Police: Ray Easterling shot himself

The death of former Atlanta Falcons safety Ray Easterling has been ruled a suicide, Richmond police captain Yvonne Crowder told FoxSports.com on Saturday.

Crowder told the website that Easterling died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his home in Richmond, Va. Easterling's wife, Mary Ann, announced the news on Thursday, but declined to release the cause of his death.

"Based on our investigation, we are ruling it a suicide," Crowder told FoxSports.com on Saturday.

Crowder told the website that Mary Ann Easterling called police at 6:14 a.m. Thursday morning upon discovering her husband's body. When police arrived at the home, Ray Easterling was dead and there was a handgun nearby, the police chief told FoxSports.com.

Easterling, who helped lead the team's vaunted defense in the 1970s, was part of a group of seven former players who sued the NFL in Philadelphia in August, claiming the league failed to properly treat players for concussion and tried to conceal for decades any links between football and brain injuries. It was the first potential class-action lawsuit that was filed.

Easterling played for the Falcons from 1972 to 1979, helping lead the team's "Gritz Blitz" defense in 1977 that set the NFL record for fewest points allowed in a season. After his football career, he went on to start a successful financial services company in Richmond.

"He was a wonderful husband and father," Mary Ann Easterling said Thursday. "In everything he did, he was a charger. He went full tilt."

After his playing days, Easterling started to suffer the consequences of the years of bruising hits, his wife said. He suffered from depression and insomnia, and as his dementia progressed, he lost the ability to focus, organize his thoughts and relate to people, she said.

"It's been a progression over the last 20 years," she said. "It's very sad to see."

The NFL has said any allegation the league intentionally sought to mislead players is without merit.

Mary Ann Easterling said Thursday she will fight to continue the lawsuit despite her husband's death, and will urge the league to establish a fund for players like her husband who suffered traumatic brain injuries from their playing days.

"Half the time the player puts themselves back in the game, and they don't know what kind of impact it has," she said. "Somehow this has got to be stopped. It's destroying people's lives."

Former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson also committed suicide a year ago, shooting himself in the chest after having made arrangements to donate his brain to the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University's School of Medicine. A researcher determined Duerson suffered from a "moderately advanced" case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The study indicated the damage to Duerson's brain affected his judgment, inhibition, impulse control, mood and memory.

Information from The Associated Press contributed to this report.