RALEIGH, N.C. — In the last years of his life, the longtime football coach for dominating college teams wrestled with impaired speech, forgetfulness, lapses in concentration. And with his conscience.
His body was betraying him, and now, possibly, so was the sport he loved.
A few years earlier, the coach, Don Horton, had learned that he had Parkinson’s disease, but these new, intensifying infirmities were more commonly linked to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated hits to the head and linked to football and other contact sports.
Was his deteriorating health, Horton wondered, a consequence of his many years as a football lineman? Even worse, he worried, was he responsible for exposing hundreds of players to the kind of head trauma now impairing his life? After all, as a prominent assistant coach at Boston College and North Carolina State for nearly 20 years, he had recruited and encouraged scores of athletes to play major college football.
In the still of night at home, Horton asked himself what he should say if a parent of a former recruit called to say that a son was suffering from C.T.E.-like symptoms.
“And I would tell him that he could say: ‘I know how it feels,’” his wife, Maura Horton, responded. “And Don didn’t necessarily like that answer. But that’s the truth.”
There was only one way to be sure if he had C.T.E. His brain would have to be examined post-mortem, the only way to confirm the disease since there is no reliable test for the living. At first Horton balked, but as his cognitive difficulties intensified, he relented and even insisted that the findings of his brain examination be made public.
Horton died almost one year ago, on May 28. He was 58. Multiple news reports celebrated his accomplishments, and hundreds of former players and colleagues attended his funeral. Quietly, researchers at Boston University’s C.T.E. Center received his brain; the results would not be revealed for nearly 10 months.