For for­mer foot­ball player, fear of CTE cul­mi­nates in a gun­shot

Las Vegas Review-Journal - - NEWS | - By John Branch New York Times News Ser­vice

DIXON, Calif. — The blast from up­stairs shat­tered the quiet of a small-town week­night. It was all so sud­den. Or had it been com­ing for years?

Ja­son Hairston had just been down­stairs with his young son and daugh­ter, who could not un­der­stand why their father was act­ing so strange. His wife, on the phone from across the coun­try, was des­per­ately try­ing to get her hus­band to say some­thing, any­thing.

He ended the call with­out a word, walked up­stairs and closed the bed­room door. He lay down on his wife’s side of the bed, lifted a gun un­der his chin and pulled the trig­ger.

The son, Cash, was 10, old enough to have pre­vi­ously Googled “CTE,” wise enough to know what had just hap­pened, poised enough to block his 9-year-old sis­ter, Coco, from in­stinc­tively run­ning up­stairs to­ward the sound. He pulled her out­side. Po­lice and fam­ily mem­bers were on the way.

If there is such a thing as the Amer­i­can dream, Hairston, at 47, gave ev­ery in­di­ca­tion that he was liv­ing it. He was a for­mer col­lege foot­ball star who played briefly with two NFL teams, and he was the founder of KUIU, a top-end out­fit­ter of hunt­ing gear and ap­parel. He had le­gions of faith­ful cus­tomers and good friends who as­pired to be like him.

He trav­eled to the most re­mote and rugged edges of the earth in search of quiet ad­ven­tures and big game. He had just re­turned from a cari­bou hunt­ing trip in Alaska with his father and son. And he had been sheep hunt­ing with Don­ald Trump Jr. in the Yukon a cou­ple of weeks be­fore.

He had re­cently de­scribed his wife and busi­ness part­ner, Kirstyn, dur­ing a 20th an­niver­sary din­ner toast as “truly my rock, my soul mate, the most loyal wife you could ever have.”

They had fam­ily pho­tos that looked like the kind that come with the frame. They lived in a grandly ren­o­vated home just a block and a half from where Kirstyn’s fam­ily ran the city of Dixon’s fa­vorite gath­er­ing spot, Bud’s Pub and Grill. It was 2 miles from the head­quar­ters of KUIU, which has been her­alded as a run­away busi­ness suc­cess.

Hairston had it all, or so it seemed. Then the gun went off. And the ques­tions echoed long af­ter ev­ery­thing went quiet on that Tues­day evening in Septem­ber.

‘I think you’re over­think­ing this. You’re para­noid.’

The case of Ja­son Hairston is un­usual for at least two rea­sons. First, he was con­vinced, years ago, that he had chronic trau­matic en­cephalopa­thy, or CTE, the pro­gres­sive de­gen­er­a­tive brain dis­ease caused by re­peated hits to the head. It can be di­ag­nosed with cer­tainty only in the dead, but he and Kirstyn, now 46, in­tensely stud­ied the re­search. They saw a clear pic­ture of Hairston in all the data points and ac­counts of de­te­ri­o­rat­ing brains, es­pe­cially in foot­ball play­ers.

Sec­ond, Hairston de­fied the im­age of a di­min­ished vic­tim of CTE. He was in near-per­fect phys­i­cal health, with 3 per­cent body fat and model-hand­some looks. Con­fi­dent and charis­matic to the end, his pub­lic per­sona con­tra­dicted the cor­rup­tion he felt in his brain.

“He was very open about it, but I just didn’t see it,” Bren­dan Burns, Hairston’s clos­est hunt­ing part­ner and a KUIU ex­ec­u­tive (now CO-CEO), said shortly af­ter Hairston’s death. “I was like: ‘Dude, I think you’re over­think­ing this. You’re para­noid.’ Be­cause what you read about is the guy who can’t get out his front door. He was so sharp. Maybe that’s why I didn’t think much about it. It was con­cep­tual. It wasn’t like we were on a sheep hunt and he’s try­ing to skin a sheep with a spoon.”

Hairston was a line­backer in high school and at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Davis, not far from Dixon. He signed with the San Fran­cisco 49ers in May 1995, and spent part of the sea­son on the team’s prac­tice squad. The Den­ver Bron­cos signed Hairston the next May, but he left the game for good a month later with numb­ness from a lin­ger­ing neck in­jury in col­lege.

An avid hunter, he saw an open niche in high-end hunt­ing ap­parel, a mar­ket over­looked by the likes of the North Face or Patag­o­nia. Hairston co-founded Sitka Gear in 2005, and af­ter a man­age­ment shuf­fle, he moved on to start KUIU, a di­rect-to-con­sumer com­pany, in 2011.

Hairston be­came KUIU’S pub­lic face, an as­pi­ra­tional fig­ure. Pho­tos and videos of him hunt­ing sheep, moose, bear and other big game were fea­tured in the com­pany’s savvy so­cial me­dia mar­ket­ing and glossy cat­a­logs. Forbes re­ported that KUIU did $50 mil­lion in sales in 2016.

I spent time with Hairston in Dixon in 2016 while ex­plor­ing story ideas. (It even­tu­ally led to an ar­ti­cle in 2017 ti­tled, “The Ul­ti­mate Pur­suit in Hunt­ing: Sheep”; Hairston and Burns played roles.) Hairston was fo­cused and en­gag­ing, which made it a sur­prise when he men­tioned that he thought he had CTE.

He had a his­tory of con­cus­sions, he said, too many to re­mem­ber. He was fight­ing headaches, mood swings, im­pul­siv­ity — all symp­toms of CTE, which shares char­ac­ter­is­tics with Alzheimer’s dis­ease.

Know­ing that I had writ­ten many ac­counts of CTE, in­clud­ing one shortly be­fore we met, about for­mer Oak­land Raiders quar­ter­back Ken Stabler, he and Kirstyn were in­quis­i­tive.

They used their full range of con­tacts and money on doc­tors, tests, med­i­ca­tions and ad­vice, all in hopes of slow­ing the ef­fects. Hairston tried di­ets and hy­per­baric cham­bers. The more he felt his mind slip, the more he ex­er­cised his body. The more he wor­ried about time, the more things he crammed into what­ever time he had left.

In Novem­ber 2017, Hairston emailed me a pho­to­graph of him and his son with Go­liath, an ag­ing and elu­sive desert bighorn sheep they hunted on a tag pur­chased at auc­tion for $235,000. That bid was a part of the ar­ti­cle pub­lished months ear­lier.

“He is the new CA State Record Ram, 12 years old and as big as ev­ery­one who hunted him pre­vi­ously thought he was,” Hairston wrote. “En­closed are pho­tos of my Cash and I. It was such an amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence to share with my son.”

Less than a year later, his sui­cide shocked fam­ily and friends, ad­mir­ing strangers and loyal cus­tomers. It did not sur­prise Kirstyn, who had watched the de­cline close up.

“We were re­ally good at hid­ing it,” she said.

Au­topsy con­firms sus­pi­cions

The cou­ple’s sus­pi­cions were right. Hairston had CTE.

Ben­net Omalu, a clin­i­cal pro­fes­sor at UC Davis, made the di­ag­no­sis at his lab in

How to get help

If you are hav­ing thoughts of sui­cide, call the Na­tional Sui­cide Pre­ven­tion Life­line at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or go to Speakingof­sui­cide.com/re­sources for a list of ad­di­tional re­sources.

Stock­ton. The re­sults, part of a 44-page au­topsy, had not pre­vi­ously been re­vealed pub­licly.

“He has CTE, there is no ques­tion about it,” Omalu said in an in­ter­view, de­scrib­ing the buildup of ab­nor­mal and cell-stran­gling tau pro­teins he found across most re­gions of Hairston’s brain. “Those are the tell­tale signs, un­de­ni­ably. This was al­most a replica of Mike Webster’s brain.”

Omalu dis­cov­ered the dis­ease in Webster, a Hall of Fame line­man who played for the Pitts­burgh Steel­ers and who died in 2002 at age 50. That di­ag­no­sis con­nected CTE to foot­ball in the na­tional con­scious­ness, and gar­nered Omalu a mea­sure of fame. He was played by Will Smith in the 2015 movie “Con­cus­sion.”

A mal­ady for­merly at­tached to “punch drunk” box­ers, CTE has now been found posthu­mously in more than 200 for­mer foot­ball play­ers, in­clud­ing more than 100 who played in the NFL, plus an ar­ray of ath­letes in sports rang­ing from hockey to soc­cer, rodeo to BMX. Much of the re­search about the con­di­tion has cen­tered on brain in­juries in the mil­i­tary.

Sci­en­tists are on the verge of be­ing able to con­fi­dently di­ag­nose CTE in the liv­ing. It prom­ises to be a game-changer, lead­ing to all sorts of com­plex eth­i­cal ques­tions in sports.

When a foot­ball star re­ceives a CTE di­ag­no­sis, for ex­am­ple, who will de­cide whether he should stop play­ing? Will high schools, col­leges and pro­fes­sional teams have an obli­ga­tion to test and re­veal the re­sults? Will ath­letes in all sports, at all ages, have the op­tion to be tested?

Hairston em­bod­ied some of that com­ing anx­i­ety. Dur­ing news me­dia in­ter­views in re­cent years, he some­times men­tioned offhand­edly that he thought he had CTE. The con­ver­sa­tions al­ways moved on quickly.

Even those who hunted with him reg­u­larly said they did not see cause for con­cern. Paul Bride, an out­doors pho­tog­ra­pher who worked for KUIU, ac­com­pa­nied Hairston on all of his ex­pe­di­tions.

“I saw him on his best days, in the best place he could be — the moun­tains,” Bride said.

In hind­sight, though, his friends said maybe Hairston had be­come more for­get­ful, a bit less pre­dictable. None of those close to him were alarmed enough to worry that he might end his life. He had it all.

Pri­vately, though, the Hairstons strug­gled to hold it to­gether. Ja­son Hairston rou­tinely broke down and cried, Kirstyn said, scared of where his brain was headed. When a scan re­vealed de­te­ri­o­ra­tion in the frontal lobe that had not been present a year ear­lier, she said, Hairston made her prom­ise she would never make him have an­other test, be­cause he did not want to know the re­sults.

A slow de­cline over the past decade, she said, sped sud­denly into a drop.

“The last 18 months, he wasn’t there,” she said, sit­ting in the liv­ing room of the fam­ily home. “It was like a switch flipped. He was so dif­fer­ent. We were go­ing from one cri­sis to an­other. I felt like I was drown­ing.”

Im­pul­siv­ity spiked through flashes of in­fi­delity and al­co­hol abuse. (He had been in al­co­hol re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion about 10 years ear­lier, Kirstyn Hairston said.) Hairston showed un­fa­mil­iar anger — to­ward the chil­dren, the fam­ily pets, other driv­ers on the road. He some­times fell to his knees with headaches, com­plain­ing of ice picks to his brain. He dropped into dark pe­ri­ods of de­pres­sion, his wife said, tinged with fear of be­ing alone.

“I knew it was CTE,” Kirstyn said. “I read ev­ery­thing I could. This was such typ­i­cal be­hav­ior for CTE.”

She cried as she delved into de­tails. “He said, ‘If you leave me, I’ll be dead in three months,’ ” she said. “And I said, ‘You’ll be dead in a week.’ But I needed him for the kids. And I know he would have stayed for me.”

The two were apart for most of Hairston’s last month. He went on two hunts. Kirstyn was in­vited to New York with friends, a rare time away. They crossed paths at the Sacra­mento air­port. He was on his way home. She was on her way out. He took the chil­dren.

“He said: ‘You think I can’t take care of our kids for three nights? I’m good,’ ” Kirstyn said. “I said, ‘OK.’ You al­ways want it to work out.”

They shared a long em­brace, then spoke on the phone the next evening, dis­cussing KUIU. (Kirstyn worked along­side her hus­band and re­mains the chair­woman and ma­jor­ity owner.) Ja­son or­dered pizza for the chil­dren. The cou­ple laughed at the role re­ver­sal, she said. Usu­ally she was the one at home with them.

She was at din­ner in New York two hours later when her son called, say­ing that Ja­son was be­hav­ing oddly. She asked to talk to him. Her hus­band held the phone to his ear but said noth­ing. He hung up.

Kirstyn Hairston called her par­ents, who lived a few blocks away, to ask them to rush to the house.

When she called her son again, the gun had al­ready gone off.

The au­topsy found a blood-al­co­hol level of 0.22 per­cent, al­most three times the typ­i­cal limit for drunken driv­ing. His sys­tem also con­tained ser­tra­line and tra­zodone, pre­scrip­tion med­i­ca­tions com­monly used to com­bat de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety.

Kirstyn Hairston had a feel­ing the day would come. But not so soon.

“I thought I had an­other five years,” she said through tears. “I re­ally did.”

But she be­lieved that if Hairston ever took his life, he would shoot him­self in the chest to pre­serve his brain for ex­am­i­na­tion, as Dave Duer­son did in 2011 (at age 50) and as Ju­nior Seau did in 2013 (at 43). Both posthu­mously re­ceived di­ag­noses of CTE.

Still, Omalu said there was plenty of Hairston’s brain tis­sue to study. The an­swer he pro­vided — the pos­i­tive di­ag­no­sis of the CTE that the Hairstons long pre­sumed — brought some mea­sure of re­lief.

“I’m not sur­prised Ja­son killed him­self,” Kirstyn Hairston said. “I’m sur­prised he did it with our kids in the house. I’m sur­prised he did it here. But would you want to live if you knew you were los­ing your mind? Es­pe­cially be­ing re­ally young and re­ally healthy?”

She let the ques­tions linger, unan­swered. The house went quiet.

KIRSTYN HAIRSTON VIA THE NEW YORK TIMES

Ja­son Hairston poses with his chil­dren, Coco and Cash, in May 2017. Hairston played brief ly in the NFL and owned a suc­cess­ful hunt­ing gear and ap­parel com­pany. But he in­creas­ingly wor­ried about a de­gen­er­a­tive brain dis­ease and, in Septem­ber, took his own life.

BRIAN L. FRANK / THE NEW YORK TIMES

Kirstyn Hairston, who said the cou­ple was good at hid­ing Ja­son Hairston’s symp­toms of brain dis­ease, sits in her home Jan. 25 in Dixon, Calif.

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