A year ago today, 17-year-old Willy Alexander Thomas left his girlfriend's home, drove to the George Washington Bridge, sent goodbye texts to his parents and girlfriend, then jumped. Known as Zander, he had been treated for "mild depression," the New York Times reports, but his friends, family, and teammates couldn't understand why the extroverted hockey player ended his own life. Now, as they've put the pieces together over the past year, parents Cathy and Graham Thomas think they know what contributed to Zander's death: brain trauma he endured playing sports. Just a month before he died, Zander had received his first concussion diagnosis, but for about a year prior he had been taking painkillers almost every day for headaches, and he had twice told his parents that he had "blacked out" while playing.
Now, Zander's parents believe he may have been hammered by "multiple" undiagnosed concussions over a 15-year span of playing hockey and soccer, as well as "numerous subconcussive injuries"—the same type of injury that a PLoS One study cited in USA Today last year says can still cause significant, long-term brain damage, even if they're not considered full-on concussions. Because Zander's body was in the Hudson River for two weeks before it was recovered, his brain couldn't be examined for brain damage, the Times notes. The Thomases and their three other children are now dedicated to spreading the word about brain injuries in athletes and, as the Times puts it, "preaching the discretion they did not exercise." (Read about the fight over Junior Seau's brain after his suicide.)