Ray Easterling, lead plaintiff in NFL concussion lawsuit, commits suicide

The concussion lawsuits brought by a large group of former NFL players, which currently name over 1,000 ex-NFLers in a series of class action claims, lost a formidable voice on Thursday. 62-year-old Ray Easterling, who started at safety for the Atlanta Falcons from 1974-1977, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his home in Richmond, Va. Richmond police Captain Yvonne Crowder told that local authorities have ruled the death a suicide.

Easterling, part of the underrated "Grits Blitz" defenses run by defensive coordinator Jerry Glanville, was found by his wife, Mary Ann. Over the last 20 years, he had suffered from many of the symptoms common to former players who suited up and kept playing through multiple concussions in the days when there was not the same information about the long-term effects of head trauma that we have today. Easterling went through bouts of depression and insomnia, and suffered severe memory loss toward the end of his life. When you go through the lawsuits filed by ex-players, the aftereffects are frighteningly similar.

"He had been feeling more and more pain," Mrs. Easterling said. "He felt like his brain was falling off. He was losing control. He couldn't remember things from five minutes ago. It was frightening, especially somebody who had all the plays memorized as a player when he stepped on the field."

Easterling's lawsuit, filed by his attorney Larry Coben last August, claimed that the NFL "continuously and vehemently denied that it knew, should have known or believed that there is any relationship between NFL players suffering concussions while playing . . . and long-term problems such as headaches, dizziness, dementia and/or Alzheimer's disease that many retired players have experienced."

Easterling underwent 25 different surgeries during his life, and he was diagnosed with dementia in 2011. He is one of a growing number of former players who have reacted to their post-career symptoms by taking their own lives -- former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson, ex-Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Terry Long, and Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Andre Waters are among the men who saw the end too soon for all the wrong reasons.

All three men showed signs of head trauma, and Duerson requested in a suicide note that his brain be donated to Boston University, where it was discovered that he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). After Waters' death, forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu of the University of Pittsburgh said that Waters had the brain tissue one would expect of an 85-year-old man, and that there were signs of the onset of Alzheimer's Disease.

Waters was 44 years old when he ended his life.

"Whatever its cause, Andre Waters' suicide is a tragic incident and our hearts go out to his family," the NFL said in a statement soon after Waters' death. "The subject of concussions is complex. We are devoting substantial resources to independent medical research of current and retired players, strict enforcement of enhanced player safety rules, development and testing of better equipment, and comprehensive medical management of this injury. This work over the past decade has contributed significantly to the understanding of concussions and advancement of player safety. We will continue with all these efforts and maintain our focus on player health and safety."

That may be true now (though Colt McCoy and his father would disagree), but it doesn't address the thousands of former NFL players living sub-standard lives as a result of their time in the league. If the NFL is found to have known and hidden the effects of head trauma in one of the class-action suits, the resulting legal ramifications could be enormous.

The bounty scandal that from New Orleans complicates this issue, as does the "total system failure" seen in the testing (or lack thereof) that saw Colt McCoy head back on the field last year after he was clearly concussed by a violent James Harrison hit. The NFL continues to say one thing and do another when it comes to the instant analysis of head injuries; preferring to act retroactively most of the time. The emotional pull of Ray Easterling's suicide, and the other names it brings up, might be the triphammer that takes the volume and weight of the current bunch of lawsuits over the top.