A year after suicide of Penn football player, many questions remain
In April 2010, Penn football player Owen Thomas hanged himself in apartment
Thomas was depressed and found with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)
It's unclear how much CTE contributed to death, but family thinks there's a link
Kathy Brearley stares at the yard from her dining room table, cradling in her hands a team of inch-high, helmeted, wooden figurines that her son once made. "People ask, 'Well, didn't you know Owen was depressed?'" she says. "I wanted to shake them. He wasn't a depressed person. But this thing happened. How can you tell yourself he wasn't? And then you feel stupid."
As she speaks in her Allentown, Pa., home, she arranges the figures, painted in Philadelphia Eagles green, in meticulous formations, like bowling pins set by machine. "I was not going to believe Owen was ever just that type of person," Kathy says. "He was very responsible."
Crouched atop his stepladder, trying to lose himself in a repainting job of the living room, Kathy's husband, Tom, is moved to speak. "Well," he mumbles, barely audible. But he stops there, knowing the rest of that thought isn't the part you say out loud.
Kathy hears him, but says nothing. Her eyes are fixed on the figures again -- those toy soldiers of the gridiron her son had crafted long before he became a player himself. Kathy raises her right hand and, with a quick sweep, the little men all fall down.
Just over a year ago, on April 26, 2010, Owen Daniel Brearley Thomas hanged himself in his off-campus apartment at the University of Pennsylvania. The star defensive end and team captain left no note. His cell phone and wallet remained in his pocket. He was 21.
That night, after Kathy and her husband had been summoned to Philadelphia to identify the body, her cell phone rang. "Ma'am," a voice said. "Can we have Owen's brain?"
The call came from Boston University's Sports Legacy Institute, founded in 2007 to promote head trauma awareness. Five months later, Owen Thomas would become the face of a burgeoning epidemic. The Institute announced in September that Owen's brain had evidence of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disorder that can only be diagnosed after death. Its sole known cause is repeated head trauma. Among its symptoms: loss of impulse control.
CTE had already been detected in the brains of more than a dozen deceased NFL players, but Owen Thomas was a game-changer: He was young, never played professionally and had no documented history of concussions. "Owen made for the most public exposure of this problem," says Robert Cantu, professor of neurosurgery at Boston University and co-founder of the Institute. "Here was someone who was so young, a gifted student, an Ivy League individual."
It was a resonant narrative: the fiery-haired tot born to two Allentown, Penn., ministers; the youngest of four boys who wore his Randall Cunningham jersey so frequently that the number "12" had disintegrated; the Wharton School student who was as adept at sprucing up a PowerPoint as sniffing out a power sweep; and, finally, the young man compelled, by the blunt force of the game itself, to surrender everything on a drizzly Monday afternoon.
"If [Owen] had not developed CTE," Kathy told a Congressional panel on player safety last fall, her son's faded Parkland High jersey hugging her shoulders, "he would have grown up to be a wonderful contributing citizen."
CTE was the answer Kathy says she spent months hoping for. The finding was a boost, too, for concussion awareness and development in helmet technology, and helped change the way the game is preached from Pop Warner on up. But the human brain is a complicated organ.
Morgan Thomas is Owen's older brother. He's 24, and he used to play football, too, as Owen's teammate at Parkland High, then later as a left tackle at East Stroudsburg University. Growing up, the Thomas boys would knock heads, literally, every summer afternoon, jostling each other in the backyard. So it's understandable that Morgan would have some questions: "I mean, if my brother had CTE, I've got it," he says, jamming a finger against the back of his skull. "And I'm still sitting here?"
Certainty is an elusive commodity in matters of brain and behavior. When suicide is the endpoint, causes and effects become nearly impossible to connect. "The reality is that suicide is a pretty high cause of death in college students," says Cantu, whose organization has found CTE in 14 of the 15 deceased NFL players it has examined. "Owen was troubled. The CTE is never supposed to be there, but it was not at all dramatic in Owen ... Not enough was there to affect behavior."
Cantu says he wouldn't attempt to dissuade Kathy from her belief that CTE caused her son's death. If Owen's story gives a bump to CTE awareness, all the better. But as the anniversary of his death passes, many of those closest to Owen point to the importance of getting his story right -- or, at least, acknowledging that his death is not so easily explained.
"The answer is not to stop talking about CTE," says Ann Haas, director of prevention projects at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. "But we need to link that discussion to the fact that depression is treatable."
Even Kathy, well aware of Cantu's assessment but equally disinclined to embrace it, recognizes that the stakes are too high to dabble in guesswork. "Because of all the talk," Kathy says, "you might have people now who think if you're depressed and you've played football, death is the only option."
She mentions former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson, who took his life in February at the age of 50. He left text messages and a written note for family members, insisting that his brain be examined for CTE. Duerson chose to shoot himself in the chest and not in the head.
Kathy does not know, of course, why Duerson killed himself, nor if Owen's story has left athletes more likely to feel hopeless about their mental state. But she shudders at the prospect. "This is a brain disease, like Alzheimer's, but you can live a productive life," she says. "I'd hate for people to think otherwise because of all this. There [would be] a huge social cost."
They don't know for sure, but the Revs. Tom Thomas and Katherine Brearley are nearly certain that they're the only couple in Allentown to have met and married in Central Africa.
They were missionaries in 1978 -- sent to Zambia from Lancaster, Pa., and Liverpool, England, respectively. The ceremony came two years later, the move to Allentown four years after that, and in the window beginning with Morgan's arrival in the spring of 1987 and Owen's some 18 months later, the couple adopted two other boys, Jerry, 7, and Matt, 5, from an Illinois foster home.
Tom was a football man, like his father, having lined up at fullback and offensive guard at the University of Virginia. He had hoped his children would find another pastime -- music, maybe -- but the boys weren't going to waste all that front-yard space.
When she was pregnant with Owen, Kathy feared he'd be the runt of the litter, destined to be pushed around by his older brothers. Then he came out. "He had this red hair," says Kathy, the matriarch of a family of brunettes. "We knew you never had to worry about him living in anybody's shadow."