PHILADELPHIA — The neuropathology report, dated Jan. 19, 2018, contained within its data and its jargon the duality of Max Runager’s life and death.

Runager — the punter on the Eagles’ 1980-81 Super Bowl team, later an NFL champion with the San Francisco 49ers — died on June 30, 2017, in his native Orangeburg. Three weeks later, on July 19, the Boston University Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center, at the permission of Runager’s family, received his brain for examination. It weighed exactly 1,350 grams, just shy of 3 pounds.

Dr. Ann McKie, the center’s director, discovered “alcohol-induced neurodegeneration,” including “severe loss of Purkinje cells,” the tree-shaped neurons in the cerebellum that control motor coordination.

McKie also found “scant perivascular clusters of neurofibrillary tangles” in the frontal and parietal cortex, which, along with other evidence, led her to conclude that Runager was stricken with mild Stage II CTE.

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Of those cold facts, the last was a comfort, perhaps the only comfort, to Runager’s son Kolby. Max died at 61 from a blood clot while sitting in his black Honda Accord, and though he had drunk too much for too long, though he would borrow thousands of dollars from his friends and never repay the debts, though Max had divorced his wife and lost his job and moved back in with his parents, at least Kolby could finally know that the pain that defined his father’s final years wasn’t fully his fault.

“I was actually relieved, honestly,” he said by phone recently when he called, unprompted, to share Max’s diagnosis. “My dad was just a shell of the man I knew, and to know there was something going on in his brain helped. How much that played a part in his behavior is a kind of mystery, but to know there was something else going on was a relief.”

Get for $1 for 26 weeks

Only now, more than five years later, is Kolby beginning to talk about his father’s condition beyond the relatively close confines of the CTE community. Only now is he willing to break from the mantra that his grandfather, Geb — a renowned football coach in the family’s hometown of Orangeburg — and Max preached to him: Your name carries weight. Keep your triumphs and tragedies within the family. Only now could he get past his own disbelief over the medical report’s results: CTE? My dad wasn’t a linebacker or a defensive end or a center. He was a punter. Punters don’t get CTE.

Max Runager

Max Runager

Hero’s life, lonely death: Max Runager suffered because he no longer had football

Yes, they do. Max Runager started playing football when he was 7 and stopped when he was 33. Based on the science around CTE, those 26 years worth of repetitive trauma to Runager’s head, at all levels of the sport, must have contributed to the depression and mood swings that crept over him like a black cloud after he retired from the NFL. It wasn’t necessarily a single devastating hit. It was likely the rat-tat-tat over time, from boyhood to high school to college, through those occasions during his 11 NFL seasons when he was called on to make a special-teams tackle.

So Kolby is embarking on a delicate crusade, trying to thread a needle between his father’s generation of football players — those who never knew the full extent of the damage they were inflicting upon themselves — and this one.

Today’s NFL players say it all the time: They are adults. Just give them all the relevant and accurate scientific information, and they will decide for themselves whether to accept the risks intrinsic to this brutal game, how to balance the short-term wealth and fame against the long-term costs to their health.

The choices of those grown men don’t bother Kolby. What enrages him — and he’s right — is the manner in which the NFL markets itself to children, especially the league’s recent partnership with Nickelodeon. The graphics, the animation, the reduction of the violence to cartoons and comic strips: It’s unseemly and dishonest, like a tobacco company telling 6-year-olds that smoking will make them cool.

“I get it,” Kolby said. “It’s a business, right? If they don’t encourage young people to play football, then how are they going to keep feeding the machine when these kids get older and turn professional and they can throw all this money at them? But you make it this innocent game for these kids on Nickelodeon, and you make it look like the Batman television series from back in the day with BOOM and POW, and that’s so wrong.”

‘That was Max’: Memories of special player, special person

Max Runager spent 11 years as a punter in the NFL, reaching the Super Bowl with the Philadelphia Eagles and winning one with the San Francisco 49 ers.

Max Runager spent 11 years as a punter in the NFL, reaching the Super Bowl with the Philadelphia Eagles and winning one with the San Francisco 49ers. 

That tug-and-pull, the weighing of risk and reward, has been part of football forever, and even as a famous NFL father, Max raised his three sons with a healthy respect for it. He wouldn’t let them play peewee or Pop Warner football for fear that coaches would teach poor tackling technique, that they’d teach those young players to lead with their heads, that Kolby or one of his brothers would end up breaking his neck. But that was back in the 1980s and early 1990s. The stakes are higher now, with McKee and her team at BU having demonstrated a connection between youth tackle football and CTE symptoms.

“Think about the equipment that these kids wear,” said Kolby, 40, who lives in Bayside, N.Y., has been a professional actor for more than a decade, and has written a screenplay about Max’s life. “It’s loose-fitting helmets. These kids are getting hand-me-down stuff. What if it’s a runt on the football team whose helmet is three sizes too big, and his head is just like an egg in that helmet when he’s running around?”

Is this a son angry over his father’s descent into darkness? Of course. Is Kolby Runager looking for someone to blame for the man Max Runager became? Maybe.

“My dad was really a king amongst men,” Kolby said. “He was a caretaker not only of his family but of the neighborhood. He was larger than life. He took care of his family. That’s me as a son looking up to my father, but that’s really how I remember that man.”

But that anger doesn’t change the reality of football — a reality that so few of us dare to face, that so many of us, come weekends in the fall and winter, put aside for the sake of our pleasure.

The nonprofit Concussion Legacy Foundation tracks and catalogs the names of athletes who have died with CTE, and it’s worth noting that Max Runager’s name has been there, on the foundation’s website, for a long time, in plain sight for those who care or think to look.

Yet no one wrote a single news story pointing out that doctors had diagnosed Max Runager with CTE. No one bothered to notice at all until Kolby Runager picked up the phone. Forget what that truth says about him. What does it say about us?

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“My dad was really a king amongst men. He was a caretaker not only of his family but of the neighborhood. He was larger than life. He took care of his family. That’s me as a son looking up to my father, but that’s really how I remember that man.”

— Kolby Runager


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