When Dave Mirra, one of the all-time giants of extreme sports, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound earlier this year, it was clear that the man behind the legend had been struggling with mental health behind the scenes, and speculation about the underlying causes of that mental illness ran rampant. Now, a large puzzle piece has fallen into place thanks to Mirra’s wife Lauren’s announcement that his brain was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.
Mirra’s brain underwent the same postmortem autopsy that several NFL players’ bodies were subjected to, and researchers told ESPN they found no difference between his brain and one ravaged by the NFL’s continuous trauma. Mirra suffered numerous concussions during his BMX biking career, and Lauren admitted to ESPN, “I was used to them and used to hearing about them and probably didn’t take them seriously.”
Mirra is the first extreme sports athlete to ever have been diagnosed with CTE, but was hardly the only one to suffer repeated head trauma. If extreme sports has an awareness problem regarding traumatic brain injury, this account of Mirra near the end of his life should help his admirers and followers take it more seriously. Be forewarned, the following passages will be upsetting.
When did you first notice his behavior change?
He was always a really intense person. His intensity just started to increase. For sure last summer, I started to notice changes in his mood. And then it quickly started to get worse. The last couple months before he died were really intense, and then, of course, the last couple weeks were hard. We didn’t know what we were dealing with.
Was he experiencing other symptoms?
Fatigue, definitely, both physically and emotionally. And forgetfulness, moodiness. He would repeat conversations and topics to the point where it was obvious to the person he was talking to but not to him. He would dwell on a subject and not want to move on from it.
Was there a specific instance when the change in his behavior began to worry you?
I remember seeing him sitting on our bed one day, in the last month of his life. I had just gotten out of the shower and saw him hunched over with the blankest lost look. I sat down next to him and held his hand. I said, “What is wrong? Are you OK?” And he just shrugged his shoulders. He couldn’t even speak. He didn’t know. He couldn’t put it into words. He was lost. He was helpless. It was completely different from who he was.
Lauren says she is devoted to getting the message out regarding the dangers of improperly-treated concussions, and to finding a way to diagnose CTE in living patients. For the sake of athletes who might be suffering in silence like Dave Mirra was, we hope she succeeds.