Joseph Chernach committed suicide in 2012, at the age of 25. A year later, brain tests revealed that had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Though he played youth and high school football for eight years, he is one of few football players to develop the degenerative brain disease without competing at the college or pro levels. His parents, Debra Pyka and Jeffrey Chernach, told their story to Joseph Stromberg.
Debra Pyka: I first noticed that something was wrong in 2009. Joseph was off at college, living with his brother Seth. And when he came home, things were strange. He’d be happy sometimes, and very different other times. If you asked him about school, he’d get bothered. And then I found out from Seth that he wasn’t going to classes or doing his homework. And eventually his dad called me and said he wasn’t in school anymore.
When he left school for good, I started noticing he was very withdrawn — from his friends, from everyone. That Christmas of 2009 was actually the last one he came to. And it just got worse and worse.
He was bouncing back and forth. Sometimes he’d live with his brother; then he’d come down here to Wisconsin and live with me; then he'd get into a depressive mood and go back up to Michigan and stay with his dad, or with a friend. He had a job here in Wisconsin as a school custodian, but he could hardly get up to go to it, and eventually he lost it.
Jeffrey Chernach: He really changed completely. He went from being an honor student, a team captain, a class clown, to a total hermit. He became angry, and paranoid, and totally unmotivated.
He just couldn’t function, and never wanted to leave his room. By the end, he was a complete night owl. The only time he’d come out would be during the night, when he wouldn’t have to face anyone.
Debra Pyka: He thought people were talking about him, and said other things that just didn’t make sense.
I knew he was suffering. His depression was so severe that I couldn’t make him understand to go get help. I went to counselors, and I told them, "I’m scared my son is going to die, and I don’t know what to do." I tried and tried, I even made appointments for him, and he wouldn’t go. I just couldn’t get through.
I'm not sure whether he had any idea that head injuries had anything to do with what was happening to him. But he did once tell me that he thought counseling and medication weren't going to help him. Maybe that meant he had an inkling that there was a deeper problem.
I remember standing in his room one day, a few months before he died, and told him, "You’re not going to die before me." I actually told him that.
Who Joseph was
Jeffrey Chernach: He was just a very vibrant, very outgoing kid. People liked him. He always wanted to be around other people, and was always cracking jokes, trying to get people to laugh. I guess you could say he was a bit of a class clown.
Debra Pyka: When he was little, he was always just running around with his brothers — playing, being rambunctious.
As he grew up, he also got to be a very motivated kid, with a strong work ethic. He has always done really well in school, and after graduating from high school, he started at Central Michigan University, and wanted to be a physical therapist.
For fun, he liked to go hunting and fishing with me on our family farm, and he loved the Green Bay Packers and the Michigan Wolverines. And he liked to hang out with his friends. He had a lot of them, and that showed at his funeral. The church was full. You could tell how well-liked he was.
Joseph's football career
Debra Pyka: He was always athletic. He started wrestling at a very young age, in first grade. He eventually had so many medals that they wouldn’t fit on his letterman's jacket. He had so many trophies. He was very good at every sport he played — wrestling, pole vault, football.
He started football with Pop Warner, in fifth grade, and stayed in it until eighth grade. Then he played for Forest Park High School.
Jeffrey Chernach: He always played football on the same teams as my other two sons, and during Pop Warner, I was always on the coaching staff — either as head coach or an assistant. Then, when they were in high school, I was a volunteer coach.
Joseph would have told you that football was his passion. He wasn’t big enough to play at the next level, in college, but the heart was there. He loved it. He and both his brothers were very accomplished — they received all-state honors at various levels. There’s a very well-established football tradition here. Forest Park High School is something of a powerhouse, and he was a big part of it.
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All my sons played running back, and they were all equally good in different ways. But Joseph, he was probably the most exciting one to watch. His running style was like a slasher. He’d hit the hole so fast, and he’d pop through it.
Joseph also played on defense, at linebacker and sometimes defensive back. As a player, his strength was that he wouldn’t make too many mistakes. He was always in the right position at the right time, and he’d hit you hard. He was a great tackler.
We never knew of him having a concussion. None of us. We didn't know of any times where he was knocked out, or even just took a big shot. That’s the thing. There were no precursors that we were aware of.
Debra Pyka: Because it was a small school, Joseph played offense and defense. That meant he was taking twice as many hits, and he returned kicks and punts sometimes too. And the team would always end up in the state playoffs, so they’d play even more games, and have even more practices.
I think all this was a mistake, and contributed to it. But we didn’t know that at the time.
Debra Pyka: Once he was depressed, he would often go for walks when he got frustrated, or upset, and just call me or Seth as he walked. And on that night, June 6th, he walked out of the door at about 7:45 pm. It was summer, and still light out. I figured I’d let him clear his head, and then about an hour later, I tried calling him, and he didn’t answer.
Before midnight, I tried calling his phone about three or four times. By six in the morning, he still wasn’t home, and I was panicking. So I called my nephew, who lives three miles down the road, because I thought he might be over there. But he hadn’t seen Joseph.
My heart sunk. I looked all over the house, in each of the cars, and I called his grandma, who lives about 11 miles away, and she hadn’t seen him either. I started calling all my relatives, I called Joseph’s boss, and no one had seen him. I knew something was wrong.
My daughter Nicole and I got in the car to go to look around my nephew’s house, and as we drove down the long driveway — we live in the country — I was looking up at the trees. I thought I was going to see him hanging from them. This is what I was thinking.
We didn’t find him, and we came back home, and my daughter-in-law told me to file a missing person’s report. And then my husband Fred came home, and he went out to the shed to get something. He said that just before he was going to walk out the door of the shed, he saw something hanging inside. It was Joseph.
My husband ran inside, saying that we needed to call 911, and trying to stop me from going out there. But I ran out to the shed. I guess I imagined him alive in there, bleeding or hurt. And there he was, hanging.
I was so shocked that I couldn’t even scream. I just held on to him until the first responders got there. They had to pull me off.
Debra Pyka: I never had any idea that football had anything to do with it until after he died. I remember listening to the news, and hearing about professional athletes dying from suicide, but I didn’t make the connection.
After he died, his brother Tyler told me that I needed to send his brain in, to get tested. And then when I read about the symptoms of CTE, I saw that he had every single one of them — the anger, the depression. I just had a feeling that the test would come back positive. Otherwise, it made no sense: he had been a happy kid, with a lot of friends. How else could this happen?
Jeffrey Chernach: Right up to the point of his diagnosis, a year after his death, I didn’t suspect it at all. When it came to football, I just wasn’t aware of the potential for long-term brain problems.
When I heard the diagnosis, I don’t want to say it was a relief, but...it was an explanation. It finally made some sense.
Debra Pyka: In September 2013, after we'd sent his brain to the Sports Legacy Institute, the doctors called me to tell me the diagnosis. The report said that his degeneration was the most severe they'd ever seen in a person his age, 25.
I suspected he had it, but I didn’t realize it was going to be that severe. I was shocked by that. I was crying. But, after I thought about it more, I was also angry.
Debra Pyka: There aren’t many kids who’ve only played high school football and developed CTE, but I think there are more than we've realized. I’ve even had contact with a few other mothers, and they’ve told me that their sons died from suicide after playing football, just like Joseph.
I think it’s going to come to a head. I think more kids who played football will die — whether from suicide or otherwise — and parents will have their brains tested, and they’ll see.
Jeffrey Chernach: My views of football haven’t changed that much. I’m still a volunteer coach at the high school level. I don’t think football needs to disappear.
But if I had to do it over again, I’d keep my kids out of organized sports until fourth or fifth grade. And then if they played football, I’d limit it to flag football. It doesn’t need to be tackle. Kids can learn the sport, and the fundamentals, and then maybe in high school they start to tackle.
I also think there must be some other factor — whether it’s a gene or chemical imbalance — that predisposes someone to CTE, and I think we need to find that out. That’s what will save lives.
I do think that within the next five years or so, you’ll see high school athletics doing more to keep a kid out of sports if he suffers a concussion — maybe for six months, or a year, no matter how he suffered it. Because they’re the ones that are going to get sued. And I don’t see youth tackle football being around too much longer. I think that at some point in the future, it’ll be gone.
Debra Pyka: I think that kids should not be playing tackle football at all. That’s my opinion, and the opinion of plenty of doctors.
Their brains are rattling inside their skulls, and this "heads-up football" program, I’m sure it helps, but every time they get hit, it still jars their brain. This is what’s causing CTE. It’s not just concussions — it’s the constant rattling of their brains inside their skulls. I think there are a lot of kids out there who have brain damage and don’t even know.
The only solution I can come up with is switching to flag football. I don’t want to see the sport of football totally eliminated — I know my kids loved it. But I don’t see how you can make football safe. You can make changes to wrestling, and to hockey. They can make those sports safer. But football is just a dangerous game because of all the contact, and because these kids’ brains are not fully developed.
I was raised watching Green Bay Packers games every weekend. Sometimes I still watch, but I look at it in a different way. When I see a big hit, I wonder — is he going to have brain damage? Is he going to kill himself someday?
This didn't need to happen. I don’t know what it’s going to take, but it needs to stop.
It’s literally the worst feeling in the world to lose your kid. I blame myself — because I didn’t get him help, and because I didn’t walk out the door to follow him as he was leaving. Everyone tells me that I can’t blame myself, but if you’re a parent, and this happens to you, you will blame yourself until the day you die.
Ever since I found out Joseph had CTE, I’ve been calling my congressman and senators, and sending letters, and I haven’t gotten any real response. This is a health crisis, and people don’t realize it.
So I realized I had to talk. I don’t want to see other families go through what we’ve gone through. For us, this isn't something that will ever go away. We are going to have to live the rest of our lives without Joseph.