Adrian Robinson Is Watching Football Again After CTE Killed His Son

NFL journeyman Adrian Robinson, Jr., committed suicide at 25. He was diagnosed with CTE. Now his father has to grapple with football.

by Jacqueline Kantor
Jan 22 2016, 3:21pm

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Adrian "AD" Robinson once threw parties for Washington Redskins-Dallas Cowboys games every year, but he hasn't watched a full professional football game in 11 months. These days, rather than turning on the NFL after church on Sunday afternoons, he plays board games and seeks out calming, spiritual movies. He keeps abreast of scores, but cannot stomach a full Monday Night Football broadcast. It's just too difficult.

Eight months have passed since Robinson and his ex-wife Terri got a call telling them that their eldest son, Adrian, Jr., who had recently signed with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, of the Canadian Football League, was found hanging in his apartment in Philadelphia. He was 25 years old.

Adrian left behind no note and, as far as his father knows, sought no psychiatric help for depression or mental illness prior to his death. Four days before a friend discovered his body, he tweeted, "summer and the laughter of my daughter make me believe in God." He was an outgoing, fashionable guy who posted photos of himself in mirrored sunglasses and a fedora, holding his one-year-old daughter against his shoulder. In the years before his suicide, he had become more volatile and moody, but he had seemed genuinely excited to head north for another shot at pro football. His suicide was unfathomable to those close to him.

Read More: How Football Pulled the Trigger

A posthumous diagnosis of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in October from the Concussion Legacy Foundation (CLF) at Boston University helped explain the changes in Adrian's mood over the past three years, and his eventual death. Adrian suffered two reported concussions after signing with the Pittsburgh Steelers as an undrafted free agent in 2012, and had taken many more hits to the head before that during his college and high school career. That sort of repetitive brain trauma has been linked to CTE, a progressive, degenerative disease of the brain that is marked by memory loss, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, and depression, among other symptoms.

Adrian's family and friends had chalked up his moodiness and volatility to the stress of playing at the highest level, and bouncing around various teams—from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, then Denver, San Diego, Washington, and finally Tampa Bay.

"He was just so aggressive about things, and he was so adamant," the elder Robinson said. "He was so mannerable before ... and now he was getting into altercations, getting into fights. I told him, 'Dude, you need to calm down.'

"The fact that he was so aggressive on the field, I loved that. But when it spilled over into his life, I didn't love that as much."

Adrian Robinson and Adrian Robinson, Jr. Courtesy Adrian Robinson

Robinson had always assumed that football hardened his son, just in a more superficial way. Adrian was 6-foot-1, 250 pounds, and athletically gifted, but he had gone undrafted after being selected to the first team All-MAC for three years as a defensive end at Temple University.

Adrian played in 12 games for the Steelers, six games for the Broncos, and two for the Chargers. He knew that there was an "assembly line" of players behind him waiting for a shot, and that his position in the league was tenuous. That weighed on him, and his family knew that. But Robinson was not aware that football could impact his son so significantly, in such an undetectable way.

Now Robinson didn't know what to think. He knew how to be a father, and he knew how to be a football fan; those two roles had been intertwined in his life for decades, until suddenly, he lost parts of both, all at once. With Adrian's CTE diagnosis, Robinson became part of a much smaller club: the survivors of those whose lives were wrecked by football. Meanwhile, his younger son, Averee, was still playing defensive line at Temple.

Adrian started playing football when he was about seven years old. He was a lively kid, the type to show up at his father's annual Redskins-Cowboys party with four friends and a skit prepared to mock his dad's rooting interest. At Harrisburg High, he was known as much for his friendly personality as his football and wrestling skills. He chose Temple over offers from Pittsburgh and Michigan. Averee, now a junior, followed him to Philadelphia.

Adrian had an exceptional work ethic, his father said. As a freshman with the Owls, he once snapped back at a senior who complained about doing sprints. He made it clear early on that he intended to take a leadership role on the team.

Certain conversations and stories stick with Robinson more than others. He remembers Adrian saying he had been unconscious after suffering a concussion with Pittsburgh in 2012. In 2014, Adrian told his father that an assistant coach with Washington urged him to "toughen up" after a concussion had kept him off the field for almost two weeks.

Father and son. Courtesy Adrian Robinson.

Adrian and his father last spoke face-to-face about two weeks before his death. Adrian was giddy about heading up to Canada, and he seemed in better spirits than he had been in years.

"He really in his mind thought, I'm gonna go up there and kill this league," Robinson said. "And you really believed he would." He also told his father that day that "football was a blessing and a curse," and in retrospect, Robinson wonders, what did he really mean by that?

Robinson's voice softens when he talks about May 16, 2015. He can't find the right words.

Robinson and Terri got the news on a Saturday night, and immediately got into the car to make the drive east on the interstate. As they passed from the outer suburbs of Harrisburg, through the farmland of central Pennsylvania and onwards to Philadelphia, Robinson was already thinking about the autopsy. Maybe there was foul play involved. That would have been unexpected, but anything seemed more likely than suicide. In retrospect, Adrian's mood changes had certainly been noticeable. Still, he never seemed like the type to take his own life.

Robinson and Terri reached Hahnemann Hospital by midnight, where they expressed their concerns to the doctors, given Adrian's occupation and the suddenness of his death. They were both insistent: they needed an autopsy, and they wanted someone to look at their son's brain. The medical staff in Philadelphia agreed to reach out to researchers in Boston. By 11 AM the next day, medical staff contacted the CLF and began the intake process. Arrangements were made to send Adrian's brain to Boston. A pathology team began blinded research on the brain as a clinical team compiled medical records and interviewed family and friends.

In September, PBS's Frontline reported that the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University had found CTE in 87 of 91 deceased former NFL players tested. At the beginning of its work, the CLF found many of its Legacy Donors by reaching out to the surviving family members of players with unexpected or early deaths.

By 2015, approximately 74 percent of cases studied originated like Adrian's, with the family contacting the organization to request an autopsy. More awareness has translated to more donors and, in turn, more diagnoses. The difficulty of fully grasping of CTE's reach lies in how few test subjects there are. That Frontline report also announced that 131 of 165 former football players tested at all levels were found to have CTE.

In the end, the family and friends of players who suffer from CTE are also victims of the disease, and the experience can be isolating. Robinson's friends, for example, will still ask him if he saw a certain play or game; he has to remind them that he isn't watching the NFL.

Robinson at Temple. Photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports.

"I was a fan, but I wasn't fanatic, but it's so embedded in our culture and now I'm on the other side," he said. "They forget that, that sometimes I'm not as in tune with that anymore."

Robinson has had people approach him and compare a football player taking the field to a soldier joining the service, both of whom know the hazards of the profession. Robinson hates that analogy.

"It's so disrespectful," he said. "For someone to say, when someone gets killed, 'He knew what he was getting into?'"

In April 2014, the CLF held its first family huddle in D.C., where families of Legacy Donors gathered for presentations and discussion. The next huddle will take place in Boston this spring. Lisa McHale, the CLF's director of family relations, believes the huddles can be a meaningful and rewarding experience for both families. McHale's husband, Tom, a former NFL defensive lineman, was diagnosed with CTE after his death. She finds a sense of comfort in knowing how her husband's brain has helped advance the study of CTE in the past eight years. She draws strength from speaking with people like the Robinsons, and from walking them through a struggle she knows intimately.

"I think in all of us, there's a sense of comfort, regardless of the diagnosis, as every one of the donations is important to the research," she said. "It doesn't bring our loved ones back, but it's nice to know they helped."

There is no one common reaction to a CTE diagnosis. Sometimes there is relief and understanding. Other times there is disappointment, particularly if a donor took his own life or overdosed, and no better explanation can be found.

"Some people who saw symptoms are relieved to find the disease, and to know the disease that may have contributed to the problems that an individual had," said CLF co-founder and director Chris Nowinski. "It helps them appreciate that they weren't dealing with someone who didn't love them less. Fathers can become abusive—it helps children appreciate that at 60, a father was not the same man he was at 40."

Robinson compared it to finding a missing puzzle piece to the mystery surrounding his son's death. It gave them more understanding and solace, but it couldn't do anything about the pain.

"I think it was so hard, once we got that CTE diagnosis, it softened the blow a little bit," he said. "Imagine you have this excruciating toothache, to the point that you cannot handle the pain. And then the diagnosis is like, take this pill, kill some of the pain.

"It's still extremely hard."

There is no set way to deal with this type of grief; besides the Family Advisory Board, there are very few places that help families get through the pain.

Terri is far on the "other side," as Robinson calls it. She's done with football, and Robinson said she will likely try and urge Averee, who has one season left with the Owls, to step away from the sport. She refused interviews for more than six months after Adrian's death.

Robinson has turned to his faith. He continues to attend church, and puts his trust in something bigger. He tells strangers to "have a blessed day" at the end of conversations. There has to be a reason for his son's death, he rationalizes. For now, he believes it's helped bring awareness to the disease.

"I still think God is working behind the scenes in all this to bring out a bigger change," he said. "I just have to be obedient and watch everything and see how God wants to use me."

The commemorative pin made for Adrian's funeral. Courtesy Adrian Robinson

After Adrian's death, Robinson tried to watch episodes of Adventure Time, his son's favorite show. He speaks out loud to his son at least once a day, and carries a button that the family made for the funeral with him at all times. It reads "Rest In Peace" above a design similar to the Temple "T," and has Adrian's full name and the dates of birth and death on the top and bottom, with his number, 43, and initials running horizontally. In the center is a photo of Adrian in a game against Connecticut. When Robinson misses his son, he pulls out the button and kisses it.

"I love football, I love the sport and everything with it, but I just know for certain individuals, under certain situations, it can be extremely dangerous," Robinson said. "It was dangerous for my son."

Recently, Robinson saw Concussion, and said it felt like watching the film about a book he had just finished.

"It was like, it just confirmed what I had been reading, it brought it to life," he said. "To see it, to put a face to it—it made it live in my heart."

He doesn't know how his relationship with football will evolve after Averee leaves the Owls and decides on his next step. Robinson is concerned for his youngest son's health, but recognizes that Averee will make the final decision about whether or not to go pro. Averee played the 2015 season wearing his brother's old number; he made eight starts and played in all 14 games in the Owls' 10-4 season. Both parents attended every home game at Lincoln Financial Field—the one exception to Robinson's football blackout this year.

Robinson has spoken to college students about CTE, but he is wary of having Averee talk to anyone about it while he is still a college student. He wants his son to focus on school and on his upcoming season. Robinson will likely be in the stands for all of Averee's games next season, too.

For now, despite the association with his eldest son's death, watching Averee play serves as a kind of therapy, Robinson said. For four quarters, once a week, he goes back to what he was for so many years before the biggest loss of his life: a father and a football fan.

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