The effects of CTE, which cannot be definitively diagnosed until after a person has died but is commonly found in football players when researchers are allowed to conduct post-mortem examinations, can be incredibly obvious: episodes of confusion and memory loss, temper tantrums and arguments and a sharp decline in communication and decision-making skills.
“You just see them really turn into someone completely different,” said Heike Crane, the widow of Paul Crane, who played center and linebacker at Alabama and eventually developed CTE before his death in 2020.
About 60 years ago, though, long before CTE was a recognized risk, football in a place like Alabama was a benchmark for wealth, stature and envy. Even now, in their anguish, players and their families are often reluctant to wish football away from college campuses or American culture. Change the sport, some say, but keep playing it.
Head injuries and CTE in sports
The permanent damage caused by brain injuries in athletes can have devastating consequences.
For many of the men who played, the health threats were worth personal sacrifices back then.
“I was from a small town in Tennessee,” said Steve Sloan, a starting quarterback from Alabama in the 1960s who later was athletic director there and coached football at Duke, Mississippi, Texas Tech and Vanderbilt.
“I wanted to get a scholarship and I wanted to get a degree, and if it took hits to the head, then that was fine,” said Sloan, who said he had not experienced the severe symptoms of CTE. “I’m just lucky.”
The Decline of a Merry Life
Like Sloan, Ray Perkins came to Tuscaloosa looking for a life beyond the farm town where he grew up. Bryant, who won six national championships before his death in 1983 and whose name is now emblazoned on the 100,077-seat campus stadium, was the draw.