Mary Ann Easterling's voice broke. A sob. Then a few seconds of silence.
"I'm sorry," she said.
She had described her 36-year marriage to Ray Easterling in the present tense. But two months ago, the former football standout at the University of Richmond and defensive back for the Atlanta Falcons shot and killed himself at their Richmond home.
But even before that day, Mary Ann Easterling felt like the light inside her husband had been turned off.
Ray Easterling, who played safety for the Falcons from 1972-79, was the lead plaintiff in the first federal lawsuit filed against the NFL over concussions in October 2011. The number of former players suing swelled to 2,397 since, according to a study by The Washington Times of the 90 lawsuits filed through June 14.
Less than two weeks after Easterling's death, Junior Seau killed himself, the latest in a string of suicides by well-known former NFL players.
A haunting post attributed to Ray Easterling from July 2011 on an Internet message board frequented by retired NFL players survives.
"What if I have already been doing all those things and my brain disease is accelerating?" he wrote. "How can someone be held accountable for making a bad decision and this disease was affecting my judgement?"
Mary Ann Easterling detailed how an idyllic family life - they met at a Bible study in college - degenerated into unexplained chaos and change over the last five years. Insomnia and depression came first, classic symptoms of traumatic brain injury according to Dr. Randall Benson, a behavioral neurologist at the Center for Neurological Studies in Novi, Mich.
Problems deepened. The man who meticulously prepared for each football season couldn't organize himself. He forgot where he put important things. He was late to appointments. Fine motor control in his hands slipped away.
The man who used to be the life of the party, who led Bible studies and enjoyed sharing his Christian faith, no longer liked spending time around his family. He stuck to individual activities, like working out.
"I was at a loss for the reason for these changes," Mary Ann Easterling said. "A switch was flipped. ... He no longer enjoyed the things that he always enjoyed."
In December 2010, Mary Ann Easterling stumbled upon online case studies by Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy on the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disease linked to repeated head injuries otherwise known as CTE, in former NFL players. The symptoms matched her husband's.
By April 2011, Ray Easterling was diagnosed with dementia. A year later, just 62 years old, he was gone.
Mary Ann Easterling wants to continue his fight against head injuries in the NFL that went public in the 20-page lawsuit filed last fall.
"I'm concerned about the former players who have symptoms and those who will have symptoms," she said. "There should be help available to them for the testing and treatment of their symptoms. Wives and families need to know there is hope and help."
The silence was gone. Her voice was strong.
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