It’s a disturbing diagnosis that football families and fans have come to know well. For rodeo families and fans, it’s a new one.
An examination of the brain of Ty Pozzobon, the Merritt bull-rider who took his own life earlier this year, has found evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, known as CTE.
CTE is a degenerative brain disorder which kills brain cells and often leads to impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and paranoia.
“Superficially, his brain looked pretty good, like any 25-year-old’s should,” said Dr. Dirk Keene, one of the researchers at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine who looked at Pozzobon’s brain.
But under a microscope, Keene found the telltale signs of CTE.
“Under the microscope there proved to be areas most consistent with trauma he suffered in the past,” he said.
His colleague, Dr. Christine MacDonald, said that while there is still much that’s unknown about the causes of CTE, what they saw was another reminder that “cumulative exposures are not good.”
“We do know that one-plus-one does not equal two when it comes to the world of head injuries and concussion,” she said. There is some suspicions that genetics are an underlying factor in making a brain susceptible to CTE, along with repeated trauma.
Researchers at Boston University have found strong links between CTE and the repeated brain trauma suffered in football.
As far as MacDonald and Keene know, this is the first time CTE has been found in the brain of a former bull-rider.
Pozzobon, 25 at the time of his death, suffered at least a dozen concussions during his five-year career as a pro bull-rider. Family and friends have said his memory had become erratic in recent years, his emotions unpredictable, his decision-making impulsive.
The cause of his depression wasn’t run-of-the-mill sadness — it was because of brain injury.
One injury in particular worried the family: a November 2014 fall off a bull in Saskatoon. He was unconscious before he hit the dirt, and the bull then stomped on his head, shattering the hockey helmet he wore for protection.
The family told Maclean’s magazine earlier this year that Pozzobon’s personality, once a vibrant one with a slew of friends and always actively engaging with fans on social media, became a different person.
“The look in his eyes changed after that,” his mom Leanne said.
MacDonald said a civilian study she’d been involved in had found that one in three people who had suffered a head injury were also suffering from post-traumatic stress.
“We used to think PTSD was a military diagnosis,” she said.
The simple truth, Keene said, was how much remains to be learned about CTE.
“We just don’t know enough to make an informed opinion about what the risks are,” he said. Keene is a parent and said his family has had to make decisions about what kinds of sporting risks their children would take.
“Ty along with a lot of other athletes are at the forefront of our understanding of what CTE is.”
When speaking with families about the risks sports like hockey, football, rugby — and yes, bull-riding — pose for children and teens, MacDonald said, “it’s a balance.”
“The focus really is on education and an awareness of where we are now.”
But it’s also about “what we don’t know.”
In a statement, the Pozzobon family thanked the UW team “for their time and care during this process.”
“The results that they have provided can only help others and that is the family’s wish and goal,” they added. “Ty’s passing has brought so much sorrow and pain to all, we hope everyone, specifically athletes, understand that we need to educate each other with regards to head injuries, both short and long-term impacts.” Ty’s family believes not to stop doing what you are passionate about, but do it in a smarter way, and listen to both what the medical professionals tell you and what your body and mind are telling you.”
The Pozzobon’s message is one echoed by MacDonald and Keene: The only way to understanding CTE better will be more data, both through long-term studies on living people and, sadly, through further examinations of brains.
“Brain donation is the ultimate gift that you can give to science,” MacDonald said.