The forensic pathologist who first identified chronic brain damage as a factor in the deaths of some NFL players flew to San Diego on Thursday to participate in the autopsy of former All-Pro linebacker Junior Seau, two sources with knowledge of the case told ESPN.com.
The pathologist, Bennet Omalu, assisted in the autopsy conducted by the San Diego County medical examiner because of his experience with NFL players and brain injuries, the sources said.
Omalu's involvement, less than 24 hours after Seau died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest, may help determine whether the future Hall of Famer's suicide could be related to the growing link between football and concussions.
Omalu, the chief medical officer for San Joaquin County (Calif.), is credited with identifying Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a neurological disorder stemming from repeated head trauma in several deceased NFL players. CTE can lead to erratic behavior also associated with dementia and Alzheimer's disease.
It is expected to take 4-6 weeks to determine whether Seau suffered from CTE, and at this point, it is unclear who will make that diagnosis. Seau's brain remains with the San Diego medical examiner and is not expected to be buried with Seau, according to the sources.
Omalu and Julian Bailes, a renowned Chicago neurosurgeon and former Pittsburgh Steelers team physician, founded the Brain Injury Research Institute, which studies the impact of concussions. Their organization is seeking consent from Seau's family to conduct the studies necessary to determine whether the 12-time Pro Bowler had CTE.
Another research group, the Sports Legacy Institute at Boston University, also seeks access to Seau's brain, Sports Illustrated reported Thursday. SLI has received funding from the NFL. Chris Nowinski, a Harvard graduate and former professional wrestler who helped found the group, declined a request for an interview. Omalu and Bailes also declined comment.
Omalu, Bailes and Nowinski once worked together on the CTE issue but split over philosophical differences. The clash between the two groups over the acquisition of brains for CTE research, particularly in NFL players, is an ongoing issue and was documented in an ESPN article last year.
"It is our policy to not discuss any completed, ongoing or potential research cases unless at the specific request of family members," the Boston group said in a statement Thursday. "Our primary goal is to learn more about the long-term effects of repetitive brain trauma by conducting meaningful scientific research. At this time our thoughts and prayers are with Mr. Seau's family, his many friends and former teammates."
The issue of the NFL and brain damage began to emerge in 2002, when Omalu, then a pathologist in the Allegheny County (PA) coroner's office, conducted the autopsy on former Steelers center Mike Webster. The doctor discovered widespread brain trauma that appeared to be related to the player's 17-year career. Webster died of a heart attack at age 50, but his death was preceded by years of bizarre and erratic behavior.
Omalu's findings of "gridiron dementia" in players such as Webster, former Steeler Terry Long and former Philadelphia Eagle Andre Waters were initially dismissed by the NFL, which claimed there was no link between football and long-term brain damage. The league since has acknowledged a connection.
More than 1,500 players have sued the NFL, arguing for years the league hid the link between repeated concussions associated with football and brain damage. In the latest lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Atlanta, more than 100 players, including former Falcon running back Jamal Anderson, alleged the NFL "repeatedly refuted the connection between concussions and brain injury."
Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru are reporters in ESPN's investigative and enterprise unit. Mark can be reached at email@example.com. Steve can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.