Posted by Adam Jacobi
As reported yesterday, former Notre Dame star lineman Pete Duranko passed away on Friday after a long battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig's disease. Duranko was a starter on Notre Dame's dominant 1966 defensive line, part of a team that won the national title while allowing 38 points. That would be 38 points for the entire season.
As the Denver Post noted, Duranko was an ardent supporter of efforts to combat ALS, and he was a national spokesman and fundraiser for the ALS Association, fighting the disease that would eventually claim his life.
It's my genuine hope that Duranko and his family continue that selfless spirit even after his death. In this instance, that would mean donating his brain to the researchers studying former football players' brains for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) -- the degenerative brain condition that frequently affects those players after (and in some disturbing situations, during) their careers.
Now, obviously, ALS and CTE are two different diseases, and I'm clearly no doctor, but it's important to note that there have been multiple athletes who were diagnosed with ALS, but were discovered to have brain injuries instead. Here's how the New York Times described it last year in a fascinating story about whether Lou Gehrig himself actually suffered from his eponymous disease:
A peer-reviewed paper to be published Wednesday in a leading journal of neuropathology, however, suggests that the demise of athletes like Gehrig and soldiers given a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, might have been catalyzed by injuries only now becoming understood: concussions and other brain trauma.
Doctors at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Bedford, Mass., and the Boston University School of Medicine, the primary researchers of brain damage among deceased National Football League players, said that markings in the spinal cords of two players and one boxer who also received a diagnosis of A.L.S. indicated that those men did not have A.L.S. They had a different fatal disease, doctors said, caused by concussionlike trauma, that erodes the central nervous system in similar ways.
This research doesn't prove anything about Duranko's disease, of course. If we assumed that every former football player diagnosed with ALS really had CTE, then we'd also be deterining that football players can't get ALS, and that would be ridiculous. But with ALS, we're talking about something that's normally a very rare diesease, and among football players, CTE is distressingly common. Thus, from the strict standpoint of probability, it seems more likely that Duranko's disease is CTE manifesting itself in symptoms similar to ALS, rather than ALS itself.
It's also important to note that the "usual" symptoms of CTE -- depression, loss of memory, substance abuse, and otherwise erratic behavior -- don't seem to be prevalent in Duranko's account of his late life. Duranko reported more problems with opening coffee creamers than with basic cognitive function, so we hardly have a "textbook" case of CTE here. But not all former players with CTE exhibit those symptoms; many football players that have been diagnosed with CTE by Boston University researchers died from unrelated causes, so as with all diseases affecting something as wonderfully complex as the brain, there's no easy, widely applicable diagnosis available here.
So if Boston's researchers don't do anything with Duranko from here on out, then this conversation's basically a non-starter, and he will have died as a proud soldier in the fight against A.L.S. But that's in and of itself fine. Determining where Duranko's eventually fatal brain disease came from probably wouldn't have made much of a difference in his life, and so long as his symptoms were consistent with ALS, his efforts to combat ALS were hugely worthwhile for every other family affected by the disease (or, if the case may be, CTE).
And since Duranko worked so hard to help better the lives of those who would be diagnosed with ALS after him, it would be nice to know that he would similarly benefit those in future generations who choose to follow his path into football and, hopefully, put together a career as long and storied as his. If that means informing them that a football career that lasts for 15 years from high school to the NFL can potentially afflict someone with a brain disease that's basically ALS, then that's what needs to happen. If Duranko didn't have CTE and was simply felled by the extreme misfortune of ALS, well, that's clearly important information too. But let's keep informing the current and future football players of America either way. They deserve it.