Scott Vermillion’s relations still struggle to articulate the jumble of emotions they felt last November once they received the phone call from the doctors.
Vermillion, a former M.L.S. player, had died almost a 12 months earlier, on Christmas Day in 2020, at age 44. The direct cause was acute alcohol and prescription drug poisoning, his family said, a dour coda to a troubled life: A highschool and college all-American who played 4 seasons in M.L.S., Vermillion had spent the last decade of his life withdrawing from his family as he struggled with substance abuse and progressively erratic behavior.
Late last 12 months, doctors at Boston University offered one other explanation: After examining Vermillion’s brain, the B.U. experts told his family that he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., a degenerative brain disease linked to symptoms like memory loss, depression and aggressive or impulsive behavior.
The diagnosis gave Vermillion the grave distinction of being the primary American skilled soccer player with a public case of C.T.E. It was a solemn milestone, too, for M.L.S., a league that has, even in its young history, seen the results of the sort of brain injuries more commonly related to collision sports like football, boxing and hockey.
“Soccer is clearly a risk for C.T.E. — not as much as football, but clearly a risk,” said Dr. Ann McKee, the director of the C.T.E. Center at Boston University.
A neuropathologist, McKee has found the disease in lots of of athletes, including Vermillion.
For Vermillion’s family, the diagnosis brought a way of clarity, nonetheless small, to a life affected by questions. It didn’t answer all the things — it simply couldn’t, provided that C.T.E. will be diagnosed only posthumously. It triggered feelings of doubt, guilt, anger, relief. However it was, in the end, something.
The specter of C.T.E. began hovering over the N.F.L. almost 20 years ago, when the primary cases of the disease were present in the brains of former skilled football players. Since then, C.T.E., which is related to repeated blows to the pinnacle, has been discovered within the brains of greater than 300 former N.F.L. players.
In soccer, though, the research and public conversation around C.T.E. and head injuries are still emerging, at the same time as the confirmed cases mount. An English striker. A Brazilian World Cup winner. An American amateur.
The previous M.L.S. players Alecko Eskandarian and Taylor Twellman have been vocal about how concussions ended their careers and affected their personal lives. Brandi Chastain, a two-time Women’s World Cup winner, publicly pledged in 2016 to donate her brain for C.T.E. research.
“Now we have to grasp the gravity of the situation,” Chastain said. “Talking about concussions in soccer just isn’t only a hot-button topic. It’s an actual thing. It needs real attention.”
Last 12 months, leagues and tournaments world wide, including M.L.S., began experimenting with so-called concussion substitutes, which grant teams additional substitutions to cope with players with potential brain injuries. M.L.S. has joined another sports leagues in implementing quite a lot of other protocols, including the usage of independent specialists and spotters to evaluate potential concussions during games.
“M.L.S. has comprehensive policies to coach players, coaches, officials and medical staffs in regards to the importance of head injury identification, early reporting, and treatment,” Dr. Margot Putukian, the league’s chief medical officer, said in a press release. “There may be all the time more progress to be made, and M.L.S. is staunchly committed to this necessary work.”
The main focus, though, just isn’t only on treating concussions. In a growing effort to forestall head impacts of every kind, players at every level are seeing more guidelines aimed toward limiting headers.
Head Injuries and C.T.E. in Sports
The everlasting damage brought on by brain injuries to athletes can have devastating effects.
A study in 2019 by researchers in Glasgow showed former skilled soccer players were three and a half times more likely than members of the final population to die from neurodegenerative disease (and fewer prone to die of heart disease and a few cancers). Vermillion’s story, then, becomes the newest in a recent string of cautionary tales.
“C.T.E. had never even crossed our minds,” said Cami Jones, who was married to Vermillion from 1999 to 2004.
Vermillion began playing soccer in Olathe, Kan., when he was 5 years old. He loved the incessant movement of the sport, the swashbuckling motion, relations said. His coaches in elementary school, within the interest of sportsmanship, often kept him on the bench for long stretches because he would rating too many goals, said his father, David Vermillion.
His talent eventually earned him places on elite regional club teams and U.S. youth national teams as a teen. It took him to the University of Virginia, where he was a third-team all-American in his junior 12 months. It carried him to M.L.S., where he joined his local club, the Kansas City Wizards, now generally known as Sporting Kansas City, in 1998 at age 21.
But Vermillion, a scrappy defender, never fully blossomed as a professional. He moved on to 2 other clubs before a nagging ankle injury forced his early retirement after the 2001 season. His profession earnings within the fledgling league were meager; his father recalled his son’s salary being around $40,000 a 12 months when he left the sport.
“It was a giant blow,” David Vermillion said. “He spent all of his life climbing that hill, moving up, making himself a very good player, and to abruptly have it end was tough.”
Scott Vermillion tried to seek out some footing in his life after soccer. He managed a family store. He coached local youth teams. He pursued a nursing degree. But his relationships were slowly unraveling.
Though Vermillion’s behavior would grow most concerning in the last decade before his death, Jones said she noticed changes in him even before his profession was over: He was often lethargic, which struck her as odd for an expert athlete, and incessantly complained of headaches.
“After I met Scott, he was a vibrant, outgoing pro athlete, super fun, a jokester,” said Jones, who divorced Vermillion in 2004, three years after his profession ended, when their children were 1 and three. “I watched him change really rapidly, and it was scary.”
Over the subsequent decade, Vermillion continued to withdraw from his family. His drinking became extreme and his behavior more erratic, relations said. He married a second time, but that union lasted only a couple of 12 months. In 2018, he was arrested, accused of aggravated domestic battery after an incident with a girlfriend. He went out and in of rehabilitation programs for alcohol and pharmaceuticals, emerging only to insist to his family that the programs didn’t help him, that he was incapable of being helped.
His daughter, Ava-Grace, got accustomed to him missing her dance recitals. His son, Braeden, now 22, was devastated when he missed his highschool graduation.
“He would promise quite a lot of things and principally just make excuses and never show up for us,” said Ava-Grace Vermillion, 20.
Dr. Stephanie Alessi-LaRosa, a sports neurologist in Hartford, Conn., cautioned against drawing causal links between posthumous C.T.E. diagnoses and patterns of behavior in an individual’s lifetime. She said research on the topic was still in its early stages, and that doctors were still trying to grasp why some athletes got C.T.E. while others didn’t.
“I even have patients who’re hesitant to get psychiatric treatment because they think they’ve C.T.E. and are doomed,” she said. “I feel it’s necessary for patients to get the assistance they need, and if their family is worried, get them to a sports neurologist.”
Alessi-LaRossa said she thought the advantages of sports outweighed the risks, but echoed the increasingly widespread concept that heading in soccer must be restricted for youth players.
In 2015, U.S. Soccer — resolving a lawsuit — announced a ban on heading in games and practices by players under 10 and created guidelines for restricting heading in practice for older players. And last 12 months, English soccer officials released guidelines for heading, recommending skilled players limit so-called “higher force headers” to 10 per week in training. (How, exactly, this must be enforced has been less clear.)
Vermillion’s mother, Phyllis Lamers, contacted the Boston laboratory about having her son’s brain examined after his death. C.T.E. has 4 stages, the ultimate stage related to dementia; Scott Vermillion was found to have Stage 2 C.T.E.
His family said they hoped coming forward along with his story, nonetheless painful it could be to relive, could help inform families in regards to the hidden risks of soccer. They said they regretted how hard they were on him, how they cut him off at times when his behavior became too difficult to handle. They agonized wondering in the event that they could have done more.
Ava-Grace Vermillion recalled texting her father on Dec. 23, 2020, his forty fourth birthday. She had not seen him in near a 12 months, she said, and as she prepared to move off to varsity in California to review dance, she said she felt compelled to interrupt the ice.
“I remember the day so specifically,” she said. “I used to be at work and just thought it was time I reach out to him. I hadn’t talked to him shortly. I sent him a text saying, ‘Hope you’re doing well.’ He called me back, and I didn’t get to reply. And he died two days later.”
Ken Belson contributed reporting.