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Phillip Adams had severe CTE at the time of shootings


Phillip Adams, a former journeyman N.F.L. defensive back, was posthumously found to have stage 2 C.T.E. after his brain was examined at Boston University.

By Jonathan Abrams


The posthumous brain examination of Phillip Adams, a 32-year-old retired journeyman NFL player who shot and killed six people in April, revealed that he had an “unusually severe” form of CTE, a degenerative brain disease found in athletes and others with a history of repeated hits to the head.


Dr. Ann McKee, director of the CTE Center at Boston University, said an examination of Adams’ brain showed Stage 2 chronic traumatic encephalopathy, an abnormally severe diagnosis for a person in his 30s. McKee added that Adams’ pathology, where significant density was found in both frontal lobes, most nearly resembled that of Aaron Hernandez, a former New England Patriots tight end who was 27 when he died by suicide after being convicted of a 2013 murder.


Adams killed six people in Rock Hill, South Carolina, his hometown, before barricading himself in his family home and fatally shooting himself. The victims included Robert Lesslie, a prominent local physician; his wife, Barbara; and two of their grandchildren, Adah, 9, and Noah, 5. Adams also killed two air-conditioning technicians, James Lewis and Robert Shook, whom he confronted at the Lesslies’ house.


The police in York County, South Carolina, said Tuesday that their investigation had not yielded any connection between Adams and the Lesslies, and there was no documentation showing that Adams was the doctor’s patient.


Attorneys representing Shook’s family requested the findings of the CTE examination as part of a wrongful-death suit against Adams’ estate filed in July. A hearing in the case is set for Jan. 4.


CTE is believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head and can be diagnosed only after death. The degenerative brain disease is linked to alarming symptoms like personality changes, memory loss and impulsive outbursts that may become more pronounced over time.

In a news conference Tuesday, McKee said the presence of CTE, along with social factors, may have contributed to Adams’ behavior.


“Severe frontal lobe pathology might have contributed to Adams’ behavioral abnormalities, in addition to physical, psychiatric and psychosocial factors,” she said. “Theoretically, the combination of poor impulse control, paranoia, poor decision-making, emotional volatility, rage and violent tendencies caused by frontal lobe damage could converge to lower an individual’s threshold for homicidal acts — yet such behaviors are usually multifactorial.”


Adams, a defensive back, was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in the seventh round of the NFL draft in 2010. He bounced around, playing for the New England Patriots, the Seattle Seahawks, the Oakland Raiders, the New York Jets and the Atlanta Falcons before his career ended in 2015.


Adams found it difficult to confront the end of his playing days, those close to him said after the mass shooting. Coming from a town of 65,000 that had produced so many football players it is nicknamed Football City USA, Adams struggled to stay in the league. His last-ditch chance to make an NFL team fizzled.


His behavior had been increasingly erratic before the shooting, according to the friends and associates who knew him best. He remained close to home, caring for his mother, Phyllis, a former high school teacher who became a paraplegic after a car accident a decade ago.


“We cannot say that we are surprised by these results, however, it is shocking to hear how severe his condition was,” the Adams family said in a statement. “After going through medical records from his football career, we do know that he was desperately seeking help from the NFL but was denied all claims due to his inability to remember things and to handle seemingly simple tasks such as traveling hours away to see doctors and going through extensive evaluations.”


Adams’ family agreed to send his brain to be tested for CTE at Boston University, a leading site for research on the disease. According to McKee, more than 315 former NFL players have been posthumously diagnosed with CTE, including 24 players who died in their 20s and 30s. Most of the younger cohort had Stage 2.


While the results of Adams’ examination answered some questions, others are likely to remain unexplained.

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