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Former NFL player had severe CTE at time suicide and alleged murders, autopsy reveals

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And now, new information about former - about a former NFL player who died earlier this year by suicide after allegedly shooting and killing six people. He had the severe brain disease known as CTE. Those were the findings announced today by a leading neurologist who examined Phillip Adams after he died. It's just the latest death of a former professional football player with CTE. Steve Harrison of member station WFAE reports.

STEVE HARRISON, BYLINE: Phillip Adams was a journeyman NFL cornerback who played for six teams in six years before his career ended in 2015. He returned to his hometown of Rock Hill, S.C., where he struggled adjusting to a life without football. Last April, police said he shot and killed a prominent physician, his wife and two of their grandchildren, as well as two workers at their home. They then said Adams went home and killed himself. Boston University neurologist Ann McKee said Adams, who was 32 years old, had stage two CTE, which she said is, quote, "unusually severe for someone his age."

ANN MCKEE: It was different in that it was unusually severe in both frontal lobes. In its frontal lobe predominance, Adams' CTE pathology was similar to that of another young NFL player, namely Aaron Hernandez.

HARRISON: Aaron Hernandez is a former NFL tight end with the New England Patriots who was found guilty of murder in 2015. He later killed himself in prison. McKee says CTE is caused by diagnosed concussions, but also repeated, less severe blows to the head that happen routinely in football.

MCKEE: Severe frontal lobe pathology might have contributed to Adams' behavioral abnormalities, in addition to physical, psychiatric and psychosocial factors.

HARRISON: At the time of his death, Adams had prescription and over-the-counter drugs in his system. Local police say they still don't know of a connection between Adams and the people he allegedly killed. At a news conference, Lisa McHale with the Legacy Concussion Foundation (ph) read a statement from Adams' family, who had asked for his brain to be examined.

LISA MCHALE: We cannot say that we are surprised by these results. However, it is shocking to hear how severe his condition was.

HARRISON: The NFL agreed five years ago to a $1 billion settlement with former players who said playing football damaged their brains. The league had hoped the agreement, along with other safety measures in practice and in games, would take the spotlight off CTE. But Adams' diagnosis raises more questions about how safe it really is to play football.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Harrison in Charlotte.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.