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Missouri parents find out that 39-year-old son who died had CTE after years of playing youth football

Published: Feb. 19, 2021 at 7:20 PM EST|Updated: Feb. 22, 2021 at 10:26 AM EST
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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) - CTE (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy) is the term describing brain degeneration following repeated head traumas.

An accurate diagnosis can only be made following someone’s death by studying sections of the brain and CTE is most commonly associated with people who play football and other contact sports like boxing and hockey. It may also occur in military personnel who are exposed to explosive blasts.

Now the parents of a former Springfield attorney have learned that CTE could have played a part in their son’s depression and death because of his years playing football.

It was November, 2019 when David and Dana Hacker got the shocking news that after a four-day search, the body of their 39-year-old son John Hacker, a well-respected and award-winning Springfield attorney, had been found in Pomme de Terre Lake.

No cause of death has ever been determined but his parents donated his brain to the Concussion Legacy Foundation, the country’s leading support group and researcher on CTE because they had noticed over the years that their son’s fun-loving, gregarious personality had slowly started to change.

“He was funny and warm,” said his mom Dana. “Everything came easy and he did everything well.”

“He was very popular and the kindest person you could ever meet,” added his dad David.

But as John got older, his parents noticed the father-of-two was acting different and considering the high number of head traumas he’d experienced playing football growing up in Bolivar, they were troubled by what they witnessed.

“Just a little more restless, fidgety,” David said. “Depression is probably the key thing in his decline.”

“And he would have headaches,” Dana pointed out. “He would say, ‘My head feels strange.’”

“The number one driver that everyone says is that they see personality change,” said Chris Nowinski, who co-founded the Concussion Legacy Foundation after 18 years as a pro wrestler.

“I got into this work right after post-concussion syndrome ended my career with WWE,” Nowinski recalled. “I was in really bad shape neurologically. As I was trying to get better I learned we were not only not handling concussions in sports but there was this long-term consequence called CTE that was literally costing people their lives.”

The foundation now has over 1,000 donated brains for research at its center at Boston University and their research into John’s case confirmed his parents’ fears.

“Anytime you have something like this happen you wanna know what to blame it on,” David said. “CTE is what caused the depression and the hopelessness and so we get some peace in knowing that none of this was his fault. He wasn’t a bad guy.”

Their son had been playing multiple sports since childhood. John went on to play college baseball at Missouri State but grew up loving football and started at an early age, continuing through high school.

“He played full-speed and we just didn’t realize the danger,” Dana said. “One of the awards that he received was ‘Hardest Hitter’ which I’m sure we were proud of.”

“He suffered a lot of head trauma while he was in high school,” David said. “The very first play of junior high football in 7th grade he was knocked unconscious on the field and that kind of set the pattern.”

According to Nowinski, ongoing research is showing that your odds of developing CTE go up with each year you play a high-contact sport.

“If you just play a few years it’s pretty rare to find CTE although we do,” he pointed out. “But once you start getting into double digits in years of exposure, CTE becomes surprisingly common in our population.”

And as far as what having CTE can lead to?

“Long term when you advance to the worst stage, Stage Four, you most always have dementia and you will die because you can no longer take care of yourself,” Nowinski explained. “Prior to that, we know the disease is affecting your brain but it’s not itself going to cause death. A lot of the young brains that we get are from people who’ve died from accidental deaths, people who have problems with addiction and died due to that, and there are people who die by suicide.”

So when it comes to advice on letting your child play a high-contact sport?

“I don’t want my friends’ kids to play football,” David said.

“We wouldn’t have taken the risk,” Dana said in hindsight of letting John play as a youngster. “And that’s exactly what it is. A risk.”

“So my advice to parents is do not let your child play a contact sport in which they are getting hit in the head hundreds of times per year at least before high school,” Nowinski said. “Literally 95 percent of football players are children and the idea that they’re playing a sport that might be giving them a brain disease is something we need to take a look at. Repetitive hits to children’s heads are so inappropriate. You don’t do it to your own kid. Don’t let somebody else do it to your kid.”

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