More than four years after his 2010 death, the family of Mosi Tatupu learned that the former New England Patriots running back suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). CTE is a degenerative brain disease linked to repetitive head injuries such as those sustained by football players.
Tatupu was a fan favorite among Patriots fans during his thirteen season career with the team. It’s no surprise either; he was loved by teammates, was always smiling and developed his own fan section – “Mosi’s Mooses.” Yet, his family says toward the end of his career, he was struggling with depression and alcohol. At the same time, he was becoming forgetful and aloof. In 2010, Tatupu passed away from a heart attack.
Last year, Tatupu’s ex-wife, Linnea Garcia-Tatupu was told that some of Mosi’s brain tissue still existed and was preserved from his autopsy. Upon learning this, she donated the tissue to the CTE Center at Boston University. In October, the day after Mosi was inducted into the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame, Tatupu’s family was informed that “fairly widespread deposits” of tau protein were found in the tissue sample.
The CTE Center’s director, Dr. Ann McKee, has found that CTE sufferers have an abnormal pattern of tau protein buildup in their brains. Often victims display signs of erratic behavior, memory loss, depression, and dementia. Generally, football players who suffer from the disease do not display these symptoms until years after retirement.
The protein buildup pattern is unique to CTE, and the CTE Center has discovered it in about 140 former athletes, many of whom were football players. It is believed that repetitive head injuries, even minor ones, cause a chemical reaction in the brain. That reaction causes tau protein buildups which inhibit nerves in the brain from making connections with each other. This eventually kills those nerves.
Currently, no test can identify CTE in a living person. McKee hopes her research will change this. Her team is looking to develop a test to identify victims early on, before their deaths. With that, she hopes to develop therapies to treat and perhaps reverse the effects of the disease.
Mosi’s case was unique. His behavioral changes were noted much earlier. His family reported that they began seeing changes in his early thirties while he was still playing.
Tatupu’s ex-wife, whom remained close with him after the divorce, hopes to raise awareness for the dangers of playing football long-term. She says she would not “recommend any sport where you can’t protect the very thing that is meant to keep you alive. If your brain doesn’t work, there is precious little else that will.” She fears for her son as well. Tatupu and Garcia-Tatupu’s son, Lofa, played as a linebacker for five seasons with the Seattle Seahawks.