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Janine Talley: In the age of CTE, coping through the NFL Wives' Club

The first time I opened the link to the Facebook group “Women of the NFL,” the sole impression that popped into my mind was, “Oh my God, there are so many other women out there like me!”

Then I thought, “Oh my God, there are SO many other women out there like me," and my exultation quickly turned to empathy.

The private Facebook group was created by Tara Nesbit, who saw the need for the partners of former and current NFL players to have a place to share, vent and commiserate about things exclusive to them.

Post after post was littered with the words “sad,” “heartbroken,” “exhausted,” “terrified,” “angry,” “wits’ end” and every other adjective in the thesaurus describing fear, loneliness, and despair.

Sandwiched between questions by partners of current players simply trying to obtain recommendations for a pediatrician or a hairstylist or a school in their new NFL city, were posts from partners of former players sharing their heartbreaking – and often horrifying – stories of life with a man she didn’t recognize anymore.

If I read a variation of “my husband used to be so strong, but now he can barely (fill in the blank)” once, I read it a thousand times. Some husbands drive to the wrong school to pick up their child, or having outbursts of anger so terrifying their partner has to take the kids and check into a motel for the night, or he can’t feed himself, or he’s paranoid and is constantly accusing her of having an affair, or he’s currently in his manic stage and she’s awaiting the inevitable fall into hell with his depression.

These are women trying to balance work, a home, children, bills, medical appointments, lawyers, the navigation of the NFL Concussion Settlement, and men who are of little to no help because the effects of injuries sustained on the football field have rendered them incapable.

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I was an onlooker of this Facebook page, choosing to read the disclosures of these women without participating in their conversations because it was my catharsis. Just knowing multitudes understood what I was going through helped.

It was the oddest sort of selfish relief knowing others mirrored my life; it validated once and for all that I wasn’t imagining or exaggerating what I was living. I’m indebted to these ladies for their candor.

They are remarkable women.

Here is one of their stories.

I’ve often wondered what causes people to immerse themselves in advocacy. What moves a seemingly ordinary person to the point they need to lobby Congress? Keana McMahon taught me why.

Keana is the ex-wife of former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman (and West Seneca native) Justin Strzelczyk. Justin’s untimely death at the age of 36 in a fiery crash on the New York State Thruway, and what transpired prior to his death, are the extraordinary events that turned Keana into an advocate.

Today, Keana’s mission in life is to eradicate youth tackle football from the planet. Keana knows to the depths of her being that youth tackle football contributes to brain injury. She knows brain injury intimately.

Strzelczyk played youth tackle football and didn’t stop playing tackle football until his career with the Pittsburgh Steelers ended. That’s when his symptoms of erratic behavior began.

At first it was just fixations and obsessions; commandeering the kitchen until he concocted what he felt was the best beef on weck sandwich, or the best wing sauce. Then it escalated to outbursts of anger towards things that seemed insignificant to Keana. Then it was 3 a.m. banjo solos in the basement while she and their two children, Justin Jr. and Sabrina, tried to sleep upstairs. Then it was drastic mood swings so unpredictable Keana thought her husband was bipolar. He once admitted he thought something was wrong with his head, but during their marriage Keana couldn’t convince him to see a doctor. She was able to convince Justin to call a doctor friend and they talked, but that’s as far as it went while they were married.

Strzelczyk was the third professional football player diagnosed postmortem to have Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, CTE.

Brain study examined 111 former NFL players. Only one didn’t have CTE

However, in 1998 there was no CTE. Keana was alone with Justin and his demons. There was no support group, no one she could talk to about what was happening to Justin because what was wrong with him hadn’t yet been discovered. She just thought he was “crazy.”

Keana arrived at a point in her life where she was no longer living with the man she married. Justin’s erratic behaviors and mood swings caused Keana to realize that Justin was gone. In his place was a man she and their two children became terrified of. Keana realized she wanted a better life for herself and their children; she knew she and their two children deserved a healthy environment. The day after their eighth wedding anniversary Keana told Justin she wanted him to leave. There wasn’t much of a fight in Justin – he packed a bag and left.

Keana admits if she had it to do over again, she wouldn’t have divorced Justin, instead she’d have lived separately. In divorcing Justin she gave up all of his NFL benefits, something she regrets. Had she not have divorced Justin, she would’ve gotten his pension for the rest of her life and their children would’ve been taken care of immediately after his death. Justin had no will, so it was three years before his assets were released from his estate.

Keana also advocates for a private women’s group, Sisters in Sports, helping the partners of professional athletes cope in a world where the general population doesn’t understand what it’s like to be the wife of an athlete. There, she encourages women to make sure they are well informed of the rules and regulations of professional sports’ benefits and pensions. She stresses the importance of having a will so other women can avoid what she endured.

Justin Strzelczyk (73) played offensive line for the Steelers from 1990-98. (Getty Images)

Even though Keana was engaged to Matt McMahon at the time of Justin’s death on Sept. 30, 2004 – she was shopping for a wedding dress when she got the call Justin had died – it took her years to deal with her own grief and that of their children.

She had to piece her family back together and it wasn’t easy. Even though both of her children with Justin were young when their father died, they still had enormous difficulty dealing with his death. Justin Jr. grieved immediately after his father’s passing, however Sabrina’s grief was delayed, surfacing during formative teen years. It’s been 13 years since Justin Strzelczyk’s death and the aftermath will linger with Keana and their children for their lifetimes.

That’s one of Keana’s sticking points, that not only is the NFL reluctant to fully acknowledge CTE’s existence, but how the league completely disregards the devastated families of those affected by the disease.

Wives and children who have witnessed men they barely recognize anymore acting in bizarre, reckless ways require years of therapy to cope with what they’ve lived through. It’s costly, and often perpetual. And with no support groups formed by the NFL or NFLPA for families struggling to manage day-to-day, it’s difficult to find therapists who have the tools to help with something so little is known about.

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Keana also champions the Patrick Risha CTE Awareness Foundation, created in the memory of a former football player who committed suicide at age 32; Risha's brain was diagnosed with CTE. The foundation, StopCTE, aims to bring awareness to how CTE is caused and how it can be prevented.

Keana can’t emphasize enough her feelings towards youth tackle football and its “need to go.” She likens it to child abuse.

“You wouldn’t get away with taking a kid out in the yard and repeatedly tapping him on the head with a baseball bat, would you?" she says. "No, someone would call the cops and you’d be arrested.”

If the talent is there, Keana says, the talent will still be there when the child is older. She says starting a child in football at 6 years old is for “the parent’s ego, not the kid’s.” Keana wants parents to let little brains develop and let kids discover what their talents are on their own.

Justin Jr. did play football through high school, but it wasn’t something Keana wholeheartedly supported. Justin signed Justin Jr. up for football without as much as a parental discussion. In Justin Jr.’s senior year of high school, Keana noticed a drastic change in her son’s attitude toward football. After a game one night in a Pittsburgh suburb, she rode home alone with Justin Jr. so she could confront him. As a mother, things like being bullied by teammates or perhaps even a teen pregnancy were foremost in Keana’s mind. Turns out the reason Justin Jr. had lost interest in football was both simple and profound: Football is what killed his father.

Another point Keana drives home is how many teen suicides could be related to brain injury. At the time of death, parents are so devastated they blame depression or teen angst. She wants family members to dig a little deeper and ask if the child had anxiety, a quick temper, or was reclusive. If so, did the child play a contact sport where repeated hits to the head could be a factor? And although enormously difficult through grief, someone in the family should take the initiative to have the child’s brain studied. It could provide the family with questions about the suicide that would otherwise go unanswered, and someday provide solace when the sorrow wanes.

Keana has done an awe-inspiring job of moving forward while reconciling a past she’s forced to coexist with. Justin Jr. and Sabrina are in good places today. Keana is married to a man who astonishes me with his unwavering support of her and her causes. She and Matt have two young sons, whom they are completely transparent with in regard to both Keana’s and their older siblings’ pasts. Keana has shown both boys the video of Justin’s truck crash and they’re old enough to grasp that sometimes mommy’s work causes her to be away from home.

Whenever she comes back from a conference, Jack, their youngest, always asks, “Mom, how’s Justin’s brain?” and Keana always responds, “It’s still the same.”

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