Health

Demaryius Thomas and CTE: Fallout From Revelation About Broncos Star's Death

A familiar image for Broncos fans: Demaryius Thomas streaking down the sidelines clad in blue and orange.
A familiar image for Broncos fans: Demaryius Thomas streaking down the sidelines clad in blue and orange. NFL via YouTube
Former Denver Broncos great Demaryius Thomas, who died last December at 33, less than six months after he announced his retirement from professional football, suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, according to a July 5 announcement from the Concussion Legacy Foundation and the Boston University CTE Center. Researchers who examined Thomas's brain, which was donated by his family, diagnosed him with CTE — stage two out of a possible four.

The revelation isn't the first connecting a Colorado sports figure to CTE. But Thomas's prominence (after his death, he was lauded by both Peyton Manning and Tim Tebow) and his age at the time of his passing could result in significant repercussions for football at all levels.

Stage two CTE "is associated with progressive behavior, cognitive and mood abnormalities," the foundation emphasized — and "in the years before he died, Thomas developed depression, anxiety, panic attacks and trouble with his memory."

Katina Smith, Thomas's mother, observed some of these effects. "Once I became aware of CTE and began to familiarize myself with the symptoms, I noticed that Demaryius was isolating himself and I saw other changes in him," she noted in a statement distributed by the foundation. "He was just so young, and it was horrible to see him struggle. His father and I hope all families learn the risks of playing football. We don’t want other parents to have to lose their children like we did."

The Boston University CTE Center praised Smith and Thomas's father, Bobby Thomas, for the donation of their son's brain in the following tweet, which links to coverage from the New York Times:
On July 5, ABC's Good Morning America aired this segment about Thomas and CTE:
The medical examiner in Fulton County, Georgia, where Thomas died, has not yet released a full autopsy report. But Concussion Legacy Foundation CEO and co-founder Dr. Chris Nowinski hopes that word of Thomas's condition will serve as "a wake-up call to high-profile current and former NFL players that CTE is rampant among them, and they need to get involved in creating real solutions. CTE should be their number-one off-the-field issue."

For Colorado football fans, the dangers of CTE hit close to home after Rashaan Salaam, who earned the Heisman Trophy as a running back for the CU Buffalos, committed suicide in Boulder's Eben G. Fine Park in December 2016, six years to the month before Thomas died. For religious reasons, Salaam's brain wasn't examined for CTE; according to his brother, however, he had exhibited symptoms of the disease before taking his life.

Stories like Salaam's and that of NFL star-turned-convicted-killer Aaron Henandez, whose 2017 autopsy uncovered evidence of advanced CTE even though he was only 27, appear to have had an effect on football participation. Just shy of a year after Salaam died, Roger Pielke, Jr., director of CU Boulder's Sports Governance Center, released a study showing that 25,000 fewer boys played high school football across the country on a year-over-year basis.

Currently, CTE can only be confirmed after an individual's death — and as a result, no one knows for certain if the condition is responsible for personality changes among former players. Justin Bannan, a CU Buffs standout who went on to play for the Broncos, is a case in point: In October 2019, he was arrested in Boulder after a bizarre incident during which he claimed to have shot a woman because he was being pursued by the Russian mafia. Following the bust, Bannan reportedly told officers that he suffers from hydrocephalus, defined by the Alzheimer's Association as "a brain disorder in which excess cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) accumulates in the brain's ventricles, causing thinking and reasoning problems, difficulty walking, and loss of bladder control" — and he subsequently pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. In 2021, however, a jury found Bannan guilty of attempted first-degree murder/extreme indifference and several other charges.

Bannan was a defensive tackle — a position known for frequent head-to-head collisions, In contrast, Thomas was a wide receiver whose job was to avoid contact rather than seek it out. His CTE diagnosis proves that no one playing football is entirely safe from this cruel disease.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts