Shortly before he died in July, former NFL quarterback Ken Stabler was rushed away by doctors, desperate to save him, in a Mississippi hospital. His longtime partner followed the scrum to the elevator, holding his hand. She told him that she loved him. Stabler said that he loved her, too.
"I turned my head to wipe the tears away," his partner, Kim Bush, said recently. "And when I looked back, he looked me dead in the eye and said, 'I'm tired.' "
They were the last words anyone in Stabler's family heard him speak.
"I knew that was it," Bush said. "I knew that he had gone the distance. Because Kenny Stabler was never tired."
The day after Stabler died on July 8, a victim of colon cancer at age 69, his brain was removed during an autopsy and ferried to scientists in Massachusetts. It was dissected for clues, as Stabler had wished, to help those left behind understand why his mind seemed to slip so precipitously in his final years.
On a scale of 1 to 4, Stabler had high Stage 3 chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, the degenerative brain disease believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head, according to researchers at Boston University.
Stabler, well known by his nickname, The Snake, is one of the highest-profile football players to have had CTE. The list, now well over 100, includes at least seven members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, including Junior Seau, Mike Webster and Frank Gifford.
Few, if any, had the free-spirited charisma of Stabler, who personified the renegade Oakland Raiders in the 1970s. He was the NFL's most valuable player in 1974 and led the Raiders to their first Super Bowl title two seasons later. Stabler ended his 15-year NFL career with the Saints in 1984.
"He had moderately severe disease," said Dr. Ann McKee, a professor of neurology and pathology at Boston University School of Medicine who conducted the examination. "Pretty classic."
Stabler's diagnosis further suggests that no position in football, except perhaps kicker, is immune from progressive brain damage linked to hits to the head, both concussive and subconcussive.
"The very severity of the disease, at least that we're seeing in American football players, seems to correlate with the duration of play," McKee said. "The longer they play, the more severe we see it. But it's ... not only the longer you play, but the longer you live after you stop playing."
McKee found widespread damage and the buildup of abnormal tau proteins throughout Stabler's brain, consistent with the symptoms that he tried to disguise, mostly with his sense of humor, from all but his closest friends and family.
"His changes were extremely severe in parts of the brain like the ... big learning and memory centers," McKee said.
"So if he was still functioning reasonably well, he was compensating, but I don't think that compensation would have lasted much longer."