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A year after suicide of Penn football player, many questions remain
Kathy Brearley stares at the yard from her dining room table, cradling in her hands a team of inch-high, helmeted, wooden figurines that her son once made. “People ask, ‘Well, didn’t you know Owen was depressed?’” she says. “I wanted to shake them. He wasn’t a depressed person. But this thing happened. How can you tell yourself he wasn’t? And then you feel stupid.”
As she speaks in her Allentown, Pa., home, she arranges the figures, painted in Philadelphia Eagles green, in meticulous formations, like bowling pins set by machine. “I was not going to believe Owen was ever just that type of person,” Kathy says. “He was very responsible.”
Crouched atop his stepladder, trying to lose himself in a repainting job of the living room, Kathy’s husband, Tom, is moved to speak. “Well,” he mumbles, barely audible. But he stops there, knowing the rest of that thought isn’t the part you say out loud.
Kathy hears him, but says nothing. Her eyes are fixed on the figures again – those toy soldiers of the gridiron her son had crafted long before he became a player himself. Kathy raises her right hand and, with a quick sweep, the little men all fall down.
Just over a year ago, on April 26, 2010, Owen Daniel Brearley Thomas hanged himself in his off-campus apartment at the University of Pennsylvania. The star defensive end and team captain left no note. His cell phone and wallet remained in his pocket. He was 21.
That night, after Kathy and her husband had been summoned to Philadelphia to identify the body, her cell phone rang. “Ma’am,” a voice said. “Can we have Owen’s brain?”
The call came from Boston University’s Sports Legacy Institute, founded in 2007 to promote head trauma awareness. Five months later, Owen Thomas would become the face of a burgeoning epidemic. The Institute announced in September that Owen’s brain had evidence of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disorder that can only be diagnosed after death. Its sole known cause is repeated head trauma. Among its symptoms: loss of impulse control.
CTE had already been detected in the brains of more than a dozen deceased NFL players, but Owen Thomas was a game-changer: He was young, never played professionally and had no documented history of concussions. “Owen made for the most public exposure of this problem,” says Robert Cantu, professor of neurosurgery at Boston University and co-founder of the Institute. “Here was someone who was so young, a gifted student, an Ivy League individual.”
It was a resonant narrative: the fiery-haired tot born to two Allentown, Penn., ministers; the youngest of four boys who wore his Randall Cunningham jersey so frequently that the number “12″ had disintegrated; the Wharton School student who was as adept at sprucing up a PowerPoint as sniffing out a power sweep; and, finally, the young man compelled, by the blunt force of the game itself, to surrender everything on a drizzly Monday afternoon.
“If [Owen] had not developed CTE,” Kathy told a Congressional panel on player safety last fall, her son’s faded Parkland High jersey hugging her shoulders, “he would have grown up to be a wonderful contributing citizen.”
CTE was the answer Kathy says she spent months hoping for. The finding was a boost, too, for concussion awareness and development in helmet technology, and helped change the way the game is preached from Pop Warner on up. But the human brain is a complicated organ.
Morgan Thomas is Owen’s older brother. He’s 24, and he used to play football, too, as Owen’s teammate at Parkland High, then later as a left tackle at East Stroudsburg University. Growing up, the Thomas boys would knock heads, literally, every summer afternoon, jostling each other in the backyard. So it’s understandable that Morgan would have some questions: “I mean, if my brother had CTE, I’ve got it,” he says, jamming a finger against the back of his skull. “And I’m still sitting here?”
Certainty is an elusive commodity in matters of brain and behavior. When suicide is the endpoint, causes and effects become nearly impossible to connect. “The reality is that suicide is a pretty high cause of death in college students,” says Cantu, whose organization has found CTE in 14 of the 15 deceased NFL players it has examined. “Owen was troubled. The CTE is never supposed to be there, but it was not at all dramatic in Owen … Not enough was there to affect behavior.”
Cantu says he wouldn’t attempt to dissuade Kathy from her belief that CTE caused her son’s death. If Owen’s story gives a bump to CTE awareness, all the better. But as the anniversary of his death passes, many of those closest to Owen point to the importance of getting his story right – or, at least, acknowledging that his death is not so easily explained.
“The answer is not to stop talking about CTE,” says Ann Haas, director of prevention projects at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “But we need to link that discussion to the fact that depression is treatable.”
Even Kathy, well aware of Cantu’s assessment but equally disinclined to embrace it, recognizes that the stakes are too high to dabble in guesswork. “Because of all the talk,” Kathy says, “you might have people now who think if you’re depressed and you’ve played football, death is the only option.”
She mentions former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson, who took his life in February at the age of 50. He left text messages and a written note for family members, insisting that his brain be examined for CTE. Duerson chose to shoot himself in the chest and not in the head.
Kathy does not know, of course, why Duerson killed himself, nor if Owen’s story has left athletes more likely to feel hopeless about their mental state. But she shudders at the prospect. “This is a brain disease, like Alzheimer’s, but you can live a productive life,” she says. “I’d hate for people to think otherwise because of all this. There [would be] a huge social cost.”
They don’t know for sure, but the Revs. Tom Thomas and Katherine Brearley are nearly certain that they’re the only couple in Allentown to have met and married in Central Africa.
They were missionaries in 1978 – sent to Zambia from Lancaster, Pa., and Liverpool, England, respectively. The ceremony came two years later, the move to Allentown four years after that, and in the window beginning with Morgan’s arrival in the spring of 1987 and Owen’s some 18 months later, the couple adopted two other boys, Jerry, 7, and Matt, 5, from an Illinois foster home.
Tom was a football man, like his father, having lined up at fullback and offensive guard at the University of Virginia. He had hoped his children would find another pastime – music, maybe – but the boys weren’t going to waste all that front-yard space.
When she was pregnant with Owen, Kathy feared he’d be the runt of the litter, destined to be pushed around by his older brothers. Then he came out. “He had this red hair,” says Kathy, the matriarch of a family of brunettes. “We knew you never had to worry about him living in anybody’s shadow.”
When a preschool teacher asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, Owen said, “The boss in charge.” When his arm popped out of his socket as a tot, he fought the x-ray technician so hard, the bone jerked back into place. And when his siblings were old enough to play football, Owen insisted on practicing with them. “We made up a game called Pop-the-Tart,” Morgan says. “He was the tart.” Owen relished the contact. Morgan estimates Owen gave him 20 or 30 stitches in their youth, over the course of maybe a half-dozen incidents.
All that ever seemed to bother Owen was losing. Defeat in a video game could spell irreparable damage to the hand-held controller. Various mundane frustrations – from school-related strife to electronic equipment that wouldn’t cooperate – occasionally resulted in a broken glass or two. Kathy remembers a play from a league semifinal game when Owen was in middle school. The opponent needed a short fourth-down conversion, and the running back swept wide, toward Owen’s side of the defensive line.
“He just leaped up into this huge tackle and hit this guy,” she says. “It was one of those plays where the offense says to itself, ‘It’s not worth it. We’re not gonna kill ourselves.’” She pauses, allowing herself a dark chuckle, then a sigh. “We had to take him to the emergency room after that,” she says.
Owen’s older brothers played hard, but only he competed, as a Penn coach put it later, “like his hair was on fire.” During his first year on the Parkland High team, on which Morgan was already a 300-pound offensive lineman, Owen got pushed around. When he returned the next season to play defensive end, muscles twitching beneath his pads, no one could keep him out of the backfield.
By the time Owen arrived at Penn, some of his teammates had already done some scouting on Facebook. “He looked like an absolute madman, with this crazy samurai haircut and long red hair,” says Dave Kuncio, Owen’s teammate and close friend, now a senior kicker at Penn. “But when he got here, he talked to everyone like he’d known them for five years. Strong handshake, super nice. He was never one of those quiet leaders.”
Within weeks, the entire recruiting class knew who their captain would be three years down the road. Even in his academic work at the Wharton School – where cutthroat students have been known to rip pages out of library books to prevent classmates from studying after them – Owen was well-liked. Management professor Jennifer Mueller said last year that Owen had the “Wharton trifecta: smarts, confidence, and people skills.”
“His groups,” she added, “tended to win.”
Owen played sparingly as a freshman, a bit more as a sophomore, and blossomed into the team leader in sacks as Penn won the Ivy title in his junior year. His parents attended as many games as they could, though his brother Morgan’s games at nearby East Stroudsburg University often forced them to split time. Still, they saw Owen frequently in his early college years. His longtime girlfriend attended Millersville University in Lancaster, Pa., and he often stopped home when he went to visit her.
“It was nice, but in a way, we didn’t really know who Owen was in college,” Kathy says. “We only saw snippets that he chose to show us.”
It was strange, Mike Fay remembers, sweet, but unsettling. Fay was Owen’s classmate and teammate at Parkland, and though the two spoke less and less once Fay migrated to Ohio for college, they remained best friends. This particular call came in November 2009, and began like most of the rest: comparing football seasons. At one point, they happened upon what Fay thought was a patch of comfortable silence.
“Hey,” Owen said. “Promise me you’ll always be my best friend.” Fay said he would, then filed the conversation away for five months.
Kathy remembers an odd conversation she had with Owen early in the spring semester of his junior year. He had recently broken up with the high school girlfriend he’d so often visited. “He said girls at Penn only cared about money,” she says. “It was so hard and cynical. I thought, ‘That’s just not Owen.’ But what are you going to do, call up the university psychologist and say my son’s been stereotyping girls?”
Each spring at Penn’s business school, the junior class begins on-campus recruiting – a months-long game of résumé-shuffling and networking during which students score the summer internships that often turn into lucrative full-time jobs. It was a game Owen was losing. Due in large part to his football commitments, his grades lagged – “He’d work his ass off for a C+,” says Kuncio – and consequently he remained without an offer well into the spring. Kathy, unemployed at the time, called her son to tell him, “You know, you’re gonna have to get something.”
“Then he told me he’d been sending out 80 letters a day,” she says. “He must have felt so much pressure.”
By March, friends noticed Owen had been losing weight. Weeks later, he stopped showing up for team lifting sessions. After the spring game on April 10, Tom saw firsthand how overwhelmed Owen had become with schoolwork and his bleak job prospects. When the votes for captain were announced – 73 of 82 players had scribbled Owen’s name on their ballots, according to coach Al Bagnoli – Owen seemed ambivalent, say friends and family. “He put the team on his shoulders,” Kuncio says. “Especially with those numbers, it was like, ‘These kids are really depending on me to lead.’”
On April 25, Owen called home to wish his mother a happy birthday. His father grabbed the phone to speak with him afterward. “The quiver in his voice was something that wasn’t Owen at all,” Tom says. “He said to me, ‘Dad, I’m failing everything, I’m failing everything.’”
The next week, at the memorial service, one of Owen’s roommates approached the parents: Owen had struggled academically in the spring, he told them, but had never been in serious danger of failing any classes. The family also met the VP of a Philadelphia management firm that day. He came to tell them that he had planned to hire their son.
Kathy Brearley thought her son would be the control case, a clean sample to give statistical significance to the BU study. In the weeks following Owen’s death, his parents tried to lose themselves in prayer. Morgan barely slept or ate, obsessed with finding a cause for his brother’s suicide. “I was trying to be a goddamn detective,” Morgan says. “At one point, I thought there was a conspiracy against him from the football team.” Kathy, too, sought an explanation for her son’s act. Some were sensible enough. She recalled those vignettes from the spring, assigning meaning in hindsight – the bad grades, the poor job prospects, the girl trouble, the pressure of the captaincy.
But Kathy’s mind wouldn’t rest. At various times, she convinced herself that Owen was a drug mule, a degenerate gambler, gay. She also read blog postings about her son’s passing. One commenter wrote, “This boy’s mother’s a pastor. I bet it’s got something to do with that.” Says Kathy, “I’m like Owen. I don’t care what people think. But imagine if you were a person who did?”
When the researchers briefed the family on their findings in late summer, Kathy didn’t hesitate to make the information public. She realized that CTE awareness advocates were feeling a tailwind – aided by a rash of early-season NFL concussions and a looming Congressional hearing. Owen Thomas, the doctors said, would represent a tipping point. What better legacy could her son leave for future generations of football families?
Kathy also wanted to dismiss any notion that her son suffered from “classic” depression. “It was hard not to be angry at people putting Owen in that category,” she says. “CTE was vindication.”
Donna Ambrogi sought no vindication. Her son Kyle, once a star running back and affable team leader at Penn, was in “that category.” In October 2005, four games into his best season, he shot himself in the basement of the family’s home. He was 21.
“You’re a parent. You’re supposed to fix it. You’re supposed to make sure everything’s OK with your kid,” says Donna, who says recent CTE research has not altered her perspective on her son’s death. “You can’t get so enmeshed in the ‘why’ that it consumes your life. It doesn’t bring him back.”
Kathy has spoken to Ambrogi, and remains grateful for her support over the past year, but she is sure to note Kyle’s “history of depression” – no more extensive, by any accounts, than Thomas’ – whenever a comparison is suggested.
It is true that Owen’s spot on the defensive line left him more vulnerable to repeated head trauma, the primary cause of CTE. But as Cantu points out, the disorder has been found in linemen and “skill-position” players alike.
“The samples donated to us are horribly skewed because they’ve all died,” Cantu says. It is entirely possible, in other words, that many former athletes –even in advanced age – are asymptomatic sufferers. Determining prevalence later in life, according to Cantu, is the next frontier of CTE research.
Can there be any doubt that grieving is more complicated when the survivors themselves are hunting for answers? After Owen’s death, Donna Ambrogi was asked to speak to his teammates. She shared with them a poem by Iris Bolton, a copy of which she still carries in her purse. “I don’t know why,” it begins. “I’ll never know why. I don’t have to know why.”
But some survivors must try. Tom and Morgan Thomas have already spoken to Cantu’s colleagues. Their minds are made up. They’ve pledged their brains to the cause.
It is spring football season again at Penn, an annual exercise in optimism. Even a full season, a championship season, removed from losing their captain, the specter of Owen Thomas’ story is impossible for the team to escape. All players are now well versed in the signs of depression, and what to do when they see them. “I didn’t know how it was with people who are suicidal,” says Kuncio, set to graduate in May. “Owen had that captain mentality. ‘Rally the troops!’ You don’t always see an obvious change in personality.”
In the year since his brother’s death, Morgan has decided he will become a football coach. He has already set his first two rules: 1) Don’t be afraid to tell me anything, 2) Never lead with your head.
And Kathy Brearley has become the leader of a new congregation. Since her speech before Congress last September, parents from all over the country, grieving the sudden loss of a loved one, have written to her. “We can make all kinds of horrible things come out of this,” Kathy says. “Sue the school. Go down into depression. Kill ourselves. Whatever, whatever.
“But can we make something good?”
Kathy smiles. She has said her piece.
She scoops up the little figurines in front of her, raises them over her shoulders, and carries them, like a torch, back to Owen’s bedroom. It remains untouched since his death.
By Matt Flegenheimer, Special to SI.com