Members of Scott Vermillion’s family are still trying to articulate the mixture of emotions they experienced last November when doctors called them.
Vermillion, a former MLS player, died almost a year earlier on Christmas Day 2020 at the age of 44. According to his family, the immediate cause was acute poisoning from alcohol and prescription drugs, which became the harsh code of a hectic life: A high school and college All-American who played four seasons in the MLS, Vermillion spent the last decade of his life moving away from his family as he struggled with substance abuse and increasingly erratic behavior.
Late last year, doctors at Boston University offered a different explanation: After examining Vermillion’s brain, BU experts told his family that he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disease associated with symptoms such as memory loss, depression, and aggressive or impulsive behavior. .
The diagnosis gave Vermilion the grave honor of being the first American professional football player with a public case of CTE. Traumatic brain injuries are more commonly associated with sports such as football, boxing, and hockey.
“Football clearly poses a risk to CTE — not as big as football, but still a risk,” said Dr. Ann McKee, director of the CTE Center at Boston University.
Neurologist McKee discovered the disease in hundreds of athletes, including Vermillion.
For the Vermillion family, the diagnosis brought some clarity to a life full of questions. She did not answer everything – she simply could not, given that the diagnosis of CTE can only be made posthumously. It created feelings of doubt, guilt, anger, relief. But it was finally something.
The specter of CTE began to haunt the NFL almost two decades ago, when the first cases of the disease were found in the brains of former professional football players. Since then, CTE, associated with repeated blows to the head, has been found in the brains of more than 300 former NFL players.
However, in football, research and public discussions of CTE and head injuries are still emerging, even as confirmed cases rise. English striker. Brazil World Cup Winner. American amateur.
Former MLS players Aleko Eskandarian and Taylor Twellman have spoken openly about how concussions ended their careers and affected their personal lives. Brandi Chastain, a two-time Women’s World Cup winner, publicly pledged in 2016 to donate her brain to CTE research.
“We need to understand the gravity of the situation,” Chastain said. “Talking about concussions in football is not just a hot topic. This is the real thing. It needs real attention.”
Last year, leagues and tournaments around the world, including the MLS, began experimenting with so-called concussion substitutes, which provide extra replacements for teams to deal with players with potential brain injuries. The MLS has joined some other sports leagues in implementing a variety of other protocols, including the use of independent experts and observers to evaluate possible concussions during games.
“MLS has a comprehensive policy to educate players, coaches, officials and medical staff on the importance of head injury detection, early reporting and treatment,” league chief medical officer Dr. Margo Putukyan said in a statement. “There is always more progress to be made and MLS is strongly committed to this important work.”
However, attention is paid not only to the treatment of concussions. In an effort to prevent all sorts of headbutts, players of all levels are seeing more and more recommendations aimed at limiting headbutts.
Head injuries and CTE in sports
The irreversible damage caused by brain injuries in athletes can be devastating.
A 2019 study by Glasgow researchers found that former professional football players were three and a half times more likely to die from neurodegenerative diseases than the general population (and less likely to die from heart disease and certain cancers). Thus, Vermillion’s story becomes the latest in a recent line of cautionary tales.
“CTE didn’t even cross our minds,” said Kami Jones, who was married to Vermillion from 1999 to 2004.
Vermillion started playing football in Olathe, Kansas when he was 5 years old. According to family members, he liked the incessant movement in the game, dashing actions. His elementary school coaches, in the interest of sportsmanship, often kept him on the bench for long periods of time because he scored too many goals, his father, David Vermilion, said.
His talent would eventually land him places on the elite regional club teams and U.S. youth national teams as a teenager. This led him to the University of Virginia, where he was the third All-American in his freshman year. This led him to the MLS, where he joined his local club the Kansas City Wizards, now known as the Sporting Kansas City, in 1998 at the age of 21.
But Vermillion, a bumbling defender, never blossomed as a pro. He moved to two other clubs before a nagging ankle injury forced him to retire early after the 2001 season. His career earnings in the young league were meager; his father recalled that his son’s salary was about $40,000 a year when he retired from acting.
“It was a big hit,” said David Vermilion. “He spent his whole life climbing that hill, moving up, becoming a good player, and suddenly it was hard to end it.”
Scott Vermilion has been trying to find a foothold in his post-football life. He ran the family shop. He coached local youth teams. He received a nursing degree. But his relationship gradually crumbled.
Although Vermillion’s behavior would become most disturbing ten years before his death, Jones said she noticed changes in him even before his career was over: he was often lethargic, which she found strange for a professional athlete, and often complained of headaches.
“When I met Scott, he was an energetic, outgoing professional athlete, very funny and a jokester,” said Jones, who divorced Vermillion in 2004, three years after his career ended, when their children were 1 and 3 years old. “I have been watching him. changed very quickly, and it was scary.”
Over the next decade, Vermillion continued to distance himself from his family. According to family members, his drinking became extreme and his behavior more erratic. He married a second time, but this union lasted only about a year. In 2018, he was arrested on charges of aggravated domestic battery after an incident with a girl. He went in and out of alcohol and prescription drug rehab programs, only showing up to insist to his family that the programs didn’t work for him, that he couldn’t be helped.
His daughter, Ava Grace, is used to him skipping her dance gigs. His son Braden, now 22, was devastated when he missed high school graduation.
“He promised a lot of things and basically just made excuses and didn’t show up for us,” Ava-Grace Vermilion, 20, said.
Dr. Stephanie Alessi-LaRosa, a sports neurologist in Hartford, Connecticut, cautions against drawing causal relationships between post-mortem CTE diagnoses and lifelong behavior patterns. She said research on the subject is still in its early stages and that doctors are still trying to figure out why some athletes had CTE and others didn’t.
“I have patients who are hesitant to get psychiatric treatment because they think they have CTE and are doomed,” she said. “I think it’s important for patients to get the care they need, and if their family is concerned, take them to a sports neurologist.”
Alessi-LaRossa said she believes the benefits of the sport outweigh the risks, but echoed the increasingly common idea that young players should limit heading in football.
In 2015, US Soccer, in settling a lawsuit, announced a ban on heading in games and practices for players under 10 years of age and developed rules to limit heading in practice for older players. And last year, English football officials issued a heading guideline advising professional players to limit so-called “hard heading” to 10 per week in training. (Exactly how this should be provided was less clear.)
Vermillion’s mother, Phyllis Lamers, contacted a Boston lab about research into her son’s brain after his death. CTE has four stages, the last stage is associated with dementia; Scott Vermillion was diagnosed with stage 2 CTE.
His family said they hope his story, painful as it is, can help educate families about football’s hidden risks. They said they regretted how harshly they treated him, how they interrupted him from time to time when his behavior became too complicated. They painfully wondered if they could have done more.
Ava-Grace Vermillion remembered writing to her father on December 23, 2020, when he turned 44. She didn’t see him for almost a year, she said, and when she was about to go to college in California to study dance, she said she felt the need to break the ice.
“I remember that day so clearly,” she said. “I was at work and just thought it was time to contact him. I haven’t spoken to him for a long time. I sent him a message: “I hope you are doing well.” He called me back and I didn’t have time to answer. And two days later he died.”
Ken Belson made a report.
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