Former football star Ray Easterling has become the latest sportsman to kill himself after suffering from depression believed to have been linked to head injuries during his career.
The 62-year-old, who police say shot himself at his home in Richmond, Virginia, played for the Atlanta Falcons during the 1970s and later sued the NFL over its handling of concussions.
He began showing signs of brain damage 20 years ago with bouts of depression and insomnia.
Then, the former safety developed symptoms of dementia as he lost the ability to focus, organise his thoughts and relate to people.
His wife, Mary Ann Easterling, said she would continue the lawsuit in which she claims the NFL tried to cover up the danger of concussion.
In the last year, the suicides of several sportsmen have been linked to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which is caused by repeated blows to the head and often leads to bouts of depression and anger.
Last year former Chicago Bears star Dave Duerson, who died in February 2011, was found to have the condition, which can only be diagnosed during a post-mortem examination.
The brains of 50 sports stars have been donated to Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, which made the diagnosis.
Ice hockey players, who engage in fights, are also prone. But the condition, nicknamed ‘punch drunk syndrome’ is best known for afflicting boxers.
Mrs Easterling, from Richmond, Virginia, said she intends to force the NFL to set up a fund for injured players as well as educating them about the risks,
‘Half the time the player puts themselves back in the game, and they don’t know what kind of impact it has,’ she said.
‘Somehow this has got to be stopped. It’s destroying people’s lives.’
She described Ray, who died at their home on Thursday, as ‘a wonderful husband and father’.
‘In everything he did, he was a charger. He went full tilt,’ she said.
Describing his dementia, she said: ‘It’s been a progression over the last 20 years,’ she said. ‘It’s very sad to see.’
He was was found by his wife, who contacted police at 6.14 am on Thursday.
Easterling was dead, with a handgun nearby, when police arrived, Richmond police Captain Yvonne Crowder told FOXSports.com.
“Based on our investigation, we are ruling it a suicide,” Crowder said.
Easterling played for the Falcons from 1972 to 1979, helping to lead the team’s ‘Gritz Blitz’ defence in 1977 that set the NFL record for fewest points allowed in a season.
He was born on September 3, 1949 and played in college at the University of Richmond.
He was drafted by the Falcons with the 9th round pick in 1972 and played for seven years, starting four seasons.
He was a leader of the secondary that established a team record in 1977 with 26 interceptions.
The defense that year set the NFL record at the time for allowing just 129 points in a season.
‘He was one of the hardest working football players, most disciplined football players I’ve ever played with,’ said Greg Brezina, a friend and former Falcons teammate.
‘He loved the lord. We roomed together in training camp and every morning we would get up early and pray for everybody on the team.
‘We did that every day. He was a very unselfish person.’
After his playing days ended, he returned to Richmond where he ran a financial services company and started a youth football camp.
But he started showing signs of brain damage about 20 years ago, his wife and friends said.
‘He just wasn’t thinking right. You could tell that 20 years ago,’ said Brezina.
‘He’d start talking to you about one topic, and then he’d end up in another topic and he wouldn’t know how he got there.’
Easterling was part of a group of seven former players who sued the NFL in Philadelphia in August, claiming the league failed to properly treat players for concussion and tried to conceal for decades any links between football and brain injuries.
It was the first potential class-action lawsuit that was filed.
The NFL has said any allegation that the league intentionally sought to mislead players is without merit.