A college football quarterback who killed himself in January had signs of the brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a condition that has been diagnosed in hundreds of deceased former football players, ESPN reported.
Tyler Hilinski, who played for Washington State University, shot himself in the head with a rifle less than one month after throwing two touchdown passes in the Holiday Bowl.
His parents discussed his life and suicide in a Sports Illustrated documentary.
"Did football kill Tyler? I don't think so," said Hilinski's mother, Kym, in the documentary. "Did he get CTE from [playing] football? Probably. Was that the only thing that contributed to his death? I don't know."
What did the doctors find?
When the doctors performed an autopsy on Hilinski, they found something that, for now, can only be detected after a patient has died: CTE.
Hilinski's CTE was so extensive that his brain appeared similar to the brain of someone more than three times his age, his father Mark told SI.
Tyler "had the brain of a 65-year-old, which is really hard to take," Mark Hilinski said.
The suicide came as a shock to family and friends, who said Hilinski had not shown any outward signs of depression or other mental health issues before he died, although they did mention that he became somewhat less responsive to calls and texts late in the football season.
Tyler's brother, Ryan, who will play college football for South Carolina next season, said he will not be deterred by this new information about his brother.
"I'm all bought into football, of course," Ryan Hilinski said. "And I think Tyler would want me to do the same thing. I don't think he'd want me to stop."
More about CTE
CTE is a degenerative brain disease that occurs when a protein called Tau forms clumps in the brain, killing brain cells. Football players are at high risk because CTE is brought on by repetitive head trauma.
Some symptoms include memory loss, confusion, and in severe cases, progressive dementia, with the more minor symptoms sometimes occurring in a patient's 20s and 30s.
Doctors continue to research CTE, especially in football players, in an attempt to diagnose it before it's too late. Too often the disease is only discovered after a tragedy like Hilinski's.
"We need biomarkers," said Dirk Keene, Medicine Chief of the Division of Neuropathology at the University of Washington. "We need a way to diagnose the disease during life. And then we need to be able to follow people at risk. I think we're years away."