A suicide is always a terrible thing, both for the victim and for the people left behind. When Jason Hairston, a former NFL player, killed himself in September 2018, his family was of course utterly devastated. Later, his bereaved wife spoke about what reasons she believed there were for her husband dying and the awful implications for other sportsmen.
Jason Hairston, from southern California, had played football ever since high school. Even breaking his neck during his junior season didn’t prevent him from pursuing the sport. After a year as a free agent with the San Francisco 49ers, he transferred to the Denver Broncos in 1996. But not long after that, he retired due to his neck injury.
After that, Jason became a real estate agent. But his real passion seemed to lie in hunting. In 2005 he founded the hunting gear company Sitka, which he later sold. Then in 2010 he founded another one, called KUIU. KUIU was a big success, and it was valued at $50 million at the time Hairston died.
But unfortunately, it seemed that his football career had left Jason with even worse injuries than a damaged neck. A few years after his retirement, he began to show symptoms of a very serious condition, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE is a degenerative brain disorder, which causes memory loss and dementia. It’s often linked with football.
At first, Jason thought his problems were caused by alcohol, his wife Kirstyn told People in the days after his death. “He had two drinks, and he was 100 percent different. He just started crying,” she said. “I looked at him and I said, ‘My god, this isn’t alcohol. There’s something wrong with you.’”
Jason had some brain scans, which confirmed what he and his whole family feared. His frontal lobe, the part of the brain which handles things like memory and control, was deteriorating. He tried undergoing hyperbaric oxygen therapy, a treatment usually used for scuba divers suffering decompression sickness but said to assist with brain damage too. Unfortunately, it didn’t help.
Despite his condition, Jason continued to try and live as normal a life as possible. He remained active in the world of professional football, mentoring footballers at the University of California. He also threw himself into the outdoors, regularly going hunting with friends – one of whom was Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son.
Jason’s symptoms got worse in the weeks before his death. Kirstyn told People about one of their last conversations. “We were sitting in our bedroom, and Jason’s a tough guy, but he finally had a vulnerable moment with me,” she said. “He said, ‘It’s bad. I can’t remember anything anymore. I can’t remember people’s names.’”
“Then he said, ‘Please don’t leave me.’ I told him I never would — I told him, ‘I promise you, I will always take care of you.’” Kirstyn said. And she lived up to that promise. But when her husband encouraged her to take a trip to New York, she agreed. At that time, nothing seemed to be overly wrong with him.
While in New York, Kirstyn took a phone call from Jason and all seemed normal. But two hours after that, her ten-year-old son called. Jason was acting strangely, he said. What happened next was terrible. Jason got on the line but didn’t say anything. Then he hung up on her and went upstairs. He got a gun and killed himself.
“I don’t know what flipped all of the sudden. He wasn’t depressed. We didn’t have any sort of those troubles going on,” Kirstyn told People. She got very upset as the interview went on. She said, “I don’t know. I think that’s the hardest part. I don’t know what happened to him those two hours after I talked to him and we were laughing on the phone. I keep trying to piece it together, going through emails and going through his phone. There’s nothing.”
Now Kirstyn is attempting to raise awareness of CTE and to call for help for those already suffering. “This has to get out, and this has to stop. People have to know what they’re signing up for when they put their kids in football,” she told People. “You think it’s not going to happen to you and you think it’s not going to happen to your kid, but it might. Is it worth your kid being suicidal for the game of football, and to kill themselves for it?”
Jason’s friend George Visger, also a former football player, spoke to CBS on September 7 about what had happened. “We’re ballplayers and you got that mentality that you know it’s not going to get me,” he said. “But he talked about it a lot too for a few years.” George, too, undergoes treatment for brain damage.
“You know, we have a saying in the brain injury world,” George told CBS. “If you’ve seen one brain injury, you’ve seen one brain injury. Every single one is different.” Then he spoke about the Jason he knew and his devotion to his family. “This wasn’t their dad, their husband and brother and friend that thought this out,” he said. “This was a freaking broken part of his brain.”
Kirstyn and George are far from the only people talking about CTE. Slowly, it’s becoming more and more of an issue in sports. Between 2008 and 2010, postmortems discovered that 12 former football players had had CTE. The problem is clearly a major one, and murders, as well as suicides, have been linked to CTE.
In June 2007 some appalling news came out of World Wrestling Entertainment. Chris Benoit, a professor wrestler employed by the organization, had killed his wife and child before using a weightlifting machine to kill himself too. When an autopsy was performed on Benoit’s body, doctors found signs of CTE. Although it did not provide a full explanation for the terrible happenings, it shed some light.
Reportedly, CTE might affect combat veterans as well. Though soldiers wear protective armor, their brains still suffer from the aftereffects of things such as explosions. “Since 9/11 over 300,000 soldiers have returned home with brain injuries. Researchers fear the impact of CTE could cripple a generation of warriors,” CBS reported on September 16, 2018.
CBS also interviewed Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist and CTE researcher. In 2017 she performed 111 autopsies on the bodies of dead NFL players and found CTE in 110 of them. That’s an extremely worrying statistic, all the more so because CTE is hard to detect. “This has been what everyone calls an invisible injury,” she told CBS.
That invisible injury has left Kirstyn widowed and devastated. “He was brilliant. He was the most amazing businessman. But he was also a great father and such a good husband. He was the nicest person I have ever known,” she told People. “He was the love of my life. I just want him back. I want him back so bad.”
Nothing can bring Jason back. But work is being done to ensure that no family will have to suffer the pain of CTE again. Possible rule changes for sports have become a talking point. And although there is still no real treatment for CTE, research is under way. There may yet come a time when the terrible condition is a thing of the past.