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A mother’s quest to take down youth tackle football

Joseph Chernach never played a down of football in college or the NFL. As far as his family knows, he never got a single concussion. But starting at the age of 11, he played Pop Warner football, usually with his dad on the sidelines as an assistant or head coach.

Jeffrey Chernach remembers his son as a small, speedy running back, darting through holes between linemen. "His running style was like a slasher," he told me in January. "He’d hit the hole so fast, and he’d pop through it." Over the course of four years in Pop Warner, Joseph developed into a consistently hard hitter on defense, squaring his shoulders and driving opponents into the turf. During high school football in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, he also returned kicks and punts for the Forest Park Trojans — in many games, staying on the field for every single play.

At the age of 25, Joseph killed himself after a three-year bout with depression. When doctors examined his brain, they found signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, the degenerative brain disease recently found in dozens of former NFL players — most of whom committed suicide as well.

Brain trauma linked to pro football has been in the news for some time now. But while there are 1,696 players on NFL rosters at any given time, there are more than a million playing in high school and more than 2 million players in youth leagues. The vast majority of football players in this country get dropped off at practice by their parents and strap on hand-me-down pads before running around the field, pretending to be their heroes.

Joseph's mother Debra Pyka is on a mission to protect them. Earlier this month, she announced that she's suing Pop Warner, the country's biggest youth football organization, for negligence that contributed to her son's suicide — the first-ever lawsuit filed against a youth football league for CTE. Though she's demanding $5 million, her goal is more ambitious than money. "Something has to change," she says. "I think we need to end tackle football for children, period."

In theory, she aims to do this by legally establishing tackle football as an ultra-hazardous activity for children — a precedent that would make leagues liable for all injuries kids suffer on the field, effectively putting them out of business. In reality, legal experts say, this aspect of her case has little chance of succeeding.

Pyka's real goal is using the suit as a soapbox to educate parents about the risks of letting their kids strap on a helmet. "Even if we lose, we win," she says. "The information will get out there."

For anyone who cares about the future of football or the health of children, Pyka's strategy raises important questions. Will people listen? Will parents stop letting their kids play football?

Joseph Chernach's downward spiral

At Joseph's funeral, his brother Tyler told the story of how, during high school, the two had wrestled each other in front of a packed crowd for the Upper Peninsula championship.

"He could have beat me. But I think he didn't want to embarrass his big brother," Tyler says. "He never admitted to letting me win, but I could tell. That was just the kind of person he was. He'd take the shirt off his back for you."

At Forest Park High, Joseph was known as a gregarious, outgoing student — and a bit of class clown. One of his best friends was the son of the football coach, Bill Santilli, and Chernach spent so much time around the Santilli family that, in public, he felt comfortable putting on Bill's hat and flannel shirt and doing an impression of him.

Though he also wrestled and pole vaulted, Joseph's true passion was football. Like most players at the rural high school, he played offense and defense. He was a solid linebacker, but really shined as a running back and returner. He was small — 5'9", 147 pounds — but uncommonly quick, with excellent field vision. As a senior, he led the Trojans to the state championship.

"He went from being an honor student, a team captain, a class clown, to a total hermit"

It was after he graduated in 2005 and headed to Central Michigan University that his life began to derail. "Things were strange," Debra Pyka says. "He’d be happy sometimes, and very different other times. If you asked him about school, he’d get bothered." He stopped going to classes, and eventually dropped out, bouncing back and forth between his mother's house in Wisconsin and his father's in Michigan.

Neither parent recognized their son. "He really changed completely," Jeffrey Chernach says. "He went from being an honor student, a team captain, a class clown, to a total hermit."

Joseph got a job as a school custodian, but had trouble leaving the house, and eventually lost it. He spent more and more time in his room, and increasingly depended on alcohol to face people when he came out of hiding. He began voicing nonsensical suspicions, often paranoid that people were talking about him. His mother made appointments for him to see counselors, but he ignored her appeals to get help.

By 2012, Pyka knew her son was considering suicide. "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,'" she says. "I actually told him that."

The alarming history of CTE

In 1928, a New Jersey doctor named Harrison Martland examined a number of boxers who were, as boxing fans used to say, "punch drunk" — permanently confused and uncoordinated after years of punishment in the ring.

Martland formally took stock of their symptoms for the first time. Some had tremors and involuntarily swayed from side to side, reminding him of someone with Parkinson's. Others had difficulty speaking — which is why, Martland observed, spectators sometimes called these sorts of boxers "cuckoo," "goofy," or "slug nutty." In especially severe cases, he wrote, "marked mental deterioration may set in, necessitating commitment to an asylum." A few years later, doctors coined a scientific name for "punch drunk": dementia pugilistica.

Over the ensuing decades, the severity of the problem became more and more apparent. In the 1970s, British scientists cut open the brains of deceased boxers who'd had dementia pugilistica and found degenerated tissue with abnormal tangles of tau proteins: structures that normally helped brain cells transport nutrients, but had accumulated in a dysfunctional form, clogging up the brain and ultimately killing cells. More than anything, their brains looked like those of much older people, with Alzheimer's.

Cte_brains2big

Left: a normal brain (slice at top, microscope slide at bottom). Right: a brain with high amounts of tau. Boston University

In retrospect, it's troubling that it took so long for people to realize that CTE (as dementia pugilistica was eventually called) might also affect participants of the country's second-most violent sport. The idea wasn't proposed until September 2002, when Pittsburgh pathologist Bennet Omalu performed an autopsy on former Steelers great Mike Webster, a hall of fame center who'd suffered from severe depression and dementia before dying from a heart attack at age 50. When Omalu cut slices from Webster's brain and looked at them under a microscope, he was surprised to see tangles of clumped tau proteins and other signs of CTE. A year later, Omalu examined the brain of Terry Long — another Steelers legend, who'd killed himself at age 45 by drinking antifreeze — and saw the same picture.

"This stuff should not be in the brain of a 45-year-old man," Omalu later said. "This looks more like a 90-year-old brain with advanced Alzheimer's."

Over the next few years, Omalu and other doctors diagnosed many other deceased players with CTE. There was Andre Waters, a former Philadelphia Eagle who'd been one of the hardest-hitting defenders in the league and shot himself in the head at age 44. There was Justin Strzelczyk, another Steelers lineman, who developed bipolar disorder, paranoia, and depression after retirement, and ultimately crashed his pickup truck at 90 miles per hour while inexplicably running from the police. There were Ray Easterling, Dave Duerson, and Junior Seau — all players who experienced dramatic mood changes after retirement and eventually committed suicide.

Perhaps most alarmingly, in 2010, a former University of Pennsylvania football player named Owen Thomas was diagnosed with CTE after his suicide. He was 21.

Still, there's a lot we don't know about CTE. "The science has come a long way in the past few decades, but we still have a ways to go," says Kevin Guskiewicz, a North Carolina University sports head injury expert. On the most fundamental level, we don't understand how CTE works, and how repetitive brain trauma leads to it over time.

Though doctors at Boston University's CTE Center have now examined the brains of 79 deceased NFL players and found CTE in 76 of them, the overall rate of CTE in all players is unknown — it could be an epidemic, or a rare problem. Figuring this out depends on answering a related key question: does it take concussions to cause CTE, or can the routine, relatively mild impacts many players experience over and over in every game sometimes trigger it as well?

Most recently, there have disturbing been hints that head impacts during childhood — the sort experienced frequently by Joseph and other Pop Warner players — are especially dangerous. But these are preliminary studies. No researchers have carefully tracked head impacts experienced by kids and mental symptoms seen later on.

Still, people have suspected that kids' heads are especially vulnerable to long-term damage for some time now. In 1957, for instance, a British neurologist named Macdonald Critchley studied a number of men in their 20s and 30s who suffered from dementia pugilistica after boxing careers that had started during childhood. His notes on one — a 39-year-old who'd been a national grade school boxing champion — are especially chilling.

"Originally of superior intelligence," Critchley wrote, "he later showed both an intellectual falling-off and a curious alteration in personality."

"No one would listen to me. So I decided to file a lawsuit."

The last thing Joseph Chernach ever said to his brother Tyler was that he loved him.

Before his depression, Joseph hadn't verbally expressed his affection all that often. But as things got worse, he'd sometimes take long walks at night and call Tyler or Seth — mostly, Tyler says, simply so he could hear someone's voice as he walked alone. Usually, he'd say "I love you" before hanging up the phone.

These walks were why Debra Pyka wasn't initially worried when Joseph walked out of her house on June 6th, 2012. But as the hours ticked by, she began calling neighbors and relatives.

When she still hadn't heard from Joseph by morning, she started frantically searching, driving to her nephew's and mother's houses in hopes that he might have walked to one of them overnight. As she drove past the tall trees lining her driveway, she says, she half-expected to see her son's body hanging from one of them.

Just as she went to file a missing person's report, her husband — Joseph's stepfather — went to the toolshed behind their house. Joseph's body was hanging inside. Though he'd been dead for hours, emergency responders found Pyka clinging desperately to his body when they arrived.

There were two memorial services: one in Wisconsin and one in Michigan, where he went to high school. Hundreds of friends attended. Joseph was buried with two football jerseys: one from his favorite pro team, the Green Bay Packers, and the #32 jersey he'd worn for Forest Park High.

Jeffrey Chernach with his three sons. Joseph is wearing number 32.

Joseph's family was overcome with grief — but also confusion. Prior to college, he hadn't shown any signs of depression or anxiety. He'd been the last person anyone expected to commit suicide. "We just had no idea why any of this had happened," Pyka says. "Then Tyler asked me to send his brain in."

Tyler had read about Junior Seau, a hall of fame NFL player who committed suicide a month before Joseph, at the age of 43. In January 2013, he was diagnosed with CTE. At Tyler's urging, Pyka send Joseph's brain to the Sports Legacy Institute (a nonprofit that's partnered with Boston University to study CTE).

On one level, the results made a lot of sense. But they were also puzzling.

"Not once did Joseph ever have concussion," his father says. "Not once did he ever get knocked out. Not once did he ever have his 'bell rung'."

His brain, though, showed an surprisingly advanced case of CTE for a 25-year-old: stage II or III, out of a maximum of four stages, with heavy deposits of tau proteins in several key areas. Ann McKee, the Boston University neuropathologist who performed the autopsy, wrote that deterioration in his locus coeruleus — a pea-sized region of the brain thought to be involved in regulating anxiety, mood, and depression — was "the most severe I’ve seen in a person this age."

Pyka began writing to politicians. But all she got were form letters and vague sympathy notes.

As Pyka learned about CTE, she began to entertain the possibility that, even though Joseph had never had a concussion, milder blows to the head might have caused hidden damage over time. And even though he'd also wrestled and pole vaulted, she felt that football, by far, was the biggest source of head impacts he'd suffered.

Eventually, Pyka began writing to state and national politicians. She hoped they'd be shocked to learn about how youth football had seemingly led to Joseph's disease, and that they'd want to do something. But all she got were form letters and vague sympathy notes.

After Pyka began telling Joseph's story to the press, she started to hear from other parents who'd lost kids to suicide and suspected that football had played a role. Over time, she began to worry: of the millions of kids who play tackle football, some others, she thought, must be silently suffering and dying from CTE as well. Despite the public distress over NFL players' head injuries, she was overcome by the sense that no one is watching out for the millions of children who strap on helmets — without the same maturity and understanding of risk — every fall.

Jeffrey Chernach doesn't entirely blame football for Joseph's suicide — he thinks a combination of football and other factors may have led to CTE. He's ambivalent about tackle football for kids, and doesn't want any involvement in a lawsuit. Pyka, on the other hand, came to the conclusion that flag football might be okay, but tackle football was simply an unsafe activity for any child.

Eventually, she realized she had one means of doing something about it. "No one would listen to me," she says, "so I decided to file a lawsuit."

How young is too young to play tackle football?

No one has ever sued a youth football league for CTE. After news of the lawsuit broke earlier this month, Pyka found herself besieged by people suddenly interested in Joseph's story. Reporters called her constantly — one showed up unannounced outside her house. She was attacked in emails and Facebook messages from strangers. Critics fell into two distinct groups: one that felt she was ruining a harmless, fun youth activity, and another that felt she was greedily seeking money after playing a part in a death of her child. "People were calling me a child abuser, telling me to kill myself," she says.

Pyka is quick to point out that she's not suing for the money. She says she wants to change things. She chose to sue Pop Warner (a national organization with more than 200,000 players in 34 states, which allows kids as young as five years old to play) rather than Joseph's high school because of the vulnerability of children's developing brains. She thinks, under the proper conditions, that playing tackle football in high school might be okay — but wants to do anything within her power to stop younger children from playing it.

Her 27-page complaint involves two big accusations towards that end. One is the more routine accusation of negligence: the claim that Pop Warner failed to take steps that would have reduced Joseph's risk of brain trauma, like limiting hitting during practice, using the safest helmets available, enforcing all rules, and having trained coaches on hand to properly diagnose concussions. "If you're going to let children who are too young to sit in the front seat of a car play a violent game, you have to provide them not less protection than you get at the NFL level, but more," says Gordon Johnson, Pyka's attorney.

But the complaint also goes a step further, arguing that given everything we know about tackle football and the brain, it should be considered an extraordinarily unsafe activity for any child too young to attend high school. "They shouldn't have let children of this age play the game, period," Johnson says.

This accusation, if it were accepted by a judge and jury, would establish youth tackle football as an ultra-hazardous activity subject to a legal concept called strict liability. In essence, it'd mean that Pop Warner and other leagues would be liable for any injuries that kids suffer from playing football — regardless of whether the leagues had actually done anything wrong. That enormous burden might lead many youth leagues to fold. "They're really trying to take a sledgehammer to youth tackle football," says Paul D. Anderson, a Missouri lawyer who's worked on several other football and CTE-related lawsuits.

It's rather unlikely this will happen. The textbook example of an activity so dangerous that it merits strict liability, Anderson explains, is keeping an exotic pet (say, a tiger) caged in a residential neighborhood. If it gets out — even if you properly caged it — you can be held liable, since keeping a carnivorous tiger at home doesn't provide any societal benefit, and is an abnormally dangerous practice in the first place.

It's hard to see a judge deciding that youth football should fall in this category. "It really is, in my opinion, a specious claim. There's no basis for it in the law," Anderson says. "Strict liability claims just do not fit this type of circumstance."

He predicts the strict liability claim will be dismissed — perhaps even within a few weeks. Pop Warner's deadline to file a motion to dismiss the whole case is March 2. Assuming they carry out this routine step, a judge could throw out the strict liability claim soon after.

The more modest claim of negligence, though, could make it to trial. A California judge recently refused to dismiss a negligence suit brought against Pop Warner by the parents of a paralyzed former player, and both Gordon and Pyka say they're not interested in settling. Still, they'd have a number of hurdles to clear to convince a jury that Pop Warner had been negligent.

For starters, Pop Warner could argue that — as an umbrella association of local leagues, rather than a single, formal league — they're not legally responsible for ensuring the safety of all players. Further, Pyka would still need to prove that the head impacts Joseph suffered during Pop Warner directly contributed to his CTE, and that CTE led to his suicide. "We question the merits of singling out four years of youth football amid a career of sports that lasted through high school," Pop Warner's national offices said in a statement. (The organization declined to be interviewed for this article.)

Finally, Pyka will have to show that Pop Warner had had some knowledge about the dangers of youth head impacts that they didn't act upon when Joseph was playing. All in all, it's a tough case, and a likely outcome is dismissal.

Will parents ever give up on football?

"The most plausible route to the death of football starts with liability suits," economists Kevin Grier and Tyler Cowen wrote in a 2012 Grantland article about the end of football. As youth leagues become liable for long-term brain damage and knowledge of the head injury risks spreads, they predicted, "more and more modern parents will keep their kids out of playing football, and there tends to be a 'contagion effect' with such decisions; once some parents have second thoughts, many others follow suit."

This, in a nutshell, is what Pyka hopes to achieve. Whether she wins or loses in court, she hopes that simply by making it to trial, she'll elicit a long-overdue conversation about the risks we let our kids take when they first put on a helmet.

It seems logical. But for those worried about the dangers of football for kids, the hard truth is that it's unclear whether it will work.

Polls show that a healthy percentage of parents are worried about the risks of tackle football, but a much smaller fraction are concerned enough to stop their kids from playing. Pop Warner participation has declined slightly in recent years, but this could simply be the result of demographic factors rather than safety concerns — and football is still the country's most popular sport at the high school level. It's hard to say whether we're on the precipice of a steep decline in youth football, or — as the NFL's booming ratings indicate — if the sport is as popular as ever.

At times, many writers (including me) have looked to the history of boxing as a prophecy. In the 1920s, it was one of the most popular sports in the country; today, one percent of Americans say it's their favorite sport to watch. Part of the decline can probably be traced to the fact that boxing is now recognized as a remarkably dangerous activity, and few parents would let their kids take it up.

But the uncomfortable truth is that boxing also faded for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with its barbarism. The sport's dependence on HBO and pay-per-view prevented it from reaching new fans, and the constant splintering of championship belts made it unappealing to newcomers. Recently, Mixed Martial Arts and similar sports have sapped some of its viewership.

"Most of us walk around with an 'it-can't-happen-to-me' mentality"

In deciding whether to let a child play tackle football, meanwhile, parents weigh the pros (exercise, learning about teamwork and discipline, and giving kids an outlet for excess energy) against the cons (the risk of injury, including long-term brain trauma). And it can be very hard to do this objectively.

"Some parents see the positives as concrete, and the risks as abstract. Most of us walk around with an 'it-can't-happen-to-me' mentality," says Russell Saunders, a pediatrician who's written about the dangers of youth football and speaks to his patients about it regularly. "The abstract risks, the things that happen to other people and you see on the news, they're distant and separated from your own experience."

It's hard to imagine a single case — even one as tragic as Joseph's — substantially changing that. What might convince these parents, Saunders thinks, is hard, concrete data about the risks of playing tackle football as a child. We still don't have that. We just have unsettling hints of what a collision sport can do to a young brain. And most of what we do know comes from the stories of individual adults: NFL players.

Even Jeffrey Chernach, after all, is unconvinced. Though he recognizes that football likely played a role in his son's death, he still sees the sport as a positive for kids. He thinks better concussion testing and other safety precautions are the key — not banning it outright.

"It's really tough, but my views of football itself haven't changed," he says. This fall, like he has for the past 15 years or so, he'll take the sidelines once again at Forest Park high, volunteering as an assistant coach for the varsity football team.


Lead image: Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the position Mike Webster played. We regret the error.
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