Until the moment he pulled the trigger, Zack Langston was trying to fix himself. He took medication. Quit medication. Switched jobs. Saw a therapist. Spent time in a hospital. Went out with friends and family. Kept to himself. He would sit with a cup of coffee and read for hours, books like Thinking Better and 21 Ways To Finding Peace and Happiness and the Bible. He had notebooks, too, where he would write down his life goals, in list after list, an ever-changing set of plans to make everything better:
Find a growable entrepreneurial job
1 Caffeinated drink a day
Stay spiritually strong
Zack was 26 years old, tall and handsome, built like a rubber superhero suit. At age 10, he prided himself on being the hardest hitter in his youth football league; at Blue Valley Northwest High School in Overland Park, Kansas, his coaches rewarded his ferocious play with a pair of actual hammers. He went on to play outside linebacker at Pittsburg State University, where his friends and teammates called him Leonidas, after the Spartan warrior in the film 300. But Zack was laid-back and well-liked, slow to anger and quick to apologize. He was raised by two loving parents, Nicki and Marc, who cheered for him at every game. He had a baby sister, Emma, whom he adored; an older brother, Shaun; and a younger brother, Ben, who was his best friend—well, at least outside of their frantically competitive games of one-on-one basketball.
Now Zack had a two-year-old son, Drake, all chunky legs and a long torso, deep-voiced for a little boy the way his father once had been. Zack loved being a dad, changing diapers and making formula, taking Drake for rides on a shopping mall carousel. Sure, things had been rocky with Drake's mother, Danae, Zack's college sweetheart. The couple had been engaged, only to split up, unable to make things work. But Zack still loved her, and she loved him, and both wanted the best for their son. He was even dating again, a girl named Morgan, and they were good for each other, kindred spirits who liked goofy humor and golfing as an excuse to drink beer and ride around in electric carts. Things were looking up, and that's exactly what Zack would tell himself: I have a great job, a great son, a great family, I go to church, I have a girlfriend devoted to me. I should be happy.
Only he wasn't. Zack couldn't find peace. Couldn't keep his mind from racing, couldn't stop the dark thoughts. He would miss appointments, lose his keys, become enraged, emotionally flog himself for being so careless. He would blow up at Ben, argue with Danae, toss and turn and sweat through the night. Zack was drinking a lot more, whiskey from the bottle, and exercising a lot less—this, from a health food nut who started every vacation by finding the nearest gym; who had spent five months training with the U.S. National bobsled developmental team; and who two years earlier had bounded into his family's kitchen to announce, Mom, I don't know why people use drugs when they can just work out.
Something was wrong with Zack. Something inside his head. No matter what he tried—the books, the notes, the Lexapro—nothing worked. He became paranoid, increasingly irrational, yet was often lucid enough to know it. Maybe that was the hardest part. No one knew what was the problem, but one way or another, Zack was determined to fix it—the same way he would run and lift weights so hard he would throw up, yet still beat his football teammates in sprints.
Eventually, Zack began Googling at what age do kids remember? And eventually, he bought a gun.
Eight months after her son took his own life, Nicki Langston's phone rang. It was the fall of 2014, and her older sister, Debbie, was on the line. The self-described "PBS-watching nerd" in the family, Debbie had just seen the Frontline documentary League of Denial.
"Nicki," she said, "you need to watch this interview with Dr. Ann McKee."
A professor at the Boston University School of Medicine and the director of the Neuropathology Service for the New England Veterans Administration Medical Centers, McKee is a neuropathologist, which makes her something of a brain detective: essentially, she studies damage and disease by examining tissue samples under microscopes. McKee is also one of the world's leading experts on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease linked to repeated blows to the head.
Characterized by the buildup of harmful, neuron-killing tangles of a misfolding protein called tau in specific areas of the brain, CTE is associated with clinical symptoms including memory loss, confusion, explosive anger, impaired judgement, impulse control problems, anxiety and depression. Previously known as "punch drunk syndrome," the disease had been recognized in boxers for decades. In 2002, however, a Pittsburgh-based neuropathologist named Bennet Omalu made a startling discovery: he found CTE in the brain of Mike Webster, a former National Football League star and Hall of Fame player who had descended into madness, living out of his truck and Tasering himself to fall asleep before dying of a heart attack at age 50.
Omalu subsequently diagnosed the disease in the brains of former NFL players Andre Waters, Terry Long and Justin Strzelczyk. Waters shot himself in the head; Long committed suicide by drinking antifreeze; and Strzelczyk died in a fiery car crash after leading police on a high speed highway chase and complaining of "evil" voices in his head. The NFL and affiliated scientists attempted to discredit and dismiss Omalu's work—the notion that football could cause the same sort of brain damage as boxing despite participants wearing hard plastic helmets was a major threat to both the league's bottom line and the sport's overall popularity. Yet by 2009, there was enough evidence connecting football to long-term neurological harm that Congress held hearings on the issue. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell refused to acknowledge a link between the sport and brain damage, but former players kept losing their minds and killing themselves. Two high-profile retirees—Dave Duerson and the enormously popular Junior Seau—shot themselves in the chest specifically to preserve their brains for study.
In 2012, thousands of retirees filed a federal class action lawsuit against the NFL for concealing and lying about the dangers of concussions and brain trauma, an accusation at the heart of both League of Denial and the Hollywood drama Concussion. Meanwhile, a Boston-based brain bank established by Boston University and the Veterans Administration in partnership with the Concussion Legacy Foundation and headed by McKee had by September of 2015 examined the brains of 91 deceased NFL players—and found CTE in 87.
Nicki didn't know anything about CTE. She was vaguely aware that football could cause brain damage—but only because Zack had told her that the sport might be the cause of his problems, and because she had seen a doctor hawk brain repair supplements on television. (Zack, she says, tried the pills. No effect). Anyway, Nicki believed the conventional wisdom: that this was a problem for the pros, for middle-aged and older men who had suffered lots and lots of head hits over very long football careers. Zack was young. He never played in the NFL. Heck, he chose Pittsburg State over bigger, more prestigious college football programs because he didn't want to feel like a slab of disposable meat. Zack skipped class and hid when a recruiter from Kansas State University came to visit Blue Valley Northwest High. "That happened a number of times," Ben says.
"We thought he would be safer at Pittsburg State," Nicki says.
Still, football was football. Violent by design. At the end of a practice during Zack's freshman year, Nicki recalls, his coaches called for a "Hamburger" drill. The players formed a circle. The coaches stood in the middle. They called out names, two at a time. Langston! "Zack and someone else just ran out and hit each other as hard they they could," says Nicki, who along with Marc had been visiting Zack at Pittsburg State. "It was horrible. You could hear the crashing and thuds and the grunts. I realized they hit each other like this all time, and I just couldn't hear it before because I was usually sitting in the bleachers. I had to walk away."
Nicki watched League of Denial. Her heart pounded when she listened to McKee discuss CTE. She called Debbie back.
"Wow," Nicki said. "He had all the symptoms."
Zack was cremated in his favorite red football shorts. Pieces of his brain had been preserved at the Langstons' request as a result of Zack sharing fuzzy suspicions with Nicki that something was wrong. An exam—that didn't look for CTE—found nothing unusual.
Shortly after watching the PBS special, Nicki placed a call to McKee's brain bank.
Everything was fine, until it wasn't. In the summer of 2011, Zack graduated from Pittsburg State. To celebrate, he took a vacation with Ben and Nicki in Key West, Florida.
On the way to their hotel room, Zack suddenly snapped, throwing his suitcase against the walls of an all-glass elevator. Ben and Nicki were stunned: Zack hated conflict, always tried to smooth over family arguments. "In school, he was a bar bouncer for a short time," says Shaun, Zack's older brother. "He was terrible at it. Not the in-your-face personality they usually look for. Zack was pretty mellow."
When they got to the room—a luxury suite overlooking the water, with a full kitchen and granite countertops—Zack began screaming at Ben, accusing his brother of mocking him. The brothers had a long history of affectionate teasing, but this was wasn't playful. Zack picked up a metal barstool. "I'm not trying to fight you," Ben said. "I'm on your side." Zack tossed the barstool aside, stalked into a bedroom, and slammed the door. His strange behavior continued during the trip: at a marina, he randomly beat his fists against a guardrail, scaring other tourists.
"Looking back, that's when I first noticed something was wrong," Nicki says.
The human brain is a marvelous biological computer, a delicate, gelatinous mass of complex electrochemical circuitry that contains and controls our hopes and dreams, memories and quirks, everything that makes us who we are. CTE attacks the organ—and the self—by disrupting its regular signaling, killing neurons, and causing scarring; its telltale tau tangles show up in specific areas of the brain that regulate thought and emotion.
In a 2013 study of 36 adult males who had CTE—33 of them were symptomatic when they died; 29 of them were former football players—researchers were able to identify two distinct subgroups that were consistent with previous case studies of "punch-drunk" boxers. In the first group, the men tended to live longer, and suffered from cognitive impairment—memory loss, executive dysfunction—starting in their late 50s. The men in the second group generally died younger. Their symptoms appeared earlier, and were totally different: emotional explosiveness, impulsive behavior, violent outbursts, depression and hopelessness. Seau, for example, was functional when he committed suicide in 2012, at age 43. But something was very wrong. He was womanizing, drinking heavily, gambling too much, making impulsive financial decisions, and having trouble sleeping.
Zack's friends and family had no idea what misfolding tau could do to the brain. They just knew that Zack was changing. Struggling. Danae Young saw it early. She met Zack during college, and was his close friend for a year before the two started dating. Others knew Zack from football; Danae knew him as a gentle young man who adopted a rescued kitten and liked to stay up all night, just talking.
Following graduation, Zack moved back in with his parents. He seemed lost, directionless. When Danae got pregnant, though, Zack found a purpose. He landed a sales job, worked part-time at a church, was excited to become a father. The couple got engaged. Drake was born. Things were moving in the right direction.
Except: Danae saw Zack was taking Adderall, a prescription stimulant, in order to remember things. He would come home from his office and go straight upstairs to his room, not wanting to talk to anyone. He withdrew from social situations in which he normally thrived, and told his mother that he was suffering from severe anxiety. He bounced between jobs, fought with Danae, became uncharacteristically jealous. "He was paranoid on top of paranoid," Danae says. "It could be the neighbor's dad, and Zack would think he's hitting on me. It was like, 'where is your mind now?' He would be sitting at the kitchen table and suddenly get mad at Ben—fuck off, Ben!—and go downstairs. Then you'd find him sitting down there with his arms up, confused."
At Pittsburg State, Zack had suffered a junior year cervical neck injury that left him with transient numbness in his right arm, essentially ending his football career. He missed competing. Through an old high school football teammate, Zack had a chance in August 2012 to train with the national bobsled team. For the rest of the year, he largely lived on the road, practicing and competing in New York, Utah and Canada. The distance was hard on Danae—she needed help taking care of Drake—but Zack called her on Skype, and begged her to read the Bible to him. "It was like he was trying to have me help him find what he was searching for," she says.
Zack missed the cut for the Sochi Olympics. The news crushed him. "They wanted him to come back and work at it," Nicki says. "But he was so unreasonable. To be that upset over not being one of the top guys, when you just walked into this a couple of months ago?" One night in February 2013, Danae was working on Zack's computer, studying for nursing school. Zack was lying in bed. He told her that he was taking antidepressants, and that he was having crazy thoughts. Suicidal ones. Zack would ask his mom, Was I a happy kid? I don't remember. Maybe I was always unhappy.
No, Zack, you weren't always unhappy.
Do you or Dad have problems with depression?
No, Zack, I don't think it's genetic and that you inherited it.
"I was walking on eggshells," Danae says. "One minute, he was the Zack I knew. We were best friends. The next minute, he was unhappy about life, thought people were out to get him. It made me think I was crazy." The couple tried counseling. Danae thought the sessions went well. Zack hardly seemed to remember them. In late May, they broke up. They held each other for two hours, crying. The strain was too great.
It felt, Danae says, like an outside force was pulling them apart.
In January of 2014, Zack bought his first gun at a pawn shop. Marc found out and returned it. He started tracking his son's iPhone. Zack was dating again, and had found a supportive partner in Morgan Sleeper, a cancer nurse whom he met through mutual friends. The two had fallen in love—but otherwise, Zack was struggling. He was in therapy. Self-medicating with alcohol. A doctor prescribed him Lexapro, a drug used to treat anxiety and depression. Morgan says the drug made Zack "disconnected." Marc says it made Zack more anxious and depressed.
Zack would bring Drake to his parents' house, and instead of playing with his son like he usually did, he would go upstairs and sleep for hours. He was uncharacteristically resentful of Ben, who after college had moved to the Washington, DC, area, where he had a good job and a girlfriend who would later become his fiancé. One day, Zack even threw one of Drake's plastic toy balls at his brother's head, accusing Ben of trying to show him up as a father
It all was irrational, and sometimes, Zack knew it. He was still writing in his notebooks:
I am not what has happened to me. I am who I choose to become ...
One night, Zack woke up at 3 AM, got out of bed, and paced around in circles. He told Morgan in a panic that I'm not thinking right. In the morning, he remembered nothing. Another night, he told Morgan that he had dialed a suicide hotline—that he felt like a burden to everyone, and that he was bad for his son. He withdrew from Ben and Emma, stopped answering texts and voice mails. After Zack bought a second gun in late January, Marc, Nicki and Morgan convinced him to check into an inpatient psychiatric facility, where he stayed five days. "They taught him strategies for when his mind was racing," Morgan says, "steps 1-2-3-4 of what would make him better." He still was trying to fix himself.
Three weeks later, on Sunday, February 23, Zack and Morgan watched the Olympics at her apartment. Bobsled. The next morning, Morgan had to work. She was tending to a patient when Marc called, around 10:30 AM. Zack is at the gun store. You have to call him. She did.
Zack, what are you doing?
Nothing. I'm at my parents' house.
You didn't just buy a gun, did you?
What were you doing at the gun shop?
Just target shooting.
Do you swear on your life that you did not just purchase a firearm?
"It was the first time he ever lied to me," Morgan says.
Marc called again, a few minutes before noon**.** He told Morgan that he couldn't track his son's location, that Zack had ditched his phone. Meanwhile, Zack showed up at Danae's apartment. She remembers his visit like this: Zack said he wanted to pick up Drake, who was sleeping in his bedroom. Zack went to the bedroom door, paused, and returned to the living room. He sat down on a couch. Danae stayed in the kitchen. Zack, she says, was never violent with her. Morgan says the same. But now, for the first time in Danae's life, she was scared of her son's father. "The way he moved and looked I will never forget," she says. "His eyes were hollowed out, like there was a demon in him. It wasn't Zack. It wasn't Zack at all."
Danae asked Zack if he wanted to talk. Zack just nodded. He took a revolver out of his jacket. Danae begged Zack to stop. He pointed the weapon at his chest. Danae screamed at him: What are you doing? She named everyone in his family, one by one.
"You've known for a long time something was wrong with me," Zack said. "I've been planning this for a long time."
Zack stood up, extending his arm, pistol in hand. Danae panicked. She ran out of the apartment, down a stairwell, looking for help. She heard a gunshot.
When Nicki sent Zack's brain to Ann McKee's brain bank, Ben didn't expect the doctors to find much. Maybe a few clumps of tau protein, but nothing like the blooming tangles identified in the brains of former NFL players.
"I lived a very similar life to Zack," Ben says, "and I can't imagine his of play was so much more aggressive than mine. I learned to play football from him. So I was expecting them to say [brain damage] was only a little negative impact."
In May, the brain bank set up a conference call with the Langstons to discuss their findings. Ben was on his way home from a West Coast business trip; he dialed in from the San Francisco airport. Marc and Nicki were in a hospital room, where Marc was rehabbing from cancer treatment. Shaun and Danae were there as well. Morgan listened from work. McKee came on to deliver the results.
Final diagnosis: Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy ... multiple hyperphosphorylated tau lesions are found as foci of perivascular p-tau in neurons and neuronal processes at the depths of the cerebral sulci in the inferior parietal, superior frontal, dorsolateral superior frontal and superior temporal cortex ...
_"_Dr. McKee read it, and a lot of it I didn't understand," Nicki says. "At the end, she explained that Zack's CTE was at a similar level to Junior Seau's. She said she was really shocked by this to have that level at Zack's age."
When Omalu first identified CTE in Webster's brain, his findings were the subject of intense scientific debate. Was CTE really a disease? Could it reasonably be linked to football, the way it previously had been linked to boxing and other activities involving repetitive head trauma? Were abnormal tau depositions caused by steroids, aging, something else? Some of that doubt was manufactured by a self-interested NFL and league-affiliated doctors; some was serious and legitimate, coming from skeptical independent researchers.
Today, there is much less uncertainty, and a growing body of medical knowledge. In February, a group of scientists sponsored by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) met in Boston and agreed upon a refined set of criteria for diagnosing CTE after autopsy, including the disease's pathognomonic lesion—in other words, if you see tau buildup in a particular part of the brain, it's CTE, and not another neurological disorder characterized by the same haywire protein. Concurrently, researchers at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai have developed an experimental imaging technique that likely will allow them to diagnose the disease in living brains within the next few years. In July—a month before Seau was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame—Harvard researchers reported that subjecting mice to repeated concussions caused their brains to produce "robust and consistent" levels of misfolded tau that correlated to human tissue samples; if their work can be independently verified, it will be the first direct physical evidence that blows to the head can cause what appears to be the beginnings of CTE.
In December, Mayo Clinic researchers announced that they had examined 66 brains from the clinic's brain bank belonging to men who had played contact sports in their youth. Amateurs, not professionals. Using the new NINDS diagnostic guidelines, they found CTE in 21 of those brains—and didn't find the disease in 198 brains from people who lacked a documented history of participating in contact sports.
Calling the results "very surprising," the study's author noted that more football players had CTE than athletes from any other sport.
"It's getting to be pretty common for us to see cases in twenty-somethings," McKee says. "In soccer, we have CTE cases ages 29 and 24. Derek Boogaard, a [NHL] hockey player, was 28. It's especially alarming that this is happening to some of our amateur athletes. I'm sure their parents didn't sign up for this."
McKee's brain bank found CTE in the brain of Patrick Risha, a former Dartmouth football player who committed suicide at age 32; in the brain of Michael Keck, a high school star who played just one year of college football and died at age 25; in the brain of Joseph Chernach, who played Pop Warner and prep football and committed suicide at age 25; and in the brain of Nathan Stiles, who died at age 17 from a brain injury suffered during a high school football game. In total, McKee says, she has found CTE in the brains of 41 of 50 former college football players her brain bank has examined, and six of 26 former high school players. As part of a proposed settlement of a class action brain trauma lawsuit against the National Collegiate Athletic Association, actuaries for the organization estimate that for a period covering college sports careers beginning between 1956 and 2008, approximately 50-300 former athletes per year will be diagnosed with the disease.
Questions about CTE remain, and more research is needed about how common the disease is—and how, exactly, it works. "We still don't know why these particular athletes were susceptible," says McKee, who says that her brain bank's findings constitute a small but statistically significant sample size. "Were they exposed more? Was there another risk factor we don't understand yet? We do know that it's happening at an unacceptably high percentage. At least to me. To me, it's only acceptable at zero percent."
Researchers also know this: CTE has never been found in a person who did not have a history of brain trauma.
"People have accused me of violating the Hippocratic oath by talking about this publicly," McKee says. "They've said that by talking about this disease, we're scaring people to death and encouraging suicide. But you don't not talk about mesothelioma [an aggressive lung cancer] if you're exposed to asbestos." Football, she says, is a CTE risk, and "people should know the risk."
McKee has spent her life studying brain diseases like Alzheimer's and CTE, cruel afflictions that slowly rob sufferers of their very selves. She has examined thousands of brains, more than a hundred from former football players. She has delivered CTE test results to dozens of heartsick families. The calls never get easier, and Zack's death struck her particularly hard. McKee found herself Googling Zack's name, coming across a video his sister Emma had posted to YouTube, footage of Zack goofing around with a hula hoop in a department store. She found herself looking at his autopsy photo. "Here's this beautiful, young, healthy guy with a tiny little hole in his chest," McKee says. "He was 26. That's the thing. You see it and think, 'how can this happen?'
"I could say I'm used to it, but it always blows me away. It's like, 'Oh my God, not again."
Zack Langston runs past the opposing linebackers, past the safeties, runs so far and so fast that he has to turn around and wait for the airborne football to catch up. This happens more than once. Marc smiles. He's sitting in his home office, watching Zack's high school highlight reel. Marc painstakingly put it together himself, calling up local television stations for game footage, staying up late for weeks, splicing in music like The Gap Band's You Dropped a Bomb On Me for dramatic effect.
"I haven't watched this since he died," Marc says. "I'm proud of him. He was good."
Marc played football for 13 years. He was a good prep player himself, but never had Zack's size or speed, never was recruited by big-time college programs. He became his son's biggest fan. He went to every game, almost every youth and high school practice, snapped pictures from the sidelines with a professional-quality camera—complete with a foot-long lens that made sideline security mistake him for a working photographer. He turned the family's basement into something of a shrine to Zack and Ben, the walls covered with game posters, football jerseys, and Zack's Pittsburg State acceptance letter.
Downstairs, Zack's college football helmet rests on a fireplace mantle, next to a childhood photo of him and his brothers. The helmet is bright red, with a battered white face mask, and the forehead area is crisscrossed with deep gouges. "Quite frankly, it's hard for me to look at it," says Shaun. Shaun's nine-year-old son, Eric, wants to play tackle football. Before, Shaun had been looking forward to that, but now he says no. In December, Omalu published an op-ed in the New York Times arguing that children should not be allowed to play football until they reach a legal age of consent, the same way children are not permitted to smoke or drink alcohol; a few weeks earlier, two University of Minnesota physicians co-authored an article in the American Journal of Bioethics arguing that public schools should drop the sport, in part because "the brain is an irreplaceable organ."
Nick Rudolph played high school football with Zack and Ben, took the hardest hit of his life when Zack clobbered him after an opposing quarterback ducked out of the way. He remains a close family friend. Like the Langston brothers, he also played in college. So did his father, Kelly, who coached Nick and Ben in youth football between fourth and seventh grades. "Football gave us our work ethic," Nick says. "Gave us our friends. It gave me a college education, and that's where I met my wife. Do I love the sport? Absolutely. Do I love [Kansas City] Chiefs games? Yeah. Do I love the big hits? Yeah. But football took away something. You can't deny the facts."
One day last September, Nick and his father were working out.
"Golf," Kelly said.
"What, Dad?" Nick said.
"Golf," Kelly said. "You can work out like a madman, you can be competitive, you can play all you want and you won't have head or knee issues in 50 years. Your son is going to play golf."
"If we would have all played golf," Nick says now, "we would all still be here."
The pain of losing a son, Marc says, is like swimming in the ocean during a storm. You fight really hard to keep your head up, but the waves keep pushing you down. When they can, the Langstons mourn together: everyone will be home for a long weekend, or the holidays, or to celebrate Ben's engagement, hanging out in the kitchen and eating cookies. Then Marc will tear up, and Emma will give him a big hug, and pretty soon family and friends will crowd around the living room couch, sitting on the floor or in each other's arms, telling stories about Zack.
In other ways, grief is lonely. Marc used to love spending his Saturdays in the kitchen, cooking and enjoying a glass of wine, watching college football. No longer. As Zack's confusion and depression spiraled downward, Marc would take his son to yoga. He would meet with Zack a few times a day, get coffee at Panera Bread, take him for car rides, talk about life, help him calm down. Marc puzzles over CTE, and also over Lexapro. Did the drug push his son over the edge? Each and every day, Marc wonders if could have done more. So does Nicki. She never wanted to let Zack play football in the first place, and not because of potential brain injury—she was afraid her son would break his neck. "Everyone says, 'you didn't know [about CTE],'" she says. "But I still feel it. I don't know how this disease is so new. They knew about it with boxers. It's not rocket science. How would they have not figured it out sooner?"
Danae lost the man she planned to marry. Drake's dad. She cries, she says, all the time. Morgan keeps a pair of Zack's red football shorts in a plastic baggie—they still smell like him. Shaun was just starting to bond with Zack over grown-up things like fatherhood. He feels cheated. Emma has a tattoo of Zack's initials on her arm, embellished with angel wings. She sleeps with a high school team pillow he gave her for her 11th birthday. The face of the pillow reads I love you. Zack wrote it on there. "It hasn't ever gotten easier," Emma says. "But you wake up in the morning and it's not the first thing on your mind and it's not the last thing on your mind before you go to bed."
During the family's Thanksgiving dinner, Marc talked about Zack, expressed thanks that everyone was starting to move forward. He began to tear up. Drake was sitting next to him.
Why are you crying?
I'm just happy.
Are you crying because of my daddy?
Ben tries to stay positive, for himself and for his family. But sometimes, when he's alone, he tears up. He remembers how people used to think he and Zack were twins; how they shared a bedroom until Zack was in fifth grade; and how after that, they would still sleep in each other's rooms. Lately, Ben has been thinking about his own brain. He suffered from anxiety in college. He now catches his mind wandering. He never played linebacker like Zack, never kamikazed into a half-dozen opponents as a special teams wedge-buster. But he hit hard, and played roughly the same amount of football as his brother. Why him? Ben will wonder. And why not me?
Next to Ben's bed is a photograph. Him and Zack, hugging after a high school football game. Blue Valley Northwest was facing undefeated Blue Valley, a team that went to win the state championship. During the game's opening drive, star Blue Valley quarterback Zach Rampy rolled out to Zack and Ben's side of the field—Zack rushing the edge, Ben playing cornerback right behind him. Zack grabbed Rampy's jersey, slowing him down. Ben torpedoed Rampy at full speed, helmet-to-helmet, forcing and recovering a fumble. Rampy suffered a concussion. Ben says he "probably" suffered a concussion. Blue Valley Northwest won the game, and concussions later forced Rampy to retire after a single year of college football.
As their teammates celebrated Rampy's fumble, Zack showered Ben with praise, going on and on about how punishing the blow was. "There's such an intense feeling of pride," Ben says. "It was amazing. There is no better feeling than delivering a big hit. But now? I feel bad. I gave detriment to the rest of his football career. Did I also give detriment to his mental state?"
During high school practices, Ben says, Zack hit so hard that his own teammates were afraid to block him. So Ben would volunteer. He feels badly about that, too.
"Was I contributing to my brother's CTE?" he says.
Three weeks before Zack Langston shot himself in the heart, he was released from the inpatient facility. Morgan picked him up. She asked him how he felt.
Better. But I still feel suicidal. I won't do it. But I still feel like a burden to everybody.
"But he had a plan," Morgan says, referring to the facility's instructions for Zack, a list of life stressors and how to cope with them. "We were hopefully going to see it through."
Morgan has a favorite video of Zack. It's the same video McKee saw, footage that Emma added to the end of a tribute reel for her brother's memorial service. Zack and Morgan are shopping at Wal-Mart. As they browse the aisles, Zack comes across a hula hoop. He drops it over his waist, swivels his hips. He looks tired. The hoop falls to the ground. Zack grins, and Morgan giggles. He tries again, and this time the hoop stays aloft. Zack points to the camera with both fingers, hamming it up. You can see him trying to fix himself, trying to find the person he once was.
"He just wanted answers," Morgan says. "'I am a normal person. Why are these things happening to me?' That is what raced in his mind."
In retrospect, Morgan believes, Zack had a plan of his own. One he never wrote down in a notebook.
"He was looking into football," she says. "He told me he wanted his brain to be donated and tested. I think that was his last checkmark, like, 'this is what is wrong, but the only way you will find out is when I'm gone.'"
Morgan shot the hula hoop video on her phone, the night before Zack checked in. When he checked out, it was Super Bowl Sunday. Morgan drove Zack to her apartment, and they watched the game.