Carlton Haselrig's family will donate the former Pittsburgh Steelers star and college wrestling champion’s brain to Boston University for brain injury research.
Haselrig, who died on July 22 at age 54, played five seasons in the National Football League, four with the Steelers and one with the New York Jets. He was a six-time national champion heavyweight wrestler at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown.
Boston University's Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center is among the leading brain injury research institutions, with the largest tissue repository in the world, the family said.
The Boston University center specializes in chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) – “a common term used to describe the brain of an individual who repeatedly faced head traumas, specifically those, like Carlton, who played aggressively vigorous sports a majority of their life," the family statement said.
“Life starts with family. Carlton was big on family, he respected everyone, inspired his loved ones, and ensured to always support those he encountered. As his family, we have promised to do our part and uphold the values Carlton has built, starting by executing his desire to donate his brain for CTE research."
Focusing on CTE and traumatic brain injuries, the Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center’s "cutting-edge CTE research conducts high-impact, innovative research on long-term consequences of repetitive brain trauma in athletes and military personnel,” the Haselrig family said.
The statement noted that Dr. Ann McKee, director of the Boston University CTE Center, “is a leading CTE scientist who over the last decade has led the CTE research field and published over 70% of the world’s cases.”
In a statement to The Tribune-Democrat, the CTE Center said that while McKee couldn't comment specifically on the Haselrig case due to privacy, she said, "We thank all families who choose to donate the brain of a loved one. This research is essential for understanding how CTE affects the brain and what symptoms it produces. Because of the nearly 1000 families who have donated, we are now closer than ever to identifying CTE during life and finding effective treatments."
The family of another Johnstown sports icon and former NFL player, Pete Duranko, donated his brain, spinal column and eyes to Boston University for CTE research after his death at age 67 in July 2011.
In 2000, Duranko, a former Denver Broncos lineman and a standout player at the University of Notre Dame, was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. After the postmortem research, according to reports in 2012, it was revealed that Duranko also had developed CTE.
Haselrig previously participated in CTE research at Boston University. His family believes his earlier involvement in the program potentially will lead to even more significant findings.
“What many people do not know is that Carlton had already undergone previous testing through Boston University’s CTE Center due to his reoccurring head trauma throughout his athletic years,” the Haselrig family statement read. “Donating his brain provides another opportunity for the scientists at Boston University to compare his previous records, analyze, and better understand the long-term effects of head traumas.
“Though his CTE diagnosis is to be determined, due to his number of athletic years, we believe the diagnosis will be confirmed," the statement continued. "In 2009, Boston University CTE researchers determined a strong correlation between the time of football play and the rising chance of getting the disease. The study indicated that ‘for every year of absorbing the pounding and repeated head collisions that come with playing American tackle football, a person’s risk of developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a devastating neurodegenerative disease, increases by 30 percent. And for every 2.6 years of play, the risk of developing CTE doubles.’”
Carlton Haselrig died after an extended illness.
Bruce Haselrig, Carlton’s uncle and a well-known PIAA and NCAA wrestling official, said the Boston University research was important to Carlton Haselrig.
“It’s something Carlton was concerned about when he got involved in the study earlier,” Bruce Haselrig said. “I wondered with some of his actions whether, ‘Is it CTE?’ – whether the head injuries had an effect on his brain and may have done something to affect some things he was going through the last year and a half.
“He wanted to be very supportive of the research to help athletes and football players in the future.”