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By John Branch
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease linked to repeated blows to the head, has been found posthumously in a 29-year-old former soccer player - the strongest indication yet that the condition is not limited to athletes who played sports known for violent collisions, like football and boxing.
Researchers at Boston University and the VA Boston Healthcare System said Patrick Grange of Albuquerque, N.M., was the first soccer player found to have CTE. On a 4-point scale of severity, his disease was considered Stage 2.
Soccer is a physical game, but rarely a violent one. Players collide or fall to the ground, but the most repeated blows to the head may come from the act of heading an airborne ball to redirect it.
Grange, who died in April after being found to have amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, was especially proud of his ability to head the ball, said his parents, Mike and Michele. They recalled him as a 3-year-old, endlessly tossing a soccer ball into the air and heading it into a net, a skill that he continued to practice and display in college and in top-level amateur and semiprofessional leagues in his quest to play Major League Soccer.
Grange suffered a few memorable concussions, his parents said - falling hard as a toddler, being knocked unconscious in a high school game and once receiving 17 stitches in his head after an on-field collision in college.
"He had very extensive frontal lobe damage," said Dr. Ann McKee, the neuropathologist who performed the brain examination on Grange. "We have seen other athletes in their 20s with this level of pathology, but they've usually been football players."
The damage to Grange's brain, McKee said, corresponded to the part of the head that Grange would have used for headers. But she cautioned against broad conclusions.
"It is noteworthy that he was a frequent header of the ball, and he did develop this disease," McKee said. "I'm not sure we can take it any further than that."
CTE is believed to be caused by repetitive hits to the head. Once considered unique to boxers, it has been diagnosed over the past decade in dozens of deceased football players and several hockey players. Symptoms can include depression, memory loss, impulse control disorders and, eventually, progressive dementia.