WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The family of Frank Gifford said on Wednesday the late NFL Hall of Famer suffered from the degenerative brain disease CTE and that his brain had been donated to help researchers explore the link between football and traumatic head injuries.
Gifford, an eight-time Pro Bowl selection for the New York Giants, died of natural causes in August at the age of 84.
Gifford's' survivors, including his wife, "Today" show host Kathie Lee Gifford, said in a statement released by NBC that pathologists confirmed their suspicions that he was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative brain disease linked to repeated head trauma.
Gifford's career was interrupted in 1960 in one of the most notorious plays in NFL history, a brutal but legal hit by Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Chuck Bednarik that left Gifford unconscious. He missed the entire 1961 season but returned the next year and played three more seasons.
His family said Gifford's brain was donated to research because of the running back's "legacy of promoting player safety dating back to his involvement in the formation of the NFL Players Association in the 1950s."
The National Football League, the United States' most popular sport, has been embroiled in a controversy over concussions and CTE as it tries to change the game's rules to make it safer.
Some 5,000 former players sued the NFL, claiming it hid the dangers of repeated head trauma, and agreed to a settlement that could cost the league $1 billion. The settlement is under appeal.
Several dozen of the game's top players, including Hall of Famers Mike Webster and Junior Seau, were diagnosed with CTE when doctors analyzed their brains after death. Currently, CTE can only be reliably determined after death.
"During the last years of his life Frank dedicated himself to understanding the recent revelations concerning the connection between repetitive head trauma and its associated cognitive and behavioral symptoms - which he experienced firsthand," the Gifford family said in its statement.
The family said it supports the NFL's on-field rule changes and procedures to make the game safer.
Reporting by Steve Ginsburg; Editing by Bill Trott