Editor’s note: This story includes discussion of suicide. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, resources are available to help. Please see the information below.
ANNA MARIA ISLAND — The coroner’s verdict was death by suicide. For the grieving family of the 17-year-old boy, nothing in the postmortem explained their loss.
Bruce Parkman’s son, Mac, was a popular high school student, a talented defensive lineman and high school wrestler. The youngest in a wealthy family, his was a childhood of skiing and scuba diving trips, summer breaks at the family’s vacation home on Anna Maria Island and world travel.
His toxicology report showed he was sober when he posted a video in 2020 saying he was going to hurt himself.
Then he stepped off an 80-foot cliff.
“I was in an unbelievable hole of grief and despair and lack of knowledge,” said his father.
Desperate to glean more, Parkman grilled the coroner after his son’s report was completed. The coroner had a question of his own: “Did your son ever have concussions?”
He told Parkman about chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain condition. Caused by repeated blows to the head, it can lead to depression and, in some cases, suicidal thoughts.
Could that be why Mac took his life?
Parkman had to know.
CTE found in professional athletes
Hall of Fame center Mike Webster was the first NFL player to be diagnosed with CTE in 2002.
Since then, the degenerative brain disease believed to stem from repeated blows to the head has been found in more than 300 NFL players, according to a New York Times report.
That includes former San Diego Charger Junior Seau, who killed himself in 2012 at 43. Former Bucs receiver Vincent Jackson was found dead in a Brandon hotel at the age of 38. His death certificate states that he died of chronic alcoholism. His family donated his brain for research and he was also found to have CTE, according to the Concussion Legacy Foundation.
Scientists still are trying to understand the disease. No specific symptoms have been clearly linked to the condition, according to the Mayo Clinic. Possible signs include memory loss, impaired judgment, impulsive behavior, aggression, depression and thoughts of suicide.
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It also may progress toward motor neuron disease and dementia. CTE has been seen in people as young as 17 but symptoms typically do not appear for years or even decades after the last brain trauma — and long after athletes retire. That’s part of the reason cases diagnosed in teens have been rare.
In addition to football players, athletes from other contact sports, including boxing and ice hockey, have been found to have suffered from CTE. In June, Major League Soccer player Scott Vermilion became the first publicly known case of the disease in professional soccer. The 44-year-old died in 2020 of drug and alcohol poisoning.
Currently, the condition can be confirmed only through a postmortem brain analysis.
‘He was suffering’
Growing up in Colorado Springs, football became part of Mac Parkman’s life around seventh grade, his father said. He also played rugby and ice hockey and had snowboarded since the age of 4. All involve frequent falls.
A former Green Beret, Bruce Parkman ran several businesses, including a successful cyber security firm. He always made sure his son had the best equipment, including helmets.
But Mac suffered three concussions in different sports and different seasons, his father remembers telling the coroner. All were mild and he didn’t lose consciousness.
After he spoke with the coroner, Parkman read everything he could on the disease. He called fundraising and research groups. It led him to the Concussion Legacy Foundation and Lisa McHale.
As the foundation’s director of family relations, McHale has guided more than a thousand grieving families who are considering donating their loved ones’ brains for research. The nonprofit partners with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University’s CTE Center.
McHale is the widow of Tom McHale, a former Tampa Bay Buccaneers guard who in 2007 died at age 45 from an accidental drug overdose. The following year, Boston doctors confirmed that he had CTE. He left behind three sons.
Working from her New Tampa home, McHale collects medical and clinical histories from families whose loved ones meet the criteria for brain donation. That included Mac Parkman.
“People would be surprised to learn how many of our legacy donors are young people like Mac,” said McHale. “Many of those died by suicide with this history of contact sports.”
Mac’s brain was examined by Dr. Ann McKee, the head of the CTE Center. But she didn’t find the buildup of an abnormal protein called tau that is used to diagnose the disease. The protein spreads and chokes off other brain cells, eventually killing them. It was likely absent from Mac’s brain because of his young age, McKee told his father.
At Parkman’s insistence, McKee did a second test, this time examining the brain’s white matter, which is made up of a network of nerve fibers known as axons that allow communication between different areas of the brain. She found damage consistent with what she has seen in older professional athletes, he said.
“I started to get a clearer picture as to why Mac was not here,” Parkman said. “Everything I have found suggests that leads to the mental illness he was suffering from, and the manner of his death shows he was suffering.”
On a mission
It didn’t make sense to Parkman that he had never been warned about the risks of concussions, especially after his son suffered three.
He knew other parents were in the dark, too, and couldn’t bear the thought of them going through the same experience.
In February 2021, he formed the Mac Parkman Foundation For Adolescent Concussive Trauma to raise awareness and fund research into the disease and the impact of repeated minor blows to the head known as sub-concussive injuries. He also donated $250,000 to the CTE Center to pay for a project that may provide more certainty about what happened to Mac.
Researchers led by McKee plan to use artificial intelligence software to analyze the white matter in donor brains from people who may have suffered repetitive head injuries from playing contact sports in school. They hope to establish a firm link between the injuries found in Mac’s brain and depression as well as other behavioral and psychiatric abnormalities.
“I made the mistake of allowing my son to hurt himself, to kill himself — I was uninformed,” Parkman said. “We’re doing the wrong thing as a society when we put these developing brains out on the field.”
He’s also written and published a book to explain the condition to parents. He plans to publish it on Sept. 26 — close to the second anniversary of Mac’s death.
Anytime he can get his message out, Parkman takes advantage, making emotional appeals in his gruff Boston accent on radio, TV shows and podcasts.
This summer, he decided he needed to do more. He hired a publicist to travel with him to Washington D.C. in July and they met with Florida lawmakers including Sen. Rick Scott and Rep. Vern Buchanan.
In the meetings, he wore a lime green T-shirt with a motif bearing the foundation’s name. Mac was red/green color blind and lime was the only shade of green he could distinguish.
He wants lawmakers to ban contact sports for children under 14 while still allowing non-contact versions of those like football, soccer and ice hockey. He’d rather high school students avoid them too but knows that may be too tough a sell in a country where “Friday night lights” are a source of pride for virtually every community.
There is skepticism about the link between concussions and CTE, particularly from the NHL.
Still, Parkman sees signs that change is coming. In July, the UK’s Football Association announced a trial of soccer for kids under 12, who aren’t allowed to use their heads to make direct contact with the ball.
“Sooner or later, the tide is going to change,” he said. “I don’t want to see football go away, but I want to see kids lead healthy and productive lives.”
Of all the families McHale has counseled for the foundation, none have made an impact quite like Parkman.
“It seems he is on a mission to make as many other parents aware of this information that he desperately wishes he had,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to get in his way — and I wouldn’t bet against him.”
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If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or chat with someone online at 988lifeline.org.