Bruce Murray deals with mild dementia, suspects CTE


The US soccer star, now 50, is dealing with dementia and suspected chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

Bruce Murray is among the former athletes likely to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.  (Eric Lee for The Washington Post)
Bruce Murray is among the former athletes likely to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. (Eric Lee for The Washington Post)
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Bruce Murray remembers every micro detail of the 1990 World Cup: scoring one goal, assisting another and, with a group of former college stars leading the US national team, helping scare Italy.


He remembers learning the game on the courses at the Bretton Woods Recreation Center in Germantown, where his father, Gordon, was a professional golfer.

Other memories of a lifetime in soccer remain vivid: winning two NCAA trophies with Clemson, sitting next to track star Florence Griffith Joyner on the flight to the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics, and being named to the National Soccer Hall of Fame.

However, in recent years, Murray has forgotten to turn off his car engine before entering his Potomac home. He has had to remind himself that his two young children were in the back seat.

A light drinker, he’s gone on a spree. He has checked into a hotel for no apparent reason.

He lost his balance while running through the C&O Canal, hit a tree and rolled into the water.

At 56, Murray is among former athletes likely to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disease found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma.

CTE cannot be diagnosed until death, when brain tissue is analyzed. Robert Stern, a doctor who evaluated Murray’s test results, said the former striker and midfielder has “mild dementia,” which is unusual for someone his age.

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Stern, director of clinical research at the Boston University CTE Center, also said Murray’s “cognitive decline and behavioral difficulties” were in line with what is seen in patients diagnosed with CTE after surgery. death.

Murray is involved with the Concussion Legacy Foundation, a Boston nonprofit organization that funds and supports brain injury research and has elevated CTE into sports conversation. Since its launch in 2007, more than 1,000 people have pledged to donate their brains for research. Murray and his wife, Lynn, who has never had a brain injury, are among them.

“We don’t know what the timeline is,” Murray said, “and how quickly this is going to accelerate.”

Medication and information have improved quality of life, but the great unknown remains.

“We’ve come a long way,” said Lynn Murray, fighting back tears. “Things are much better now, but we just don’t know.”

They have decided to tell their story to raise awareness about brain injuries. They also want to warn of the potential dangers of heading the ball, something Murray believes contributed to his condition.

During his professional career, which spanned from 1988 to 1995 and included 85 appearances for the national team, Murray said he was diagnosed with at least four concussions. In those days, however, head injuries of all kinds were not taken as seriously as they are now. If those minor hits, with the ball and with opponents, had happened today, he believes he would have been left out many more times.

“As a parent, if you knew someone like me who has done a lot of heading and is now going through this, maybe there is cause and effect here,” he said, emphasizing the impact heading could have on young players.

“Developing brains,” he added, “don’t have to head the ball.”

The Murrays shared their story with The Washington Post when additional information about brain injuries in football came to light.

Last week, the Concussion Legacy Foundation and the family of Scott Vermillion, a former University of Virginia defenseman who finished a four-year pro career in 2001 with DC United, announced that he had CTE when he died in December 2020 of acute alcohol and prescription drugs. poisoning. He was 44 years old.

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In her early 20s, Vermillion began dealing with issues with impulse control, aggression, depression and anxiety, the foundation said. Later, he told her, he battled substance abuse and memory loss.

His is the first documented case of CTE in MLS, but former overseas soccer players have been found to have CTE as well.

“As more information and more tools came out to study this, we knew soccer around the world was going to have a role in this conversation,” said former MLS star Taylor Twellman, whose career ended with concussions and who started a foundation focused on Head Injuries.

“It’s only going to get bigger,” the ESPN analyst said, “because we have more information than we did 20 years ago.”

‘I just wandered’

Murray was one of the best players in the football-rich area of ​​Washington. In the early 1980s, he starred at Churchill High in Potomac and won two national club championships.

At Clemson, he won NCAA titles as a freshman and senior, and in that senior year he received the most prestigious award in the college game, the Hermann Trophy.

In the gap between the NASL’s demise in 1985 and the launch of MLS in 1996, Murray played for the Washington Stars and Maryland Bays in the low-budget American Soccer League. His overseas career included spells with Luzern in Switzerland, Millwall and Stockport County in England and Ayr United in Scotland.

He was also promoted to the national team. A year after participating 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 for 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 increase. The worst episode came in 1993 during a friendly in Saudi Arabia when, in the first minute, a defender’s knee slammed into his head.

The next thing he remembered was that he was in Los Angeles being examined by the team doctor. “Everything in between was gone,” Murray said. A month later, he was back in the field.

That summer, he joined Millwall on the eventful second flight from England. Another concussion left him in the fog.

“I remember going to the store and not knowing why I was there,” he said. “I just wandered around.”

He said he remembered that episode six years ago when he read that DC United’s Chris Rolfe experienced the same thing while dealing with a brain injury.

Despite being “beaten” again at Millwall, Murray said he accepted a starting assignment for the next match.

“I was like, ‘I don’t even know who I am now,’ but I couldn’t leave my spot,” Murray said. At halftime, he was replaced because “he wasn’t right.” He did not play again for months.

Five years earlier, when he was playing in Switzerland, players were punished by heading clear balls for two hours, he said.

The combination of injuries and roster changes ended his career on the national team before the 1994 World Cup in the United States. At the time, he was the program’s all-time leading goalscorer with 21 goals.

‘Everything becomes overwhelming’

Since retiring in 1995, Murray has remained involved in football as a manager and, for a time, as a United television color commentator. He launched a soccer academy, which operates out of Bretton Woods, and coaches a semi-pro team, Rockville SC.

“Interestingly, he’s doing well with soccer” managing his condition, Lynn said.

But Murray admitted: “I can talk a good game, but it all gets 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, who has been married to Bruce for 10 years, always knew her husband had memory problems. She was alarmed when he started drinking heavily, which “was out of character for him,” she said. “I could go a year without a sip.”

“A situation where you’re facing a problem, maybe an emotional problem,” he added, “then you feel like you can’t process it.”

Anger issues, common among people with dementia and suspected CTE, also surfaced.

“It was like she 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 couple of years to find people who understood what they were going through. Lynn connected with Brandi Winans and Lisa McHale, whose husbands, former NFL players, passed away after suffering from neurological problems. Lisa McHale is the Director of Legacy Family Relations for CLF.

“That’s when I realized someone knew what he was talking about, finally,” Lynn said.

“If I hadn’t had an advocate to fight for me,” Bruce said, “I never could have found the right people.”

Consultations and MRI examinations followed. The result was “a worst case scenario,” Lynn said. “It’s like we knew, but it was the answer we were looking for.”

Bruce said, “But now there are more questions.”

As they navigate their lives with Bruce’s brain injuries, the Murrays are passionate about educating parents about the dangers of heading the ball.

A 2016 British study suggested that routine heading of the ball can cause damage to brain structure and function. That same year, the US Soccer Federation banned heading by children under the age of 10 in organized competition and limited the number of headings by 11, 12 and 13-year-olds in practice.

Britain implemented similar guidelines in 2020 following a study that showed former professional players were at higher risk of dying from a brain disease.

Murray hopes that sharing his experience will help others.

“Because of the steps we are taking, we have come out of this well,” he said. “But we don’t know where she will go in the future.”