Doctor: NFL player who killed girlfriend, self likely had CTE

Story highlights

  • Jovan Belcher was 25 when he killed his girlfriend and himself
  • Doctor finds a protein in part of his brain where it shouldn't be
  • Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, can only be diagnosed after death
Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher likely had a devastating brain disease when he shot and killed his girlfriend and then himself two years ago, a doctor says in a new report.
Dr. Piotr Kozlowski, who prepared the report, found tangles of tau proteins in seven sections of the hippocampus structure in the brain, findings consistent with other players diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. The hippocampus is a seahorse-shaped structure crucial for memory.
CNN had an outside neuropathologist validate the findings of Belcher's pathology report. The doctor said the results appear consistent with CTE, which is concerning because tau is not normally found in such a young brain.
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CTE is a progressive degenerative brain disease found in some athletes with a history of repetitive brain trauma. More than 50 former NFL players, including Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, have been posthumously diagnosed with the disease. Many have committed suicide.
Belcher's body was exhumed in December, a year after he was buried.
Belcher, who was 6-foot-2 and weighed 228 pounds, played for the Chiefs from 2009 to 2012, appearing in 59 games. On December 1, 2012, the linebacker fatally shot his girlfriend, Kassandra Perkins, in the same home with their 3-month-old daughter. He then drove to the team's practice facility, thanked his coaches, and shot himself. He was 25 years old.
The brain tissue of people found to have CTE displays an abnormal build-up of tau -- a protein that, when it spills out of cells, can choke off, or disable, neural pathways controlling things like memory, judgment and fear.
CTE can be diagnosed only after death.
In July a federal judge approved a preliminary settlement in a class action concussion lawsuit filed by thousands of former NFL players against the National Football League.
The suit alleges the NFL didn't do enough to warn players about the risks of brain damage.
About 5,000 former players are involved in the class action but as many as 20,000 might be eligible. Current NFL players are not included in the agreement. Some family members can also file a claim after the ruling becomes final this fall.