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He Was Fearless on a Football Field. It Was the Future That Scared Him.


In September 2018, just before senior day for college football, Evan Hansen opened his laptop and looked up C.T.E.

CARMEL, Ind. — He was swift and fierce and saw the football field with the eyes of a bird of prey. If the opposing offense ran a pitch out, Evan Hansen would pull the runner to earth in the backfield. If the quarterback grew desperate and fell back to pass, well, God help him. Evan — quick, spinning, a dervish of a linebacker — would drill him.

He was a gregarious teammate, as at ease comforting a nervous freshman as he was talking with coaches and parents, which explained why he was voted team captain on a nationally ranked N.C.A.A. Division III team. A 21-year-old senior at Wabash College, he had a ticket to France to see his girlfriend at Christmas break, his future pregnant with possibility.

And just after senior day in September 2018, Evan Hansen walked into the woods and shot himself.

Many months later, the scientists at Boston University who examined his brain after he died told his parents, Chuck and Mary Hansen, what the couple had suspected from the moment they lost their son: The folds of Evan’s brain and top of his spinal column were speckled with the plaque Tau. This young man had developed chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative and incurable disease linked to repeated hits to the head and found in the brains of so many deceased football players.

The brain is a fine-tuned instrument, and it is difficult to draw definitive correlation between a degenerative disease and suicide, that loneliest of ends. Young men are at greater risk of suicide than young women. That said, depression is a handmaiden of C.T.E., according to those who have studied the disease, as are short-circuited memory and a sense of bewilderment, and all those problems haunted Evan in his final months.

Evan’s father and mother, Chuck and Mary, invited me recently to talk at their kitchen table in a handsome brick home on a cul-de-sac north of Indianapolis, surrounded by photos of their three sons, strapping young men with big smiles. Evan, 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, began to struggle with depression when he was 19, they said, by which time he was in his 11th straight year of playing tackle football with that relentless abandon of his.

“He was fearless and not afraid of pain,” Mary said. “Stick your nose in there. He loved the game.”

As afternoon yielded to twilight, the couple spoke of their son in tenses that alternated between present and past. They have decided to speak publicly about his brain injuries and his struggles with depression. With their words, they hope to lead other parents to an understanding of C.T.E., and to a more cautious relationship with tackle football.

Evan saw doctors and took medications, although those made him feel worse. (There is no medication or cure for C.T.E.) But he did not withdraw from the world. He was so close with his former girlfriend, Brianna, that he often stopped by and talked with her parents. Her father, Steven Shackelford, had been his high school defensive coach.

Shackelford also stopped by the Hansen house to talk about Evan. He recalled when he first heard of this hotshot high school freshman, and figured, OK, all right, let’s see. He laughed. “All of the rumors were true,” Shackelford said. “If I had a son, if I have could picked a husband for Brianna — ”

He fought for composure.

In early September 2018, his parents said, Evan logged on to his laptop and looked up C.T.E. and James Harrison, the Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker who had sustained more than a dozen concussions.

“Evan was having short-term memory problems,” Mary said after finding those searches on her son’s computer after he died. “And he was tired.”

That night he slept at a classmate’s home, set amid forest and corn fields. The classmate went to work; Evan rose, found a gun and walked into the woods. He made three phone calls to 911 and hung up each time.

Chuck looked at the navigation signal on his son’s phone and realized the locator had not moved and that stirred concern. He traveled to that signal and found his son’s body.

The unavoidable question is about the toll taken by football. Evan began to play tackle in third grade. He made the Guerin Catholic High School team as a freshman and played on it for four years, at running back on offense and middle linebacker on defense. He played four years at Wabash. He had knee surgeries, broke fingers, wore a strap to keep his shoulder from dislocating. And he never asked out of games.

Mary nodded. “Evan had a good mentality for football; it was not a good mentality for our son’s life.”

Thirteen hundred people crowded into the pews at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church for Evan’s funeral. Mary and Chuck stood on the receiving line for five hours, comforting those who came to comfort them. Then they took Evan to Our Lady of Peace cemetery, where they laid his body to earth between two young oak trees.


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