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BOSTON/LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A study of former Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler's brain following his July death revealed that the Super Bowl-winning athlete was suffering from moderate brain trauma, a leading specialist in the field said on Wednesday.
The 69-year-old quarterback's brain was the 90th of 94 former National Football League players studied by Boston University's CTE Center since 2008 to show signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, said Ann McKee, the center's director.
CTE is closely associated with the repeated head injuries that are commonly experienced in football, hockey and other contact sports, and can lead to aggression and dementia. It has also been a factor in the suicides of prominent NFL athletes, including Hall of Famer Junior Seau.
Stabler was among a growing number of former NFL players who asked that their brains be studied after their deaths. CTE cannot currently be diagnosed while a person is alive.
"He complained of memory difficulties, the family noticed memory difficulties for the last 10 years of his life, he was repeating himself, he was forgetful," said McKee, who also serves as the chief of neuropathology at the VA Boston Healthcare System. "We would have expected, had he lived longer, that he would have developed more severe dementia."
A biopsy of Stabler's brain found lesions that had likely been in place for decades, McKee said, rating his case as the second-most-severe rating on a four-point scale doctors use to evaluate CTE.
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.
Research on CTE has already prompted the NFL to ban the most dangerous helmet-to-helmet hits and require teams to keep players who have taken hits to the head off the field if they show symptoms including dizziness or memory gaps.
Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, whose team takes on the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50 in San Francisco on Sunday, paid tribute to Stabler.
"Ken Stabler was a friend of my dad (Archie)," Manning told reporters. "What a prince of a guy. What a great leader."
McKee said she hoped news about CTE would lead the league, fans and parents of young players to think more seriously about the risks of the game.
"There is an urgency to this," she said. "We want to ensure that our young athletes are staying safe for the rest of their lives."
Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes in Los Angeles; Editing by Frank Pingue and Andrew Hay