, and his eyes recessed into his head.
“Death has a look,” Greg said.
The NFL settled a lawsuit over brain injuries with more than 4,500 former players in August, but concerns surrounding head trauma haven’t stopped. The Feasels are part of a gloomy fraternity, and more are soon to join.
In the final month of Grant’s life, Greg was shuffling through papers on his brother’s desk when he found a brochure about donating former NFL players’ brains for CTE research. He didn’t make the connection between CTE and his brother then, but the family talked and decided to donate Grant’s brain to search for answers.
Immediately after Grant’s death, Greg had his brother’s brain shipped to Boston for research. The doctors at Sports Legacy Institute there determined Grant suffered from CTE — stage 2 to 3 out of four stages.
The stories after Grant’s death all mentioned that he had been an offensive lineman for the Seahawks and Vikings in the 1980s and early ’90s. What they didn’t mention is this: He was another victim of a game, another man whose brain had turned on him.
He left behind Seahawks T-shirts, gloves so big you can fit both hands inside them and two pairs of giant cowboy boots. One day his oldest son, Sean, wants a custom boot maker to craft the leather into boots his size.
He left behind Walgreen sacks full of travel-size Advil and clusters of reading glasses because he complained none of them worked. He left behind his favorite records. Lynyrd Skynyrd, Johnny Cash, .38 Special, Merle Haggard. Sean, a 28-year-old sales representative for a construction company, bought frames and plans on hanging them in his home office in Austin, Texas.
He left behind memories.
The day Grant’s family said their final goodbyes at his grave, they toured Barstow, best known as the halfway point between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
Up the hill is the high school where he became a football star and filled report cards with A’s and B’s. On the right is the old burger joint where Grant peeled onions out back. He started there when he was 12 or 13 and worked through high school.
The family stopped at the park near their old house carrying bags full of tacos and burritos from Del Taco. Greg and a childhood friend wandered down the street through their old neighborhood. Greg, 56, walked with a hitch, the wear-and-tear from his own brief pro career.
He stopped in front of his and Grant’s childhood home. They shared a bedroom and many of the same friends, despite their differences. Greg had more common sense and rebuilt his first truck at 14. Grant dived into school and was stingy with his money.
Greg pointed to a spot in the chain-link fence and laughed. The tops of the hooks were still bent from the times they jumped over them to get to a neighbor’s house.
Grant was 6 foot 5 and skinny when he left that house and followed Greg to Abilene Christian University in Texas. He never planned on a career in football. He wanted to become a dentist or a doctor, and no one doubted he could do it.
He left behind guilt.
The Feasels were long on suspicion but short on answers. They knew Grant was an alcoholic, but they didn’t know the trigger. Did he have another family? Did he have a gambling problem?
He checked in and out of rehab but couldn’t stay dry. His family came down hard on him. Greg, the chief operating officer of the Colorado Rockies, pleaded with his younger brother in an email to conquer his demons.
I got your text message this morning. I called you several times over the last week to see how you were doing. I’m now in Dallas at the Baseball Winter Meetings.
I wanted to send you a short note in hopes of encouraging you to get help. You wake up every day lying to your family and more importantly lying to yourself about your drinking. Your sobriety plan has not worked and it will not work tomorrow, next week, next month or next year. As of now, the Vodka has won. You cannot beat the Vodka mentally or physically without getting professional help. It’s my opinion that you are on the verge of irreversible damage in regards to your family, your job, your name, and heaven forbid your life. Your family loves you and supports you, but not the lies or the drinking. Today, I’m offering my love, my support, and my resources. If you continue to listen to the Vodka you will lose your kids, your car, your job, your house and it will be too late to reach out for help.
Lastly, please take this in the way it’s intended. One brother to another with love and respect.
He left behind goals.
On the day Sean wrote the eulogy for his dad’s funeral, he struggled to sort through his emotions. Just a week before, the family had placed Grant in hospice care because his liver was failing. Four days later, he was dead.
Now Sean had to sum up his hero. He took a seat at the desk in his dad’s home office. As he wrestled with what to say, he found a folder in the desk. He flipped through the papers inside and realized he was reading his dad’s goals from seasons long ago.
Training Camp Goals for Vikings 1985
• Be Tough
• Don’t Be Hurt
• Don’t Get Tired or Dizzy
• Do it for Cyndy & The Baby
Seahawks Training Camp Goals 1988
• Cyndy and Sean are all that Matter
• Finance your Education
• Sean will be Proud of my Effort
• Cyndy and Sean Will Always Love Me
Seahawks Training Camp Goals 1990
• Tough & Quiet
• Thankful (Realize Opportunity)
• Teach Sean
He left behind a phone number.
It belonged to his ex-wife, Cyndy. Sean, the oldest, isn’t sure if his mom still uses it. He hasn’t called her since shortly after his dad died.
This is the part of the story no one likes to tell. A year before Grant died, Cyndy left him. Grant had morphed into something unrecognizable, a dark shadow of the man he used to be.
“He had gone to the bad side,” Cyndy said. “The demons were chasing him, and he was miserable in this world.”
The couple’s children, particularly their two sons, couldn’t understand why she left the man she married after college. They thought she fled when he needed her most.
Cyndy tried to explain that the person she loved was gone. Grant had grown increasingly distant. He locked himself in dark rooms and rarely talked to her.
Finally, she had enough. She left the day before Spencer, their youngest child, started his senior year of high school.
Sarah, the couple’s only daughter, still keeps in touch with Cyndy. Sean and Spencer no longer speak to their mom.
“I can’t say this without crying,” Cyndy said. “It ruined our life. I planned on being with him forever. It got to the point where it was unmanageable and unreasonable. Look, it probably wasn’t the right thing for me to do. I have huge regrets about that. But he had gotten unmanageable.”
Cyndy and Grant talked about CTE a couple times but never got far. Nobody in the family associated Grant’s problems with CTE. They focused on his drinking. Why couldn’t a man with such willpower, a man never known as a drinker, overcome this latest obstacle?
“It makes me sad to think that playing a game — a game — took him away from me,” Cyndy said. “And it took a dad away from my kids. And now we’re all ripped apart, and he’s gone.”
He left behind the mechanics of snapping a football.
Stretch your hands as far as you can, keep your butt low, spin your hands on the snap. But he also left behind a nuance not always taught to long snappers: Look back between your legs on your follow through.
Many long snappers quickly lift their head after snapping the ball, but Grant didn’t think you could get the full range of motion if you didn’t keep your head down. He took so much pride in his long snapping that when Seahawks holder Jeff Kemp asked him to fire a few bad snaps just for practice, Grant refused.
Sean used the technique in high school and again at Abilene Christian, the same college where his dad had played 25 years earlier.
Last season, Sean’s younger brother, Spencer, visited him in Austin. Spencer was a redshirt freshman on the football team at Abilene Christian at the time. He was also a backup long snapper. Sean thought Spencer’s coaches were messing with his long-snapping technique, the one their dad passed down. He told Spencer to bring a ball so he could show him the right way.
Next season, Spencer hopes to win the starting job.
He left behind answers.
When the Sports Legacy Institute in Boston called to let Greg know he should fly out, he was relieved. He knew the family had its smoking gun.
Greg and Sean flew to Boston in February 2013 to meet with Dr. Ann McKee and the rest of the institute’s staff. They found out that Grant suffered from CTE, and the symptoms sounded all too familiar: problems with impulse control, concentration, attention and executive functioning.
Grant’s drinking, his never-ending search for the right glasses, his inability to hold conversations, all made sense.
The staff showed images of Grant’s brain and explained where the damage was and what it meant. But Greg had to see for himself.
He stepped into the autopsy room and put on a mask and gloves. He walked over to a lab table and looked down at his brother’s brain. Dr. McKee pulled apart individual slices of Grant’s brain, “like prime rib or tenderloin,” Greg explained.
Sean waited outside. He couldn’t stomach it.
After delivering the results, Dr. McKee looked at Sean and Greg, teary-eyed, and apologized. “Sometimes I feel like Dr. Death because I give people bad news all the time,” she said.
“That’s not true,” Greg responded. “You just gave us Grant back. We lost him the last three years. You just gave us him back.”
He left behind doubt.
After the Boston trip, Sean boarded a plane for Texas. He normally reads on planes, or if his flight is early enough, he sleeps. He couldn’t do either.
“An inner conflict like I’ve never had before,” he said. “I was questioning everything.”
Football made Sean the man he is today. It’s a part of his identity. But football also turned his dad into a different person. It stripped him of his organization, discipline and dignity and left him frail, alcoholic and distant. Like an infant, Sean said.
He became so unsettled that he had to tell the passengers next to him what he had just gone through.
“Football as I know it might be over,” Sean said. “On the one hand, it did this to my dad. How should I feel about that? But he loved it, and I loved it too. Should I hate it now? Should I push for it to be done with so no other family has to go through this?”
They called Grant “Fighting Feasel” because of his propensity for scrapping during training camp. He finished most games with blood smeared on his pants, and his hands were so mangled a friend joked that he could never be a surgeon.
Sean carried that flag forward. He once encouraged his younger brother to cheat on a concussion test in high school. During his own playing days, he didn’t think he was at his best until he had his bell rung.
The Feasels didn’t join the concussion lawsuit against the NFL because they didn’t think it was right. They love the sport. They don’t want it to go away.
But change is needed. When Sean talks about the game today, he carries a different message.
“I get it,” he tells people. “I was a tough guy, just like my dad. And look how that worked out for him. Being a tough guy just isn’t worth it.”
The Feasels are adamant Grant would still play football today, but he would do it differently. He wouldn’t play through concussions. He would take himself out if he were dizzy.
One of his goals before the 1985 season was Don’t Be Hurt. He would write those words with different intentions today.
He left behind a black bandanna.
After the family read their letters, Sean knelt over his dad’s grave. For five minutes, he didn’t say anything. He didn’t move.
Sean has struggled to process the last few years. He watched his dad die twice: first when he became a different person and then when he entered hospice care. He watched his family rip apart. He learned his dad’s dark turn was caused by the sport he loved.
Recently, Sean has searched for perspective. He doesn’t want to reduce his dad to a pathology report, but he can’t ignore the connection.
Grant always planned on going to medical school when his football career ended, but his playing days lasted far longer than he intended. By the time he was done, he had a family waiting. Now his brain is helping medical researchers find a solution. Sean thinks his dad would be proud of that.
At the cemetery, as Sean stood to leave, he slipped something out of his pocket. He isn’t sure why he brought it, but it just felt right.
Before returning to the RV, he laid a black bandanna next to the flowers at his dad’s grave. The same bandanna Sean always wore under his helmet.
Jayson Jenks: 206-464-8277 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @JaysonJenks