Chris Brymer shuffles into a brightly lit, white-walled cell in a windowless corner of San Francisco County Jail Number 3 and eases his football player's frame into a plastic chair. He has a shaved head, patchy beard and wide, bloodshot blue eyes. He's only 35, but there's something about the way his broad shoulders slouch within his orange prisoner's sweatshirt that suggests an older man.
That might be why his age was erroneously listed as 50 in a police report filed in July, when he was arrested for allegedly attacking a black man, repeating “Die, nigger, die” as he struck him in the head with an object pulled out of a trash can. The victim got a gash above his eye requiring stitches, and Brymer was charged with four felony counts of assault and criminal threatening, three of them enhanced by hate-crime allegations. If convicted, he could spend almost 15 years in state prison.
“I really don't feel that I should be here,” he says absently, after introducing himself to a visiting reporter. “It's a really odd thing.”
Few criminals relish incarceration, but Brymer's predicament is an odd thing. It's odd that Brymer, once a starting lineman at the University of Southern California, should end up pushing a shopping cart around the streets of San Francisco in the months before his arrest, which took place outside a soup kitchen he frequented. It's odd that a gregarious professional athlete who, a former black teammate says, “has no racist bone in his body” should be facing allegations of a racially motivated assault. And it's odd that a man who ran a successful Orange County mortgage business is now incapable of holding the thread of a conversation or talking without slurring his words.
“He's just a person who's not there,” says his ex-wife, Melissa Brymer, who began dating Chris when she was 15 and stayed with him for more than 10 years, through his football career, until their separation in 2005.
The San Francisco District Attorney's Office has held up the charges against Brymer as an example of law enforcement's approach to hate crimes in this city. “The conduct charged in this case is outrageous in any civil society, but especially here in San Francisco, where we have a long tradition of embracing diversity,” District Attorney Kamala Harris said in a statement shortly after Brymer's arrest. (The first African-American and first woman to be elected to the city's top law-enforcement position, she is also the Democratic nominee in this fall's race for California attorney general.)
Yet a closer look at Brymer suggests his case has less to do with racism than with the crippling neurological aftereffects of America's most profitable professional sport.
Interviews with medical experts, Brymer's friends and relatives and Brymer himself indicate that he likely suffers from a poorly understood brain disorder called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Researchers are learning that CTE — brain degeneration caused by repeated head trauma such as concussions — is alarmingly common among high-level former football players, particularly linemen. The disease produces a range of emotional and cognitive problems, including irrational bursts of anger, difficulty communicating and forming sentences, and schizophrenia-like delusions.
Recent advances in scientific knowledge about CTE, accompanied by a growing body of evidence that prominent players whose lives were derailed by personal breakdowns had suffered from the disease, have raised tough ethical issues for thriving college and professional-football franchises. Even though the NFL has recently become more vigilant about dealing with players who suffer concussions, the league continues to publicly deny the existence of a link between football and long-term brain trauma.
As Brymer awaits a trial scheduled to begin in October, the details of the altercation that led to his arrest remain unclear. The alleged victim is a violent felon of dubious credibility, and Brymer and his attorneys say he acted in self-defense. But regardless of the trial's outcome, Brymer's story is far from unusual, and illustrates the challenges faced by a special class of criminal defendants.
Many football veterans and CTE patients wind up in court as a result of their unpredictable behavior, prompting some activists and legal experts to call for greater awareness among judges and attorneys about brain trauma's influence over defendants' actions. Brymer's case and others like it raise their own issues — not just for medical researchers or the NFL, but for the criminal-justice system of a football-crazed society.
Big as he was, he was not big for a lineman. At 6 feet 2 and 280 pounds, Chris Brymer may have been a giant on the gridiron in his hometown of Apple Valley, northeast of Los Angeles — famous for its orchards and two celebrity residents, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. But in the Pac-10, where he was recruited to USC and earned a berth as a starting offensive guard, his size wasn't enough. He had to prove himself, and he did so through the vicious, headfirst style of play that is the hallmark of many great linemen.
“There were a lot of linemen that were bigger than him, but he was a bulldog,” recalls Melissa Brymer, who now lives in San Bernardino County with the couple's 7-year-old son. “He especially liked using his head. I have a dented helmet of his. He used to get really bad headaches.”
Not that Brymer's teammates were complaining. Up against some of the strongest, fastest and most aggressive athletes to be found anywhere, players appreciated having a guy like Brymer between them and their opponents. He frequently “pulled” for USC's running backs, colliding at high speed with defensive players to clear a path.
“I'd say he was probably one of the toughest players I've ever played with — very physical, hard-nosed, just the type of guy you'd like to be next to you if you were ever in a tough situation,” says Jonathan Himebauch, who played center at USC with Brymer and is now the offensive line coach for the Montreal Alouettes, in the Canadian Football League. “He was always a guy who was looking to protect.”
Off the field, Brymer was well-liked, if known to have a stubborn streak. “I wouldn't say he would be a guy that's going to turn away from a fight, but he wasn't one to go out and start fights,” Himebauch recalls.
Brymer played his last college season in 1997. The storied Trojans weren't at their best during his time at USC, but he played alongside some who went on to enjoy success and fame, including wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson. After college, Brymer drifted among the practice squads on a few NFL teams, getting only a single active-roster game, with the Dallas Cowboys.
In 1999 he began playing with the Rhein Fire, an NFL Europe team based in Düsseldorf. The team gave up the fewest sacks in the league during his second season. Former Rhein Fire offensive guard Craig Heimburger attributes that success to Brymer, who was playing center, where he snapped the ball to the quarterback and directed adjustments to his fellow linemen's blocking formations. “A lot of [the offensive line's success] had to do with Chris,” Heimburger says. “The center's really the one with the brains.”
Heimburger and his wife were incredulous after reading accounts of Brymer's recent arrest in online newspaper articles, such as a San Francisco Examiner story that tagged him a “race-baiting drifter.” The allegation didn't fit the Brymer he and others knew. While Brymer came from an inland California town that was mostly white, his roommates in college were black, and he spent time off the field with black Rhein Fire players. “He was usually the only white guy sitting and playing cards with our teammates,” Heimburger says.
Leonard Green, a former USC tailback, was likewise shocked at the allegations. “I can tell you right now that the guy has no racist bone in his body,” he says. “I'm an African-American. We were the best of friends.”
After NFL Europe, Brymer played for a year in the XFL, a short-lived pro-football sideshow with rules tweaked to enhance the sport's violent appeal. He then moved to San Juan Capistrano with Melissa and got into Orange County's then-booming mortgage business, founding a company called CMG Capital.
George Felactu, a former USC fullback who obtained his mortgage through Brymer, remembers that he had a knack for home finance. “He wasn't the best student, but when I asked him about rates, it was like a Harvard MBA,” he says.
According to Melissa, the Brymers owned two homes and an office condominium. Brymer drove a Range Rover.
All of it was about to fall apart.
Most of Brymer's friends and teammates didn't know it, but something strange had been happening to him. It started when he was still playing pro ball, Melissa says. He began having trouble sleeping, often accompanied by irrational bouts of anger and paranoia that would fade as quickly as they arrived.
“He was accusing me of sleeping with [former Cowboys quarterback] Troy Aikman and random people,” she remembers. “He would wake up in the middle of the night, tear the blankets off me, turn all the lights on, and say he knew I was lying there awake. And then the next day it would be fine.” She pauses. “For me, it was like I was being mentally tortured for a long time.”
In Orange County, Brymer began acting erratically — partying a lot, staying out all night. Then things got weirder. He would sit around the house instead of going to work, writing on notepads about delusions that he could control the weather, talk to birds and teleport himself. Faced with questions from his wife, Brymer, thinking he could communicate telepathically, would respond, “You already know the answer to that,” accusing Melissa of playing dumb.
“He started saying he was God and stopped working,” she says. “He would write down all his demands — 'God is going to deliver me $5 billion by 10 p.m. Eastern time.' He would just sit there in his office, watching the birds.”
CMG Capital collapsed as Brymer lost the desire or ability to oversee the business. The Brymers lost both their homes. He took to walking the streets, setting out from San Juan Capistrano and wandering as far as downtown L.A., 60 miles across freeways and through suburbs. “I have witnessed him walking down the 5 freeway at 1 in the morning trying to part the cars,” former neighbor and family friend Gina Milia says.
Brymer himself, in halting fashion, acknowledges that something about his mind has changed. “I had a really strange thing happen to my head,” he says during one of several interviews from the county jail. “I felt like I sustained an injury, and nothing had happened. The best way to describe it is I had a problem in communicating and comprehending things.”
He has no illusions about how far he has fallen. “Obviously, there's a tag that goes along with having a shopping cart and pushing it down the street with recycling. I had a hundred thousand dollars three years ago,” he says. “I never thought it would happen. A lot of time I just walk around thinking to myself, 'This blows.' ”
Early this year, Brymer traveled to San Francisco. He was hoping for a new start, but found himself living and sleeping on the streets again. It didn't take long for things to go from bad to worse.
Late in the afternoon on July 19, Brymer, who had begun spending his nights along the empty shores of San Francisco Bay, made his way to a soup kitchen for an early dinner. Here's how he recalls what happened that day: While waiting in line for food, he was accosted by another of the facility's patrons, who began cursing at him. The two left the kitchen at roughly the same time. Once outside, the man began talking to a friend, who was 6 feet 11 and 310 pounds — even bigger than Brymer. The friend approached Brymer as he stood on San Francisco's Muni T-line platform and pulled out a 6-inch blade. “I'm crazy. I'm gonna kill you,” Brymer recalls him saying. “Don't fuck with me.” Brymer tackled the man to the ground in order, as he puts it, to restrain him. Within seconds, a Muni train arrived. Figuring he was safe, Brymer stood up and walked away.
The next day, he again saw the big man he had tussled with — this time at a different Muni platform. Brymer kept his distance, waiting behind when the guy stepped onto a T-train that carried him away. As Brymer stood listlessly on the platform holding his shopping bag, he was approached by a half-dozen police officers, who cuffed him and led him away, bewildered.
The other men involved in the altercation, Henry Therkield and Shaun Parker, have a different story. It was Therkield who first interacted with Brymer in the soup kitchen. He would later tell police officers that while getting his food, he was approached by a “crazy” man — Brymer — who gazed directly at him and said, “Someone is gonna die.” Concerned that he was being threatened, Therkield left the kitchen and encountered Parker, his friend, outside.
During a hearing in San Francisco Superior Court on August 4 and 5, Parker testified that while he was sitting with Therkield on the Muni station platform, Brymer approached, complaining that Therkield had “cussed at him” inside the soup kitchen. When Brymer didn't go away, Parker stood up and confronted him. “I got nothing to do with that,” Parker said. “Just back off.” He admitted in his testimony that he was brandishing a knife. Brymer then reached into a trash can, pulled out some form of “smooth” object — Parker couldn't say what it was — and began beating Parker over the head, saying, “Die, nigger, die.” A Muni train pulled up, filled with people, who began screaming at Brymer to leave Parker alone. Brymer fled the scene.
A day later, according to Parker, he saw Brymer again. He left the Muni platform and crossed the street to avoid a confrontation, but Brymer followed him and started pummeling him on the sidewalk in front of the Panera café, at the corner of Fourth and King streets. When a train approached, Parker hurried back to the station and caught it, with Brymer in pursuit. Once onboard, Parker called the police.
Both accounts of the incidents have weak spots. It's not clear, for instance, why Brymer attacked a man holding a knife to subdue him, rather than simply walk away. Parker's story is also problematic. Muni surveillance cameras show that the two men were at the same stop on July 20, but depict only Parker slowly boarding a train — not running or being pursued — while Brymer walks down the platform cagily.
Brymer denies using a racial slur on either of the days he encountered Parker, and says he didn't interact with him at all when they saw each other the day after the initial fight. His attorney, deputy public defender Nicole Solis, says the allegation of a threat using the word “nigger” was concocted to “capture the D.A.'s imagination.” Says Solis, “I have represented all kinds of people — Aryan Brotherhood, neo-Nazi, all kinds — and Chris is not a person I think would ever use this word.”
Parker's own criminal background raises questions about his credibility. He admitted under cross-examination during the pretrial hearing that he had multiple felony and misdemeanor convictions — including assault on a police officer, auto theft and domestic violence — and that he was under a stay-away order from his former residential hotel.
Parker's rap sheet and the holes in his story could make prosecutors' jobs difficult as they seek a conviction. But the trial's outcome won't answer a bigger question: What happened to Chris Brymer? He had descended from the pinnacle of athletic and financial achievement to become a human wreck, and nobody could understand why. His family had no history of mental illness, and doctors he was persuaded to consult offered conflicting diagnoses: depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia.
It turns out that some of the brightest minds in medical science have been working hard for years to understand the root of symptoms just like Brymer's. They have even identified a cause. They just don't know how to help.
Bennet Omalu, a Lodi forensic pathologist, is known in California's Central Valley in his professional capacity as San Joaquin County's chief medical examiner. Within the national fraternity of advanced brain researchers, he is recognized as the first medical expert to conclusively diagnose CTE in a football player.
Omalu's discovery came in 2002 during an autopsy he performed on Mike Webster, the Hall of Fame center for the Pittsburgh Steelers. After playing in the NFL from 1974 to 1990, Webster exhibited a bizarre range of cognitive and emotional problems mimicking dementia and mental illness in retirement. He ended up living out of his car and dying at the age of 50. Omalu's post-mortem examination of Webster's brain revealed extensive tissue damage signified by the presence of the tau protein, a substance found in Alzheimer's patients that destroys neurons. Since other biological markers of Alzheimer's were absent, Omalu concluded that Webster had suffered from a condition not yet understood by doctors: brain injury from repeated head trauma. For “Iron Mike,” an offensive lineman of legendary fortitude, it made perfect sense.
Since then, Omalu and his organization, the Brain Injury Research Institute — along with other medical researchers working independently — have diagnosed numerous cases of CTE in deceased professional and college football players. The most recent case came in mid-September, when Boston University researchers diagnosed CTE in the brain of Owen Thomas, a University of Pennsylvania football captain who inexplicably hanged himself at his apartment in April. He had never played in the NFL, offering a sobering indication of how quickly CTE can develop.
Omalu is convinced that brain injury is responsible for many of the inexplicable antics observed in high-level football players. “Most CTE sufferers die from either suicides or accidental overdoses,” he says. “CTE is responsible for most, if not all, of the absurd behavior these players show.”
CTE has been a hot topic in sports news during the past year. In October 2009, Malcolm Gladwell published an exposé in The New Yorker documenting its prevalence among former football players. Shortly thereafter, Congress held hearings into the NFL's approach to minimizing the risk of the disease and caring for retired players.
As news spread, it eventually found its way to Melissa Brymer, who was still puzzling over what could be responsible for her estranged husband's actions. “When I Googled [CTE] and researched it, I started crying,” she says. “That was the moment I said, 'This is Chris.' ”
The depression, the anger, the paranoia, the inability to think straight: Brymer exhibited the classic profile of an ex–football player suffering from CTE, down to his homeless wanderings, which were eerily similar to those of fellow offensive lineman Webster.
No one will know for sure if Brymer has CTE until he dies. The disease has been diagnosed only in dead people; the procedures scientists use to identify it in the brain — slicing and staining neural tissue to reveal the tau protein — can't be safely performed on a living human being. Research is under way to identify biological indicators of CTE in the living, perhaps in spinal fluid, but nothing has panned out. For ex–football players struggling with CTE–like symptoms, doctors can only offer a guess, based on their medical histories, as to what's wrong. Even then, there is no cure.
“There's no way to know whether this guy has CTE or not from what you're telling me, but there's certainly enough to suspect it's there,” says Robert Cantu, a prominent brain researcher at Boston University. “I can tell you that he fits the profile, so he would be highly suspect for CTE.”
Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard football player who runs the Sports Legacy Institute in Boston, says, “You're talking about a guy who is successful in two careers and suddenly develops cognitive and emotional problems that ruin his whole life. At this point in somebody's life, that doesn't have a lot of other causes. People can lose their minds in midlife and develop problems, but it seems to happen to a lot of former football players.”
While Brymer acknowledges that his years as an offensive lineman involved “a lot of headbanging,” he says he never reported a concussion. No matter: Repeated head trauma over long periods — most of it probably suffered in practice, not during games — is believed by researchers to be the likely cause of CTE, rather than isolated concussions.
In response to questions about football and brain trauma, Tim Tessalone, a spokesman for Brymer's alma mater, issued this statement: “USC takes the issue of concussions, head trauma and brain injury in athletics very seriously. Our athletes are cared for by USC's best doctors and athletic trainers, and our medical staff stays on the cutting edge of the latest developments in the area. USC follows and supports the NCAA guidelines regarding concussion and brain injury education, prevention, reporting, treatment and management.”
Not all are convinced of a link between football and brain degeneration.
Mitch Berger, a UC San Francisco neurosurgeon who chairs an NFL subcommittee on the health of retired players, thinks football's risks to the brain have been overhyped.
“In all of professional football, I think there are somewhere around 11 or 12 confirmed cases of CTE. Now, think about that. There are a lot of people who have played football, and most of them have no problems,” he says. “It's still a mystery. All we know is that there are football players who have played professionally, as well as in college, who have CTE. We really don't know, other than these anecdotal cases, whether there is an association or link between playing professional football and CTE.”
One of the problems with existing research, Berger says, is that there have been no studies in a control population of healthy former players; the dissected brains in which CTE has been discovered came from those with known histories of mental and emotional problems.
As to a link between Brymer's breakdown and his football career, Berger says, “It's going to be a very impossible thing to try to prove.”
He's right, as Brymer has begun to find out.
The couple looked out of place in the gallery of Department 22 of San Francisco's Hall of Justice, tanned, attentive, both with full heads of blond hair starting to turn silver. The man was tall, with long limbs and broad shoulders, and reclined in his cramped, folding wooden chair. The woman stared straight ahead. When defendant Chris Brymer was led into the courtroom for a bail-reduction hearing before Judge Charles Haines, she craned her neck to see him.
Rebecca Young, managing attorney in the felony division of the public defender's office, was making a special appearance on Brymer's behalf. Solis, his full-time attorney, was out of town. Young gestured to the couple behind her when she introduced her client. “His parents have driven up to support him,” she said. Robert and Wendy Brymer, whose son was in the dock, watched silently.
At issue that August morning was a defense motion urging Haines to release Brymer on his own recognizance without having to post bail, or at least reduce bail from the $200,000 at which it had been set. In the motion, Solis argued that Brymer's predicament should be examined in light of his mental problems.
“Mr. Brymer began to develop comprehension and communication problems, possibly related to a degenerative brain condition from his years as a professional football player,” she wrote. “There are a number of recent studies that have conclusively proven a direct link between head injuries sustained in football and degenerative brain disease. … Despite his efforts to seek medical treatment for his brain injury, Mr. Brymer's condition worsened.”
Victor Hwang, a prosecutor in the district attorney's hate-crimes unit, was unconvinced. “I'm not sure where Ms. Solis gets the facts that she alleges,” he told the judge.
The spectacle of a former football player at odds with the law is a familiar one to activists trying to call attention to the plight of potentially brain-damaged NFL veterans. The Steelers' Webster was arrested for forging pill prescriptions in 1999, three years before his death. The late Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry was arrested five times on charges including assault and drug possession before dying at the age of 26 when he leaped or fell — it's unclear which — from a moving car driven by his fiancée in December 2009. An autopsy showed that he had CTE. Former Steeler Justin Strzelczyk, who endured depression and hallucinations after leaving the NFL, died in 2004 at age 36 when he led police on a high-speed chase and crashed his pickup. He, too, was found to have CTE.
“A lot of these people with CTE do come before the judicial system, because they make poor decisions,” says Gay Culverhouse, the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers president who now runs the Players Outreach Program, which helps former NFL players get access to disability benefits. “They start getting arrested for either battery or drugs. They're usually arrested three or four times.”
Once funneled into the criminal-justice system, they have little luck. The courts have no formal mechanism in place for accounting for traumatic brain injury. That has led Culverhouse, working with Harvard Law School Professor Peter Carfagna, a sports-law expert, to undertake an effort to develop a “dementia defense” for former football players that would serve as an insanity defense. “We're trying to publish a white paper that would be a road map for defense counsel,” Carfagna says.
It's not an easy road. The absence of definitive tests for CTE in living people makes conclusively proving it impossible, and most states have standards on the admissibility of scientific evidence that would restrict which, if any, medical experts could testify on the likelihood of a defendant's brain trauma. Prosecutors' and jurors' lack of sympathy for former high-earning athletes accused of crimes doesn't help.
Because CTE was first found in football players less than a decade ago, and given that many indigent former athletes are represented by public or pro bono attorneys without the time or resources to pioneer unusual defense tactics, the disease has received virtually no mention in the courtroom, even when it is probably a significant factor contributing to a defendant's criminal actions.
In Brymer's case, his attorney's reference to CTE in her efforts to get his bail reduced had little effect. At the close of the bail hearing on August 20, Haines said he wasn't convinced that Brymer suffers from a brain disorder. “I'm kind of familiar with this syndrome involved with football players,” the judge said. “There's no medical evidence that connects this to your client … that's my problem with this.” He denied the motion, and Brymer was led out of the courtroom by a bailiff, who returned him to the jail upstairs.
Brymer's parents didn't stick around. They refused to speak to a reporter as they left the Hall of Justice, and didn't return subsequent phone calls.
Brymer, in an interview a few days after the hearing, says he wishes they had stopped by the jail to visit him. “They drive 400 miles to San Francisco,” he says. “They should just wait for an extra two or three hours to talk to me.”
He's deflated, but not surprised. When his life began coming apart several years ago, Brymer says, his parents and siblings “found it really hard to understand where it came from. Basically, I had no one to lean on. … It's just kind of a difficult situation for them to comprehend how someone could come down with brain trauma without anything happening.”
As he awaits his trial, Brymer still has no one to lean on. Upon admittance to the county jail he was placed in a ward with emotionally disturbed prisoners, he says. One stands and spins in place; another threatened to stab him. Brymer takes the prescription antidepressant and anti-anxiety drug Paxil, but says he is being administered an improperly low dose. A dispute with a fellow inmate over a mattress — the details of the argument, as he describes them, are difficult to parse — led to his being placed in a special cell alone for a time.
By the time Brymer sits for a third and final interview at the county jail just before Labor Day weekend, he has visibly worsened from two and a half weeks earlier. His affect deadened, he stares at the wall, his blue eyes framed by dark rings. “I'm so tired of sitting in this jail,” he says. Asked how he is feeling, he responds, “The only thing I have a feeling about is going to sleep, waking up, and another day passing.”
There are those who want to help. Within hours of a reporter first calling Himebauch, Brymer's former USC teammate — who also went on to play with him in NFL Europe and the XFL — and three other USC friends had called, asking about the details of his incarceration, the name of his attorney, the address of the jail where he was being held, and any advice on what they could do to help.
Former Rhein Fire teammate Heimburger says Brymer should be institutionalized or referred for medical treatment. “Someone should help, and if the state can't help people like that, that's kind of sad,” he says. “We pay all these taxes, and if someone's falling apart like that, somebody should be able to help put them back together.”
Seth Steward, spokesman for the San Francisco District Attorney's Office, says prosecutors are careful to evaluate a defendant's mental capacity, particularly as it relates to his state of mind and intentions when an alleged crime was committed. “We definitely take that stuff into consideration,” he says. In Brymer's case, however, Steward says it's unclear whether any mental disorder is present in the first place: “I don't even know if we have any evidence of that yet.”
The people's case against Chris Brymer, the offensive guard who fell apart after years of protecting others on the field, begins this week. Regardless of its results, the punishment Brymer's mental and emotional snap has exacted on him and those close to him can already be tallied.
Melissa Brymer, for one, feels sick as she watches the 7-year-old child she had with Brymer — who is not allowed to make contact with his son, according to court restrictions following their divorce — grow to resemble his absent dad more and more. “He's already a foot taller than everyone else in his class. He looks like a lineman already, and I'm terrified,” she says.
Brymer's situation, like that of other former football players coping with probable CTE, creates uncomfortable questions for those who watch, play or make money from our preferred national spectacle. To what extent are we complicit in the havoc football might be wreaking on individual lives? What special consideration do we owe the sport's broken athletes, in the courtroom or outside it?
For Melissa Brymer, who witnessed the aftermath of her ex-husband's professional sports career, the question raised by CTE is more immediate. Will she let her boy play football, running the same risks as his father? “I could never see my son turn hollow like that,” she says. “I do not want him anywhere near the sport.”
E-mail the author at Peter.Jamison@SFWeekly.com.