The American football star, now in his 50s, suffers from dementia and suspected chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
Other lifelong football memories remain vivid: winning two NCAA trophies with Clemson, sitting next to track and field star Florence Griffith Joyner on the flight to the Seoul Summer Olympics in 1988 and be inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame.
In recent years, however, Murray has forgotten to turn off his car’s ignition before entering his Potomac home. He must have remembered that his two young children were in the back seat.
A light drinker, he went on benders. He checked into a hotel for no apparent reason.
He lost his balance while running along the C&O Canal, falling into a tree and rolling in the water.
At 56, Murray is among former athletes at risk of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disease found in people with a history of repetitive brain injury.
CTE cannot be diagnosed until death, when brain tissue is analyzed. Robert Stern, a doctor who assessed Murray’s test results, said the former striker and midfielder suffered from “mild dementia”, which is unusual for someone his age.
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Stern, director of clinical research at Boston University’s CTE Center, also said Murray’s “cognitive impairments and behavioral difficulties” are consistent with what is seen in patients diagnosed with CTE after death. .
Murray is involved with the Concussion Legacy Foundation, a Boston nonprofit that funds and supports brain injury research and has elevated CTE into the sports conversation. Since its launch in 2007, more than 1,000 people have pledged to donate their brains to research. Murray and his wife, Lynn, who never suffered a brain injury, are among them.
“We don’t know what the timeline is,” Murray said, “and how quickly it’s going to accelerate.”
Medicines and information have improved quality of life, but the great unknown remains.
“We’ve come a long way,” Lynn Murray said, fighting back tears. “Things are much better now, but we just don’t know.”
They decided to tell their story to raise awareness about brain injury. They also want to warn of the possible dangers of heading the ball, which Murray says contributed to his condition.
During his professional career – which spanned from 1988 to 1995 and included 85 appearances with the national team – Murray said he was diagnosed with at least four concussions. Back then, however, head injuries of all kinds were not taken as seriously as they are now. If those lesser moves – with the ball and with opponents – had happened today, he believes he would have been sidelined multiple times.
“As a parent, if I knew someone like me who had made a ton of heads and is now going through this, maybe there is cause and effect here,” he said, pointing out the impact headers could have on young players.
“Developing brains,” he added, “have no business directing the ball.”
The Murrays have shared their story with The Washington Post as more information about brain damage in football has come to light.
Last week, the Concussion Legacy Foundation and the family of Scott Vermillion – a former University of Virginia defender who ended a four-year professional career in 2001 with DC United – announced he had a CTE at his death in December 2020 from acute alcoholism and prescription drugs. poisoning. He was 44 years old.
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In his late 20s, Vermillion began to struggle with issues with impulse control, aggression, depression and anxiety, the foundation said. Later, he says, he struggled with drug addiction and memory loss.
This is the first documented case of CTE in MLS, but former overseas soccer players have also had CTE.
“As more information and more tools to study this came out, we knew football around the world was going to have a role in this conversation,” said former MLS star Taylor Twellman, whose career ended in concussions and launched a foundation focused on head injuries.
“It’s only going to get bigger,” the ESPN analyst said, “because we have more information than 20 years ago.”
“I just strolled”
Murray was one of the greatest players to come from the football-rich Washington area. In the early 1980s he played at Churchill High in Potomac and won two national club championships.
At Clemson, he won NCAA titles as a rookie and senior, and in the past year he received the most prestigious award in college play, the Hermann Trophy.
Between the NASL’s extinction in 1985 and the launch of MLS in 1996, Murray played for the Washington Stars and Maryland Bays in the American Budget Football League. His overseas career was marked by stints at Luzern in Switzerland, Millwall and Stockport County in England and Ayr United in Scotland.
He also made it to the national team. A year after competing in the 1988 Olympics in South Korea, a core group that also included John Harkes, Tab Ramos and Paul Caligiuri helped end a 40-year World Cup drought in the United States by qualifying for the 1990 tournament. In the group stage, Murray scored in a 2–1 loss to Austria.
Head injuries, however, began to mount. The worst episode came in 1993 during a friendly match in Saudi Arabia when, in the first minute, a defender’s knee crashed into his head.
The next thing he remembered was that he was in Los Angeles being checked out by the team doctor. “Everything in between was gone,” Murray said. A month later, he was back on the field.
That summer he joined Millwall in England’s tough second flight. Another concussion left him in a fog.
“I remember going to the store and I didn’t know why I was there,” he said. “I just walked around.”
He said he remembered this episode six years ago when he read that DC United’s Chris Rolfe went through the same thing while suffering from a brain injury.
Despite being ‘nutted’ again at Millwall, Murray said he had accepted a starting assignment the next game.
“I thought, ‘I don’t even know who I am right now,’ but I couldn’t give up my spot,” Murray said. At half-time, he was substituted because he “wasn’t well”. He didn’t play for months.
Five years earlier, when he was playing in Switzerland, players were punished by having to kick balls for two hours, he said.
The combination of injuries and roster changes ended his national team career ahead of the 1994 World Cup in the United States. At the time, he was the program’s all-time leading scorer with 21 goals.
“Everything becomes overwhelming”
Since retiring in 1995, Murray has remained involved in football as a manager and, for a time, United television commentator. He started a football academy, which operates in Bretton Woods, and coaches a semi-professional team, Rockville SC.
“Interestingly, with football, he’s doing well” managing his condition, Lynn said.
But Murray conceded: “I can call it a good game, but everything is getting overwhelming. I can do everything in my head, but now I really have to attack something slowly.
Physically, he added: “I don’t have that muscle memory of where I need to go with the next step.”
Lynn, married to Bruce for 10 years, always knew her husband had memory problems. She became alarmed when he started drinking heavily, which was “out of place for him”, she said. “He could go a year without a sip.”
“A situation where he’s faced with a problem, maybe an emotional problem,” she added, “and then he feels like he can’t process it.”
Anger issues have also surfaced – common in people with dementia and suspected CTE.
“It was like he was a different person,” Lynn said. “Those were dark times.”
Bruce chimed in, “It’s like the Incredible Hulk. I have to strangle him.
It took a few years to find people who understood what they were going through. Lynn met Brandi Winans and Lisa McHale, whose husbands, former NFL players, died after suffering from neurological problems. Lisa McHale is CLF’s Director of Legacy Family Relations.
“That’s when I realized someone knew what I was talking about – finally,” Lynn said.
“If I hadn’t had a lawyer to defend me,” Bruce said, “I never would have found the right people.”
Consultations and MRI scans followed. The result was “the worst case scenario,” Lynn said. “It’s like we know that, but that was the answer we were looking for.”
Says Bruce, “But now there are more questions.”
As they navigate their lives with Bruce’s brain damage, the Murrays are passionate about educating parents about the dangers of running the ball.
A 2016 British study suggested that routine bullet head can damage brain structure and function. That same year, the U.S. Soccer Federation banned headers for children 10 and under in organized competition and limited the number of headers to 11, 12, and 13 year olds in practice.
Britain introduced similar guidelines in 2020 following a study which showed former professional players were at greater risk of dying from brain disease.
Murray hopes sharing his experience will help others.
“Thanks to the measures we are taking, we have come out of it well,” he said. “But we don’t know where this will take us.”