Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the disease found in the brains of dozens of former NFL players and boxers, has been found, posthumously, in the brain of a 29-year-old former soccer player, The New York Times reported.
It is the first documented case of CTE found within the brain of a former soccer player.
That player, Patrick Grange of Albuquerque, had a particular affinity for heading soccer balls, his parents said, and had practiced heading a soccer ball since he was 3 years old. CTE is believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head and not necessarily from one huge collision.
Researchers at Boston University -- which has for several years been aligned with the NFL in recovering former players' brains -- made the discovery.
Dr. Ann McKee, one of the central figures in the recently released book League of Denial, which chronicles the NFL's dubious history regarding concussions, examined Grange's brain.
"He had very extensive frontal lobe damage," McKee told the Times. "We have seen other athletes in their 20s with this level of pathology, but they've usually been football players."
While McKee said that the area of Grange's brain that was most impacted corresponds to where soccer players typically head the ball, she said it's unfair to assume causality.
"We can't say for certain that heading the ball caused his condition in this case," she said. "But it is noteworthy that he was a frequent header of the ball, and he did develop this disease. I'm not sure we can take it any further than that."
Grange died in April with ALS (otherwise known as Lou Gehrig's disease), seventeen months after he was diagnosed. McKee thinks the ALS (much more common among people in their 50s) was related to Grange's head trauma.
"We think the precipitating factor in this case was most likely the trauma. First of all, he was absurdly young when he developed this disease. And he has considerable evidence of this trauma-induced tauopathy, or C.T.E."
Grange starred in high school and played college soccer at Illinois-Chicago and University of New Mexico. He had dreams of making it to the MLS. His parents say that Grange began showing some symptoms of CTE (memory loss, impulse control disorders, depression) in high school.
"Every park you go by, kids are playing soccer," Michele Grange, Patrick's mother said. "And they're doing headers. And that really bothers me. When I see the little kids playing soccer, even my grandson, for one thing it reminds me of better days. But on the other, it makes you think of the consequences. And I hope that these kids and their parents are going to see to it that they take care of their heads."
While the issue of head injuries has surged to the forefront of sports debates, the reality is that there is little research exploring the effects of heading a soccer ball – a scary proposition for parents and youth players shying away from football.