Nobody was talking about football players and CTE back in 2004, when Ken Stabler and John Mackey were at a golf tournament in Florida.
Mackey, who played tight end for the Baltimore Colts and San Diego Chargers from 1963-72, was suffering from dementia. Stabler looked at his partner, Kim Ross Bush, and said, “Are you ready to deal with that?”
The former NFL quarterback knew something was wrong before a forensic pathologist in 2005 published the first scientific report linking Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy to American football.
Since that time, the roster of football players suffering from CTE has grown long. Stabler was the first NFL quarterback added to the list in February 2016.
His illness was definitively diagnosed only after he lost his life to colon cancer July 8, 2015. He had decided to donate his brain for a biopsy back in 2013, when one of the NFL’s greatest linebackers, Junior Seau, committed suicide at age 43.
Bush, who cherishes the 16 years she spent with one of the South’s favorite sons, still asks herself a rhetorical question: “Is it fortunate or unfortunate that cancer beat CTE to the punch?”
The Biloxi native works with the Concussion Legacy Foundation to raise awareness of the disease. She also has secured, and continues to request, pledges from NFL players for donations to the Brain Bank at Boston University.
She said news seems to be coming out daily about the link between the repetitive blows to the head that football players suffer and CTE. The New York Times recently reported that a study at Boston University found CTE in 110 of the 111 brains of NFL players examined. Stabler was among that number.
“I’ll talk about CTE the rest of my life,” Bush said. “Speak Up, it’s a whole campaign.”
The pickup line
Their first 10 years together were more fun and magical than Bush could have imagined. Bush and the legendary “Snake” Stabler met at Super Bowl party in 1999 at the Isle of Capri Casino, in the same neighborhood where she grew up.
They had run into one another once before, when he appeared at a clinic opening for one of her advertising clients.
“Don’t I know you from somewhere?” Stabler asked.
“Oh, c’mon, Kenny,” she said. “That can’t be your best line.” They left the party together and together they stayed.
He was nonchalant about his legendary NFL career, but Bush was a football fan aware of his history. He had played football since he was a boy, first at Foley High School, then at the University of Alabama.
He acquired the nickname Snake at Foley High. “It was on that great day, when he snaked through the line and ran that long, slithery touchdown, that everybody knew it was Snake and it always stuck,” his Foley and Alabama teammate, Tim Russell, said in the NFL series, “A Football Life.”
His famous plays are captured in videos still popular on YouTube, starting with “The Run in the Mud,” in a 1967 game between Auburn and Alabama. Then, in Oakland, there were “Ghost to the Post,” “The Holy Roller,” and “Sea of Hands.”
Stabler was named the NFL’s most valuable player in 1974 and led the Raiders to the Superbowl XI win in 1976. He finished his career with the New Orleans Saints in 1984, but football remained at the center of his life.
At his many personal appearances, he seemed to enjoy his fans as much as they enjoyed him. After they met, Bush began to archive his legacy and manage his personal appearances.
They flew all over the country. But his knees had given out from years of pounding and, eventually, Stabler and Bush started driving to appearances.
He was always a tough guy. He assured Bush, “Ain’t nothing ever going to happen to me.”
She first noticed around 2008 that he was having problems with his memory. He kept repeating himself.
He developed headaches, pounding headaches that by 2010 would not go away. He also became so sensitive to sound that he had to mute the television set when he watched CNN and he was no longer able to play the music he loved.
“He just had to turn the noise off because he had so much noise of his own going on,” Bush said. “The noise in his head reached a volume where it was just off the charts.”
He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2011. Bush said they made the long drives to Houston in silence for his treatments.
During that time, evidence was mounting that chronic blows to the head from football could cause CTE.
Stabler remembered times when he was knocked out on the football field, brought around with smelling salts and returned to the game. On occasion, he felt like he had been hit by a train. Everything was a blur in the moments afterward.
When Seau died, Bush said she turned to Stabler and asked if he wanted to donate his brain to Boston University, where CTE in football players was being studied. Stabler immediately said yes.
In early 2015, he was about to have the double-knee replacement surgery he had been putting off for so long. He mentioned to Bush at the last minute that he had been suffering pain in his abdomen.
It turned out he had Stage 4 colon cancer, diagnosed after they celebrated Super Bowl XLIX and their 16th anniversary. Surgery was off.
Stabler passed away five months later, at Memorial Hospital at Gulfport of complications from colon cancer.
Flag until 14
When Bush woke up the morning after his death, the brain donation immediately hit her. Boston University put two doctors on an airplane. They harvested Stabler’s brain and part of his spinal cord in Foley, Alabama, where his body had been taken from Bradford-O’Keefe Funeral Home in Biloxi
“It was his greatest play,” Bush said. “It was his most triumphant moment, in my mind. That’s how much he cared about the game and the players.”
News of Stabler’s CTE diagnosis was widely covered when it came in early 2016. Stabler, Bush said, had an advanced case. Neuropathologist Ann McKee, who heads the CTE Center at Boston University, said Stabler had been compensating for the serious degree of brain injury he suffered.
After it became obvious football players were developing CTE, Stabler worried a great deal about his twin grandsons, but he lived in Phoenix in 2014 so he could watch them play high school football. They are known in the family, of course, as “the grandsnakes.”
Despite the physical pain he suffered, Stabler never regretted playing football.
Bush herself feels torn as football season approaches. In a way, she feels like a hypocrite because she still loves the game. She is doing what she can to increase awareness of CTE. After Stabler’s death, she talked three other former Raiders into donating their brains for study.
She supports safety measures being promoted as awareness of CTE increases, such as limiting players to flag football until age 14 and college-football practices without full-contact tackling in the Ivy League.
“I love football,” Bush said, “but I’m horrified by what I’ve witnessed.”