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Concussions to blame for Jabar Gaffney's troubles?

Uncle speaks out about changes in football star's behavior

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Could Jabar Gaffney's nearly 20 years of playing football from high school to college to the NFL, have anything to do with his recent legal and personal troubles? 

"We are troubled by the last couple of years," said Jabar's uncle Reggie Gaffney, who is also a member of the Jacksonville city council. "I don’t know if it has anything to do with concussions, I don’t know if it has anything to do with CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy)."

For the first time, we are hearing from a member of Jabar's family following a series of I-TEAM reports on the 37-year-old's legal issues -- which includes driving violations, arrests for marijuana possession and domestic violence, his felony charge this summer involving the vandalism of the car of his former teammate Lito Sheppard, and most recently, the police standoff this past Friday that led to Jabar being held for a 72-hour psychiatric evaluation under Florida's Baker Act.

Jabar Gaffney spent nearly 20 years playing football

Jabar Gaffney's football stardom began when he played for Raines High School in Jacksonville and helped his school win its first state championship.

The wide receiver went on to play for the University of Florida, where he scored 27 touchdowns in two seasons.  

In 2002, Jabar was drafted by the Houston Texans, which began his 11-year career in the NFL.    

"He talks about headaches often, he’s just and I assume that’s where all that come from," Reggie said about his nephew.

"Probably the most violent sport that man created," he added. "I remember several games in the 2000s when we'd talk to Jabar after the game, or the next day, and we always used to tease him and say, 'You were out for a few plays.' And he would say, 'Yeah, I took a good hit, but I got back up and they made me go back in.'"

UNCUT Q&A: Lynnsey Gardner interviews Reggie Gaffney

Changes in behavior

"What are the things that you all are noticing that are concerning for Jabar?" the I-TEAM asked Jabar's uncle.

"I have noticed his mood," Reggie answered. "One day you talk to him, last couple days ago and it’s like nothing has happened and then another day he can come in and sit in a corner and be very quiet." 

"Jabar has always been a happy-go-lucky person who wants to fit in and communicate and these days it seems like he wants to be alone," Reggie explained.  "The last two years, it’s been like Jabar by himself and isolated himself that it's to the point I’m starting to wonder what is going on upstairs."

Jabar has also been dealing with a number of legal issues dating back to college, including grand theft.  While he was playing pro football, he was arrested for unlawful possession of a gun. After he left the NFL, his arrests and citations continued.

It was his arrest this past July that made national headlines. Jabar was charged with felony criminal mischief after former NFL player Lito Sheppard's car was vandalized in Jacksonville Beach.

Sources tell the I-TEAM Jabar is paranoid about Sheppard, his former Raines and University of Florida teammate, and blames him for the breakup of his marriage -- something Sheppard denies.

While the criminal vandalism case continues, Sheppard has taken out a restraining order against Gaffney, saying he’s fearful of him.

"I’m confused and I’m not sure what we need to do as a family, but something is going on I think," Reggie Gaffney said. "I don’t know if it has anything to do with concussions, I don’t know if it has anything to do with CTE."

Could it be CTE?

CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, is controversial in the medical community but it's recognized as a serious byproduct of repeated head trauma.

It's studied by neuropsychologists like Dr. Sarah Lahey, who manages concussion treatment at Brooks Rehabilitation in Jacksonville.  

"While we think that we are really figuring this out and relating it to these chronic hits there is more we don’t know then what we do know right now," said Lahey.

While people playing contact sports like football are at risk, Lahey said CTE has also been found in men and women with no history of contact sports. She also said CTE can only be diagnosed after death -- by doing an autopsy of the brain.

"After that time, we can look back at the history and possibly relate some what we call neurobehavioral changes, changes to the way a person behaves or acts or their mood," Lahey said.  "However, it’s not a one-to-one correlation. There is a lot we don’t know about genetic predisposition and other risk factors."

Last year, a Boston neuropsychologist published her own findings in the New York Times, after examining the brains of 111 former NFL players. She found CTE in all but one of the former players.

According to the Mayo Clinic, CTE is "very rare." Mayo lists symptoms, including:

  • Difficulty thinking (cognitive impairment)

  • Impulsive behavior

  • Depression or apathy

  • Short-term memory loss

  • Difficulty planning and carrying out tasks (executive function)

  • Emotional instability

  • Substance abuse

  • Suicidal thoughts or behavior

  • Irritability

  • Aggression

  • Dementia

Gene Nichols, a local defense attorney who is not affiliated with Gaffney’s case, said it’s likely his attorney is having him evaluated for CTE.

"There is no question they would have already considered CTE because he’s starting to show classic symptoms," Nichols said.

For Reggie Gaffney, the name Aaron Hernandez is heavy on his heart. Like Jabar, Hernandez played for the University of Florida and the New England Patriots.

Hernandez was convicted of murder and while in prison, he committed suicide. A Boston neuropsychologist said an autopsy of Hernandez’s brain uncovered one of the worst cases of CTE on record.

"It’s unfortunate he had to leave the earth before we uncovered all of his problems and I hope it don’t get to that point with Jabar," said Reggie. "Most professional athletes I talk to, that’s a frustration. Most of them give their life to football and it seems like you almost have to be dead before the NFL will step in and say, 'How can we help?'"

"Do you know if Jabar has been in contact with anyone at the NFL at all to talk about that?" the I-TEAM asked Reggie.

"I want to say yes, that I do know," he said. "I’m not sure at what level, but I know he has reached out to them a couple times to talk about the same issues I’m talking to you about: the headaches, the depression."

Reggie told us the Gaffney family believes in the healing power of prayer for Jabar, but they are also seeking help.

"At this point, there is no game plan. We don’t know what we are going to do to help him. I’m just hoping that somebody can give us some guidance on how to deal with a situation like this because it’s our first time as a family," he said.

The I-TEAM did reach out to the NFL Players Association about Jabar and we will update this story when we hear back.

Jabar's attorney, Seth Schwartz, told us he could not talk specifically about his client's medical needs but did say any client who has played a professional contact sport and exhibits behaviors found to be concerning, is evaluated by a team of doctors.

About the Authors:

Lynnsey Gardner is an Edward R. Murrow award-winning investigative reporter and fill-in anchor for The Local Station.