It is ever harder to watch the Super Bowl without mixed feelings. This week, as football fans geared up for the high holy day of sports Sunday, researchers at Boston University confirmed that the late, great NFL quarterback Ken Stabler was suffering from high Stage 3 chronic traumatic encephalopathy when he died in July.

Score one more for CTE, the degenerative brain disease increasingly linked with football. Few athletes were as charismatic as The Snake during his young, hell-raising years with the Oakland Raiders. And few men have endured a middle age as crippling.

His partner, Kim Bush, said Wednesday that his 60s were a nightmare of memory loss, insomnia and disorientation, with headaches so severe that he often spent whole days in silence.

After Stabler died at 69 of complications from colon cancer, Ann McKee, a neuropathologist who has been among the leading researchers into the condition, immediately identified the telltale shrunken temporal lobe, small hippocampus, atrophy and shredded brain tissue.

With the diagnosis, Stabler joins more than 100 of his peers, including more than a half-dozen Hall of Famers, who appear to have suffered from CTE, including Junior Seau, “Iron” Mike Webster and Frank Gifford.

Football is thrilling, and it’s hard to separate its mix of skill and violence and patriotism and marketing and nostalgia. Still, the casualties are mounting. Tuning them out won’t be easy this weekend, as America waits for the kickoff and Stabler’s survivors wait, shattered, for the cold comfort of possible admission to the Hall of Fame.


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