Warning: This article contains references to disturbing topics, including suicide.
Zach Easter has always been the toughest striker for his team, just like the NFL champions.
He was the full back who used his head as a pressing force, dominating opponents and setting an aggressive tone in defense. To his mother, he was an “all-American child”; A first grader at school, “Soldier of the Year” in his National Guard volunteer group, and a huge sports fan.
American football, along with farming and hunting, has been an important part of the Easter family’s identity, a passion handed down to the generations who made part of rural Iowa – Indianola – their home many years ago.
Zak began playing from the age of eight, but the game he loved would seriously harm his health, and eventually lead to his death.
The symptoms first appeared at the age of 11, when he began experiencing headaches and sensitivity to light. Doctors attributed this to “hormones” at the time.
Over the next decade, these symptoms will get much worse.
“Memory loss, blurred vision, slurred speech. He was speaking and suddenly what came out of his mouth became meaningless,” says Zach’s mother, Brenda.
“This is not what a normal 21-year-old would do. I remember coming to dinner and just saying, ‘Mum, there’s no hope for me. I want to donate my mind to science. ”
“I remember saying,“ Don’t give up hope, Zach, we’ll find a cure. ”He just replied,“ It won’t happen. It’s at breaking point. ”
A week before Christmas 2015, at the age of 24, Zach shot himself in the chest with a hunting pistol from his father. The 39-page journal he left behind described why this was so in detail – so that his brain could be donated for the research.
On page after page, he ranks how the concussions he experienced from his time as a high school footballer led to depression, mood swings, drug dependence, confusion, isolation and the inevitable short-term memory loss.
In short: brain damage.
Zach was specific on the last note he left for his family: Tell others about me, so they can avoid my fate.
It’s a story so powerful that it changed the life of the man who came to tell it too.
Red Forgeve first learned about Zack when he read the obituary in The Des Moines Register, Newspaper in Iowa.
Journalist and author, Forgrave was “moved” by the symptoms of a very young person and was drawn to the notes he left behind.
A few weeks after Zack’s funeral, he finds himself sitting in the Easter family home, talking about memories over a familiar background.
“I remember vividly that the NFL match between the Minnesota Vikings and the Green Bay Packers was on TV the whole time,” says Forgrave of that first visit.
“He is very American, [our] Cognitive dissonance capacity. If it is something we love, then we can override evils because we love it. ”
He left that day knowing that the short story he expected to write for a Web site was, in fact, worth writing.
“I mean, I never wrote a book before, but I felt I was in my hands,” he says. “It was too much of a burden for me.”
at Love, Zak Forgetriff explains in detail how his autopsy diagnosed chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative condition associated with repeated blows to the head and / or concussion.
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy tends to develop over several years, with symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s disease, and can only be detected until now after death.
But even before his death, Zak worked on the problem.
He has read headlines in the 2012 NFL A billion dollar settlement With 5,000 previous players experiencing dementia-like symptoms.
He has seen documentaries depicting NFL Hall-of-Famers suicides such as Mike Webster, Junior Seo and Dave Doerson; All of them shoot in the chest to keep their collapsed minds in order to hunt.
He was also aware of the work of Dr. Bennett Omalu, the forensic pathologist who first linked CTE with American football in 2005. Will Smith was starring in a movie based on Omalu’s story called “Concussion” in 2015.
But far from being associated with his diary, Zak has kept his struggles a secret – year after year, season after season.
During college, with his high school playing days behind him, he handled his problems on his own, and became addicted to drugs and alcohol. As his condition deteriorated, it became difficult for him to keep up with appearances.
He worked in a financial company after graduation, and he was calling for selling insurance, but it was a struggle. His co-workers note that he cannot make a simple call without using handwritten text to follow through.
In the spring of 2015, Zak finally broke up with his girlfriend. He began to get professional help, but a psychiatrist told him he would end up homeless, homeless and in a mental institution. It cannot, as Forgrave asserts in his book. Will be.
Not everyone was asked to help so much, but despite this, Zach became increasingly convinced that his condition was irreversible and degenerative.
He finally told his unbelieving family about his condition at a dinner hosted to celebrate his twenty-fourth birthday. It happened just six months before his death.
“I think he was afraid to express himself,” says Forgeve. “This pressure to be that tough American guy, who hides his suffering.
“We have the phrase:“ Rub the dirt in it and take a run. ”Basically, if you’re hit, tough buns, boy, I think we value that in male sports, we value fighting through physical pain.
It’s the typical American spirit, isn’t it? Like, we’re fighters, we’ll fight. It’s the toxic parts of masculinity that can come with [American] Football culture. “
At first, Zach’s brothers and parents found it difficult to reconcile the revelation with the impenetrable image that he worked so hard on raising. It came from a long line of Easter men, after all.
Despite blurred vision and numbed fingers from strikes on his head, he grew up arguing on his way back to the field to end the match with his team-mates. This is what the best players have done.
But as his addiction to alcohol and drugs increased, so did their anxiety.
On June 30, 2015, Zack wrote in his diary that he had “had few thoughts of suicide over the past week.”
But he added, “I do not give up and I know that God is still on my side watching my back. [not] Let my mind slide into temptation. ”
Within a month, his writings spoke of frustrations that turned into despair.
“I put on Zoloft [an antidepressant] And my new psychiatrist seems to know his medications, and is still fighting the side effects. The sleep was bleak and I still went to speech therapy. “
He described how he had actually suffered from depression in the previous weeks, adding: “Smoked pot a few times, wrapped in Molly (MDMA) and now I got some coke. All that plus Adderall. It’s the only way I feel naturally. I’m tired of it. Live life as I live. “
The first attempted suicide came a few months later, in November 2015.
Thanks to Zach’s Facebook posts and frenzied friends’ advice, his father found him in a fishing hut on the shore of a local lake with a pistol in his hand.
On that day, Miles Easter Sr. told his desperate son, “I don’t know what’s going on, but we’ll find out. We have to skip that part now.”
Zack handed the rifle over before an ambulance took him to a psychiatric hospital. It was not easy for either man to come to terms with what had happened.
The silent stoicism that had their ancestors working the land during the harsh winters of the Midwest, surviving the Civil War and the difficulty of the Great Depression, was a handicap for the last generation of Easter men.
Forgrave sees no error in either of them, seeing each as a product of his own culture.
In many ways, although American football can promote many of these potentially “toxic” traits, the sport has been central to some of their greatest collective moments.
As Forgrave said, in the last chapter of his book: “Zach knew he had CTE. He knew before the doctors. He blamed soccer and the concussions he suffered while playing sports.
“Sometimes, he hated everything about the sport. However, sometimes, he loved the sport as much as he loved anything in his life.”
“Even after a suicide attempt that drove him into the psych ward, there was Zach sitting in his parents’ basement on Thanksgiving Eve, watching his girlfriend the Green Bay Packers.”
Watching the game might have provided short-term relief for Zac, but it won’t last long.
There were no posts on social media this time, just one final note he wrote to his family and left in his bedroom.
“Please! Look at my computer and print my story. Please fulfill my last wishes! Thank you all for your desire to help. But I can’t help me. I love Zach.”
After Zak’s death, in December 2015, his family formed a charity called CTE hope, We are committed to raising awareness and finding a way to diagnose it in vivo.
His diagnosis of chronic traumatic encephalopathy was confirmed five months after his death by Bennett Oumalo, the same pathologist who had studied Mike Webster’s brain and campaigned seriously for the condition.
American football has been cited as a possible cause.
So far, Brenda has read a Harvard study that showed that the average age of an American professional footballer is 20 years less than the national average.
I saw the results of a study by the University of Michigan that found that retired soccer players have 20 times the normal rate of Alzheimer’s disease for men between the ages of 30 and 49.
For Brenda, everything amounted to the same thing: the message Zach left her for the world was not only simple, but essential to its dissemination: a concussion is a traumatic brain injury.
“Parents need to listen,” she says. “As important as it is to them letting kids do the things they are really passionate about … if they play any of collision sports, they should be very aware of the dangers.
“And the [if symptoms surface] To say, listen, my son’s long-term health is more important, he’s not going back to playing. This is courage from a parent’s point of view. “
As a parent, Miles and Brenda’s letter resonates with Forgeve.
“I grew up a big fan of football. I have two young boys. I’ve heard Brenda talking about Zack and I see a lot of it in my four-year-old: He’s got this unruly, twisted streak, he’s casting caution on wind.
“I wonder, what happens a decade from now when my son wants to play football? My wife and I talk about it and we say no, of course not. Why would we risk that?
“But there is something really powerful for boys about the idea of turning into men on the soccer field, it sounds cliché, and that means it becomes a more complex question for parents.
“So we would like him to play another sport instead, football or track and field, but we want him to make that decision himself, with his eyes wide open.
“We will watch him like a hawk. If he suffers a concussion, it may end his football career there.”
If you have been affected by the issues raised in this article, there is information and support available at BBC Action Line.