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Ex-NFL player Phillip Adams had CTE at time of rampage that killed 6, doctors say

The six-year NFL veteran suffered multiple injuries and concussions in his career.
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Former NFL player Phillip Adams had stage 2 chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, when he is alleged to have gunned down six people before taking his own life in April in South Carolina, officials announced Tuesday.

Dr. Ann McKee of Boston University, who conducted the examination on Adams' brain tissue, said in a news conference Tuesday that Adams' CTE was “unusually severe in both frontal lobes" and may have contributed to his “behavioral abnormalities.”

CTE, a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated head traumas, can be diagnosed only after death, according to the Mayo Clinic.

CTE has been found in the brains of people who have played football and other contact sports. Possible symptoms include cognitive, behavioral and mood changes. 

Adams, 32, suffered multiple injuries during his six-year NFL career, and his father, Alonzo Adams, told NBC affiliate WCNC of Charlotte, North Carolina, at the time of the shooting that “I think the football messed him up.”

The attacked occurred in Rock Hill, just across the South Carolina border, on April 7.

Police said Adams shot Dr. Robert Lesslie, 70; his wife, Barbara Lesslie, 69; and two of their grandchildren, Adah, 9, and Noah, 5. He also shot two air conditioning technicians, James Lewis, 38, and Robert Shook, 38, according to authorities.

Adams later died by suicide. He was found dead from a suspected self-inflicted gunshot wound in a nearby home on the same street as the victims, officials said.

York County Coroner Sabrina Gast obtained special permission to have Phillip’s brain tissue sent in for CTE tests in collaboration with Boston University researchers, who have been at the forefront of studying the brain disease.

"Adams' 20-year career in football put him at a high risk for CTE," McKee said Thursday.

She noted that the disease worsens with age, citing that Boston University's CTE center has diagnosed the brain disease in 24 NFL players who died in their 20s and their 30s — with most found to have suffered stage 2 CTE. 

Stage 2 CTE is associated with progressive cognitive and behavioral abnormalities, such as aggression, depression, paranoia, anxiety, poor executive function and memory loss, McKee said.

Adams' severe CTE pathology was similar to that of former NFL player Aaron Hernandez, McKee said. Hernandez was convicted of murder in 2015 and died by suicide two years later. He was posthumously diagnosed with CTE

A statement on behalf of the Adams family was read at the news conference.

"As we process these results we are deeply saddened by the events that occurred on April 7 and we continue to pray for the families of the victims. We are pleased to have a better understanding of the mental turmoil that Phillip was dealing with during the last moments of his life. We cannot say that we are surprised by these results. However it is shocking to hear how severe his condition was," the statement said.

"After going through medical records through his football career, we do know that he was desperately seeking help from the NFL, but was denied all claims due to his inability to remember things and to handle seemingly simple tasks, such as traveling hours away to see doctors and going through extensive evaluations.

"We hope to bring awareness to this condition so players young and old can understand the risks. ... Phillip is not the first to battle with this disease and he will not be the last."

Adams, who was originally from Rock Hill, played for the San Francisco 49ers, the New England Patriots, the Seattle Seahawks, the Oakland Raiders, the New York Jets and most recently the Atlanta Falcons until 2015.

He suffered a gruesome injury during a game Dec. 26, 2010, in his rookie season, between his visiting 49ers and the St. Louis Rams. His left ankle and foot appeared to be snapped and pointed in different directions after he was pinned down by a Rams player.

He also suffered two concussions in the 2012 season with the Raiders. 

Investigators have not disclosed a motive for the shooting.

York County officials said Thursday that authorities do not know why Adams targeted the Lesslie home and family. The only connection is that they lived near each other. 

Sheriff Kevin Tolson, who said a conclusion in the investigation should be coming soon, said investigators have handed over “incoherent writings” found in a search of Adams’ home to the FBI. 

“Sometimes the why is obvious. What we have here is a big puzzle,” Tolson said. "There’s one individual who knows the why, and he is deceased. We may not know in this life."

If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text TALK to 741741 or visit for additional resources.