The wife of late AFL great Danny Frawley has revealed the St Kilda legend was suffering from stage two chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) at the time of his death.
According to Boston University, which has a specialist CTE centre, the illness is “a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma”.
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Frawley was a fullback who played 240 games for St Kilda, including nine seasons as captain, before coaching the Richmond Tigers between 2000 and 2004.
He was also inducted into St Kilda’s Hall of Fame in 2006 and was a deeply loved member of the Fox Footy team as the host of Bounce.
Frawley’s death shocked the AFL world when he died in a one-vehicle car crash in Millbrook, 20km east of Ballarat, one day after his 56th birthday in September, 2019.
The Herald Sun revealed the explosive diagnosis in an exclusive on Monday night as Frawley’s widow Anita revealed that Frawley had been living with depression for many years, saying she chose to shine a light on the finding to “prevent other families from going through what we did”.
“His mental health battles, and his strong advocacy for mental health issues, were well known,” Anita said.
“As his wife for over 30 years, I strongly suspected there was more going on with Danny than straightforward depression.”
She added the family would not comment further until the release of the coroner’s report.
At the time of the AFL legend’s death, Anita released a statement which revealed he had “deteriorated” in the months before his passing.
“Many have speculated on the cause and lead up to this tragedy. Danny, as a champion of mental health would want me to continue his legacy and be open with the public of the events leading up to this heartbreak,” Anita wrote.
“While the circumstances of the event are unconfirmed and will remain uncertain until the investigations are complete, it was true that Danny’s mental health had deteriorated in recent weeks.
“As is widely known, Danny had experienced and lived with depression dating back a number of years. But to his credit, he had put up his hand and accepted psychiatric treatment, counselling and medication. He recovered and returned to being the Danny of old.
“The road leading up to last Monday’s events began eight months ago when Danny made the decision to take himself off his prescribed medication. At this point Danny felt invincible, like the true competitor and proud man that he was; he felt that he had beaten the disease.
“In fact, he felt bullet proof, which contributed to his decision to remove himself from his support network including his psychiatric care and not continuing to work with his team of mental health professionals.
“The reason I am making this public is that I want this to be a reminder to all those grappling with mental health conditions and to those whom have made progress with their wellbeing that you should always seek help from professionals when considering making decisions surrounding your mental health, even when you feel as though you have fully recovered.”
WHAT IS CTE?
According to the Australian Sports Brain Bank, “Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a seemingly rare brain condition associated with repeated blows to the head. It was first found in boxers some decades ago, and has since been described in American footballers and other sportspeople overseas.”
CTE comes in four stages. The symptoms are:
– Stage I: Mild memory and depressive symptoms
– Stage II: Behavioural outbursts and severe depression
– Stage III: Cognitive deficits including memory loss and executive dysfunction
– Stage IV: Advanced language deficits, psychotic symptoms, profound cognitive deficits, and motor features
CTE IN AUSTRALIAN SPORT
Frawley’s CTE diagnosis makes him the second AFL player to be found with the neurological condition that can only be diagnosed after death.
Graham “Polly” Farmer, who played 101 games for Geelong and captained the club from 1965/67, died aged 84 in August 2019 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s before it was revealed he had been suffering Stage III CTE.
The legendary ruckman was diagnosed following tests on tissue from his brain conducted by the Australian Sports Brain Bank run by Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.
The disease has become increasingly prevalent in NFL, boxing and soccer. But last year, Australia was effected for the first time with two former rugby league players, including legendary Canterbury player and coach Steve Folkes, diagnosed with the disease.
Leagues across the world have instituted concussion protocols or head injury assessments but the revelation of the degenerative disease has seen several players cut their careers short over fears of concussion.
In 2018, St Kilda midfielder Koby Stevens retired at age 27 after suffering blurred vision in a head clash. It had been the eighth concussion of his career and he suffered persistent dizziness and headaches as well as concentration issues, the AFL reported at the time.
Then 26-year-old Brisbane Lions fullback Jack Frost also retired after advice from a specialist after 14 concussions in his six-year career.
Western Bulldogs 2016 Grand Final hero Liam Picken retired at 32 in 2019 after a pre-season head knock.
Former Adelaide player Sam Shaw even sued his former club after retiring in 2016 following ongoing concussion issues stemming from a concussion in the SANFL.
These players are also just the tip of the iceberg.
Currently the Australian Sports Brain Bank has 250 living sportspeople who have pledged their brains to the ongoing work of the program.
The Australian Sports Brain Bank was established in 2018 by the neuropathology department at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney, in partnership with the Brain and Mind Centre at the University of Sydney, and the Concussion Legacy Foundation in the USA.