(ABC4) – Former Weber State and NFL fullback Marcus Ma’ilei was always known as a happy guy.
His wife of 14 years, Kristen, refers to Marcus as a “social butterfly.” He was even known to occasionally break out in song while roaming around the house where the Ma’ileis and their four children live.
Then, over a span of a few months in 2019, Kristen observed a noticeable change in Marcus’s behavior. Being in crowds, talking to family members, and meeting deadlines at work all became increasingly difficult for Marcus. He even became a bit paranoid about different small things.
Having spent three seasons in the NFL as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles and the New Orleans Saints before retiring in 2011, the league arranged for a therapist to meet with Marcus. The therapist’s treatment was centered around improving Marcus’s mental health, but to Kristen, the problem seemed much deeper than emotional issues.
After doing as much research as she could, Kristen came across an article written by Larry Carr, a former BYU football player turned doctor who researches brain trauma related to football injuries. Carr’s assessment of brain injuries, including CTE, and behavioral changes due to the extremely physical nature of football rang true to Kristen.
“It was so closely related that it was bone-chilling to me,” Kristen explains to ABC4. “I knew that’s what was going on.”
Brain injuries related to playing football have become more prevalent in the news over the last decade. The most talked-about injury is CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative disease linked to repeated blows to the head. Symptoms such as sharp changes in mood and behavior are hallmarks of the disease. Suicide and violent behavior can also be associated with the disease. The brain of former NFL player Phillip Adams, who allegedly shot and killed six people in South Carolina before taking his own life last Wednesday, will be tested for CTE at the Medical University of South Carolina, with support from Boston University, whose chronic traumatic encephalopathy center conducts research on the long-term effects of repetitive brain trauma in athletes and military personnel.
When Carr, who was a star linebacker on BYU’s 1974 WAC championship team before earning his Ph.D. in Exercise Physiology from the university in 1980, heard the news of Adams’s seemingly random violent outburst across the country, he assumed it was football-related brain trauma that sparked the shooting.
“It was the first thing that came to my mind,” Carr tells ABC4. “I don’t want to take away his personal responsibility, it was a heinous act. But at the same time, I’m not going to take away the possibility that it’s related to [CTE].”
When Carr was playing at BYU and then in the Canadian Football League in the 70s, little was known about the risk of playing football. It wasn’t until Carr was out of the game that he experienced a noticeable change in his behavior. On his website, which hosts his research and findings, Carr’s wife, Laurie, describes how her husband would substitute strange sounds for words that he couldn’t remember while he was teaching either as a professor or as a middle school P.E. coach. When the Carrs saw the documentary “League of Denial,” which exposed the dangers of playing football, they wondered if there was a connection to his troubles.
After intensive testing, the results came back showing significant brain damage, most likely caused by concussive head injury. As the couple grappled with the diagnosis and likelihood of CTE in Carr’s brain, the two were sent on a genealogy mission to Boston. While there, and still dealing with many of the symptoms related to CTE, Carr contacted Boston University and presented his Ph.D. credentials and football background.
“From that first contact, we have immersed ourselves in the world of CTE research and possible treatment and found, for us, what has been life-changing,” Laurie’s writing on her husband’s website reads.
Carr and Ma’ilei got in contact in 2019 after Kristen’s findings on brain injury related to football. The two now work together on research-based treatment along with a group of other former football players. The most promising treatment, according to Carr, involves infrared light. In the treatment, the former players are hooked to a device that places sensor pads around the head and inserts a light through the nose, shining the infrared rays on the frontal lobe of the brain.
To the Ma’ileis, working with Carr and the researchers at the University of Utah has been “life-changing.” According to Kristen, Marcus is happier, the social anxiety is gone, and even the singing around the house has returned.
“Overall, it’s a lot easier for him to manage his stress and anxiety and cope with life,” she says.
Still, having gone through what they’ve experienced, those involved have mixed feelings about football. Carr is hopeful that continued research can allow the game to be played more safely. Ma’ilei doesn’t regret playing the game at all, even with the possibility of having sustained significant brain damage.
“Football has helped me create a lot of my life and leadership skills. All the lessons I’ve learned from football are applicable in other aspects of life,” Ma’ilei says. “When it comes to the health part of my football the sacrifices we had to make, I’m all for trying to make life after football better. And there are programs to support players, after the fact. The game has given me so much in my life.”
For Kristen, however, she’s unsure about whether she will allow her children to play the game their father loves. The family’s oldest son, Toby, is a 12-year-old “obsessed” with football. He had been playing football since first grade, but as his dad’s issues became better understood, Toby was pulled out of the sport.
According to his mother, Toby constantly reminds her that playing football is “his dream.” She thinks he has a bit of a compelling argument, but her memories of watching Marcus take brutal hits in games and then dealing with the aftermath at home leave her on the fence.
“Because socially and for his self-esteem, I can see that he needs that outlet and that, you know to be surrounded by that,” she says. “But I’m terrified of him playing.”