Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Donate today to support the journalism you rely on!

Super Bowl-Winning Quarterback Ken Stabler Had C.T.E., Test Results Show


The late quarterback Ken Stabler was an antiestablishment icon playing in the very pro-establishment NFL. He was the face of the Oakland Raiders, which, in the 1970s, was the biggest collection of malcontents, scallywags and hell-raisers the league has ever seen before or since. He died last July of colon cancer, and today, The New York Times reports a study of his brain has shown that Stabler suffered from CTE. That's the degenerative brain disease linked to repeated blows to the head. Stabler's longtime partner, Kim Bush, joins us now. Welcome to the show.

KIM BUSH: Hi, Kelly. Nice to be here with you.

MCEVERS: When did you notice that something wasn't right?

BUSH: I really can go back, and around 2008, I started noticing that he would repeat himself and sometimes more often than others. And you know, it was pretty obvious anytime we joined a group of his fellow teammates or other NFL players at all different types of celebrity events that we went to - just, they were all beat up in some fashion or another, whether it was hips, knees, shoulder and then, occasionally, you know, the ones who had very significant head injury issues, like the great John Mackey.

We ran into him at a golf tournament years and years ago, and I remember late that night, Kenny and I talking, and he was talking about Mr. Mackey. And he said, you know, are you ready for that? And I just said, yeah, I'm ready. It's - you know, hey, we may not go there; that may not be your fate, you know - so I guess maybe just hopeful it didn't come knock on his door, but unfortunately, as we found out this week, it did.

MCEVERS: Do you think there's any possibility that the brain disorder made him more private than he might have been before?

BUSH: Oh, definitely, definitely. Like I said, when I saw those changes in '08 of the memory stuff, that's also about the time that we started dialing back public appearances and events 'cause he was just, number one, plagued with horrible knees. He was also starting with headaches that were frequent. Some days they would be so intense he, you know, spent the day basically in silence because the TV just annoyed him or pots and pans when I was cooking. A lot of times, he would have to go to another room.

You know, he said that he always had, like, a really high-pitched E sound. Just E just all the time. And I noticed he started gritting his teeth. And I think his head rattled. I mean, I really think the inside of his head was just rumbling and rattling all the time. And he would, you know, scrunch up his eyes so tightly that I'm like, that will give you a headache within itself, you know? But it was a very consistent situation that we experienced the last five or six years.

MCEVERS: He has two grandsons. They're both 17. They both play high school football. Was he concerned about them playing the sport?

BUSH: Oh, he was. He was definitely, you know - I think he - one particular year, one of the boys had said that he didn't think he wanted to play, and Kenny was like, that's great; that's great. Just work on your studied. Just - you know, that's OK. You don't have to play football. I mean, he was very supportive of Justin not playing.

MCEVERS: Ken Stabler is one of a growing number of professional football players who we now know had this disease. What do you think the NFL should do about this?

BUSH: Well, I mean, obviously, this science - it has to be used to make improvements, and you know, I don't think you can build a supersonic helmet that is going to fix this problem. I personally think there's going to have to be changes to the game in terms of contact. And you know, we've seen some changes already with how they're allowing players to hit, and if a player's helmet comes off, they have to sit out. But there has to be more, and I think more importantly than even at the pro level, we have to look at youth sports and education and training coaches and - is it really necessary for these kids to play contact? It's going to take modifications to the game is my belief.

MCEVERS: There are a growing number of survivors of players, children of players and family members of players who had CTE and who died. Have you reached out to any of them? Are you in touch with any of them?

BUSH: I have not yet because we really, honestly, have been waiting for all of the final results to come, which just came this week. And now that we're all headed into San Francisco for Super Bowl 50 and hopefully his induction into the Hall of Fame, I'll be seeing a lot of people and meeting a lot of these families. But I can tell you already that I am very committed to working with the Concussion Legacy Foundation. You just can't sit back with this kind of knowledge and not act. You just can't. We must invoke change and progress.

MCEVERS: That's Kim Bush, longtime partner of quarterback Ken Stabler. Thank you so much for your time today.

BUSH: Thank you, Kelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.