NFL legend Frank Gifford has been diagnosed with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) by a team of neurologists following his death at 84 years old in August 2015, his family said in a statement Wednesday.
CTE is a degenerative disease caused by repetitive sub-concussive hits to the head that can only be diagnosed post-mortem and has been found in the brains of many deceased football players.
His family explained they had an idea that he might be suffering from CTE before he died:
After losing our beloved husband and father, Frank Gifford, we as a family made the difficult decision to have his brain studied in hopes of contributing to the advancement of medical research concerning the link between football and traumatic brain injury.
While Frank passed away from natural causes this past August at the age of 84, our suspicions that he was suffering from the debilitating effects of head trauma were confirmed when a team of pathologists recently diagnosed his condition as that of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)–a progressive degenerative brain disease.
Symptoms of CTE, according to leading researchers at Boston University, include "memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and, eventually, progressive dementia."
CTE, and its connection to football — and the NFL — are the subject of Concussion, a feature film starring Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian doctor who discovered the disease in the brain of Steelers legend Mike Webster in 2002.
For years, the NFL denied the connection between repetitive high-impact hits on the field with the neurodegenerative disease, but in recent years have begun to address the issue and have implemented new safety protocols for handling players' brain injuries.
Gifford played twelve seasons in the NFL, all for the New York Giants. He missed the 1961 season — in the middle of his career — after taking a hard hit and suffering a brain injury. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977.
Following his NFL career, Gifford became a broadcaster, and spent much of his career as an announcer for Monday Night Football. He married Kathie Lee (Gifford, neé Epstein) in 1986.
In Wednesday's statement, his family said they will continue to support the game Gifford loved:
We decided to disclose our loved one’s condition to honor Frank’s legacy of promoting player safety dating back to his involvement in the formation of the NFL Players Association in the 1950s. His entire adult life Frank was a champion for others, but especially for those without the means or platform to have their voices heard. He was a man who loved the National Football League until the day he passed, and one who recognized that it was–and will continue to be–the players who elevated this sport to its singular stature in American society.
During the last years of his life Frank dedicated himself to understanding the recent revelations concerning the connection between repetitive head trauma and its associated cognitive and behavioral symptoms–which he experienced firsthand. We miss him every day, now more than ever, but find comfort in knowing that by disclosing his condition we might contribute positively to the ongoing conversation that needs to be had; that he might be an inspiration for others suffering with this disease that needs to be addressed in the present; and that we might be a small part of the solution to an urgent problem concerning anyone involved with football, at any level.
The Gifford family will continue to support the National Football League and its recent on-field rule changes and procedures to make the game Frank loved so dearly–and the players he advocated so tirelessly for–as safe as possible.
The New York Giants released a statement Wednesday afternoon through spokesman Pat Hanlon'sTwitter:
We have great respect and sympathy for the Gifford family. We all miss Frank dearly. We support the family’s decision to contribute to the discussion and research of an issue we take very seriously.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell released a statement Wednesday evening on Gifford's diagnosis:
Frank Gifford was a beloved member of the NFL family. He exemplified everything good about our game throughout his 85 years of extraordinary accomplishments, both on and off the field.
We appreciate the Gifford family's desire to help the medical community understand more about CTE, and we are grateful for their support of the league's efforts to improve safety in our game. At the NFL, we are supporting grants to NIH and Boston University as well as other independent efforts to research the effects of repetitive head trauma.
But we are not waiting until science provides all of the answers. We are working now to improve the safety of our game. The NFL has made numerous rules changes to the game, all to enhance player health and safety at all levels of football. These include 39 rule changes and better training and practice protocols that are yielding measurable results.
This work will continue as the health and safety of our players remains our highest priority. We have more work to do — work that honors great men like Frank Gifford.