"I'm tired" were the last words an ex-NFL quarterback who died in July spoke to his family, and recent findings may now explain why his final years were such a struggle. Ken Stabler, an NFL MVP who made his name with the rambunctious Oakland Raiders in the '70s as "the Snake," died of colon cancer at the age of 69, but he also had Stage 3 chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, the New York Times reports—the same brain disease that felled Junior Seau and Frank Gifford. (Stage 4 is most severe, per the Washington Post.) "His changes were extremely severe in … the big learning and memory centers," Boston University neuropathologist Dr. Ann McKee, who conducted the exam on Stabler's brain, tells the Times. "If he was still functioning reasonably well, he was compensating, but I don't think that compensation would have lasted much longer."
McKee notes her diagnosis may seem "surprising" because QBs are often afforded the greatest protection of all players—indicating, as the paper notes, that most players may be vulnerable to CTE. And Stabler certainly felt the effects, which came on quickly in his last years: He became super-sensitive to noise and light, lost his sense of direction, and started repeating himself. "On some days, when he wasn't feeling extremely bad, things were kind of normal," his partner, Kim Bush, tells the Times. "But on other days it was intense. I think Kenny's head rattled for about 10 years." After Junior Seau killed himself, Stabler realized he wanted his brain examined for CTE (the disease can only be diagnosed posthumously). McKee isn't thrown by her findings. "He played for 28 years," she tells ESPN. "He began at the age of 9. So it's not really a surprise that he might have developed this disease." (An ex-NFLer who died at age 27 also had CTE.)