Disease Caused by Concussions Led to Football Player's Suicide: 'He Wanted Us to Tell His Story'

In a new book, Love, Zac, the parents and girlfriend of a high school football standout who died by suicide in 2015 discuss how his concussions and head traumas led to his crippling, incurable brain disease

Alison Epperson was out at a bar with some friends late one evening in December 2015 when her worst nightmare finally came true.

Her boyfriend Zac Easter, then 24, had planned on joining her but decided to stay home instead, saying he wasn’t feeling well.

For the past year, the one-time high school football standout had been sliding deeper and deeper into depression, culminating in a suicide attempt weeks earlier.

Epperson, then 22, was already worried, but it was around midnight that she panicked when she was unable to reach him on the phone after becoming alarmed by a text he sent her.

“I love you and will always be over your shoulder looking after you no matter what,” Zac wrote. “Always remember me.”

Fearing the worst, Epperson called Zac’s older brother, who roused their sleeping parents. “We went sprinting upstairs to his room, but he wasn’t there,” says Zac’s mom, Brenda Easter — who found a note her son had left on his bed — in an interview that appears in this week’s issue of PEOPLE.

Zac easter
Zac Easter. Easter Family

“Thank you all for wanting to help,” Zac wrote, “but I can’t be helped.”

Frantic, the couple jumped in their truck and raced two miles from their home in Indianola, Iowa, to a nearby lake where they had a hunch their son might be.

When they arrived, a local police officer was already stationed at the front gate.

“He said, ‘I’m sorry,’ ” recalls Brenda, 56. “ 'But your son is gone.’ ”

zac easter family
Zac Easter's family. Kathryn Gamble

Zac’s suicide was the tragic end of years of pain, confusion, and dark emotional struggles his parents believe were brought on by concussions and head injuries he received playing football from elementary to high school.

An autopsy after his death confirmed what he had begun to suspect was wrong: He suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (known as CTE), an uncurable neurodegenerative disease caused when proteins, triggered by repetitive head traumas, accumulate in the brain.

Most often associated with older NFL players and boxers (CTE can only be definitively diagnosed via autopsy), the disease often leads to crippling behavioral, cognitive, and mood problems.

“It’s a devastating disorder and we’re not doing enough to address it in these high school athletes,” says Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist and director of the Boston University CTE Center.

Zac’s tragic story — detailed in the new book, Love, Zac: Small Town Football and the Life and Death of an American Boy — chronicles the nightmarish toll football took on his brain and his life.

love Zac
Love, Zac.

“Zac didn’t fully understand what was happening to him,” says Epperson, now 27. “He just knew he didn’t feel like the same Zac anymore and that his brain had betrayed him.”

In the nearly five years since Zac’s suicide, his grieving parents and former girlfriend have thrown themselves into CTE Hope, the foundation he urged his family to create in the journals he left behind.

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“Zac wanted to us to tell his story and spread the word about concussions and CTE in order to make football safer,” says Brenda, who started the foundation — with Epperson — to support other young athletes dealing with traumatic brain injuries, enact legislation to help concussion victims receive treatment and create an on-the-spot test to detect concussions in athletes from proteins found in their saliva.

She adds, “He knew nothing could help him, but he was determined to help others.”

For more information on CTE, visit the CTE Hope website.

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