Years of battering took toll on 1980s Patriots star Mosi Tatupu
Tatupu found to have brain illness
The Tatupus’ family home in Attleboro was always bustling with kids and a menagerie of pets. Yet amid the whirl and laughter, an unsettling darkness crept in.
Mosi Tatupu, a favorite of Patriots fans in the 1980s with his own “Mosi’s Mooses” cheering section, was growing aloof and forgetful. He misplaced so many things that his daughter started taping reminder notes around the house. And then he began drinking, heavily.
Tatupu’s metamorphosis caused his 20-year marriage to unravel. But only recently, five years after the fullback’s death from a heart attack at 54, did his family learn of the demon that drove his darkness: chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a disease that silently destroys the minds of athletes after years of repetitive blows to the head.
As millions of fans focus on the hoopla surrounding the upcoming Super Bowl, Tatupu’s family is sharing for the first time the former player’s odyssey with CTE in hopes of sparing others from the brain-robbing disease. It is a sadly familiar story: Researchers at Boston University School of Medicine have discovered signs of the disease in the brains of 140 deceased athletes, many of them former football players.
“To this day, I can’t stand the sound of the equipment hitting together,” said Linnea Garcia-Tatupu, the player’s former wife. She worries their 32-year-old son, Lofa, a former linebacker who played six seasons for the Seattle Seahawks, may develop the disease.
“If I knew then what I know now, would I have encouraged Mosi’s dream? Would I have encouraged Lofa’s dream?” Garcia-Tatupu said. “I wouldn’t have. The risk is not worth the reward.”
Last year, she learned that some of Tatupu’s brain tissue was preserved from his 2010 autopsy, and the more she heard about CTE, the more she wanted to know if that was the culprit behind Tatupu’s mystifying decline. She donated the tissue to the CTE Center at Boston University.
Dr. Ann McKee, director of the CTE Center and chief of neuropathology at the VA Boston Healthcare System, pinpointed in the brains of deceased athletes the abnormal buildup of a protein called tau, in a pattern not found in any other brain disease except CTE. That buildup prevents the brain’s nerve cells from making normal connections with each other, eventually killing them.
Researchers believe that repetitive head injuries, even seemingly mild ones, may cause a cascade of chemical changes that sparks the tau buildup. That buildup causes erratic behavior, memory loss, depression, and ultimately dementia, researchers said.
McKee found fairly widespread deposits of tau in Tatupu’s brain samples in areas consistent with the emotional and memory problems his family had described.
There is no blood test or brain screening that can detect CTE as it develops, the way that physicians now test for high cholesterol or blood pressure. McKee said researchers are hoping to develop a test to identify CTE in its early stages in people who appear to be showing the first symptoms, and to create therapies to treat it.
“If we can distinguish that this is CTE, it would give us an opportunity to halt the disease in its tracks or reverse it,” Mc-Kee said.
Tatupu’s case was unusual because his distinct behavior changes began in his early 30s, toward the end of his 13-season career with the Patriots, which concluded in 1990. Most players do not display symptoms until years after they retire, said Dr. Jesse Mez, an assistant neurology professor at BU School of Medicine and a researcher at the CTE Center.
“It’s striking how different he became,” said Mez, who interviews families of deceased players to confirm the CTE diagnosis.
Tatupu’s family received the center’s results in October, a day after they learned that the fullback, who was born in American Samoa, was to be inducted into the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame.
Garcia-Tatupu, who remained friends with Tatupu after their divorce, at first worried that the family would be reviled by fans if they spoke about his diagnosis. Would it be disloyal to the game that allowed Tatupu to see new worlds and follow his passion?
But now she just wants people — especially those with children longing to play football — to understand the devastating, potential consequences.
“I am not going to lie: I loved football up until I became involved with somebody who played the game,” Garcia-Tatupu said.
Although Tatupu played in high school and through college, it was not until 1978, his first home game in his rookie year with the Patriots, that Garcia-Tatupu said she witnessed football’s punishing toll. Her parents came to celebrate after the game and the family gathered at a restaurant, but Tatupu suddenly disappeared. She found him in the parking lot, vomiting profusely.
Garcia-Tatupu’s father, a former boxer while in the Marine Corps, knew instantly that his adored son-in-law had a nasty concussion and warned his daughter to watch him carefully that night.
“There was never a game I could go to without anxiety after that,” Garcia-Tatupu said. “I would want them to win, but I used to watch him like a hawk.”
Researchers said they believe the risk of developing CTE from repeated head injuries may be higher in some families than others. Mez, the CTE Center researcher who also specializes in genetics, said he is hoping to develop a test that could reveal which children might be more vulnerable to the disease.
“It’s hard for me to imagine that there isn’t a predisposition,” Mez said.
The thought terrifies Garcia-Tatupu. She has two grandsons, one nearly 4 years old, the other 6 months old, and their father, Lofa, a former NFL player, has already talked about them following in those footsteps.
Garcia-Tatupu need only look at one of Tatupu’s helmets that she saved, with the face mask bashed in.
“I am not going to recommend any sport where you can’t protect the very thing that is meant to keep you alive,” she said. “If your brain doesn’t work, there is precious little else that will.”
Kay Lazar can be reached at Kay.Lazar@globe.com.