By Amy Zellmer, Editor-in-chief
I had the opportunity to sit down with Ali Epperson, a longtime friend of Zac’s and a founding member of CTE Hope. Ali and Zac were best friends for about five years, and had an off-and-on romantic relationship. The last year of Zac’s life, Ali was away at college and then law school, yet they were the closest they had been in their relationship. Instead of continuing off-and-on, Ali and Zac decided to fully commit to an exclusive relationship and finally made their “behind the scenes” relationship public.
The day Zac took his life, he and Ali had been hanging out all day at her house. She took him home and he was planning to get a haircut before they went out to dinner that evening. He canceled dinner plans on her, saying he wasn’t feeling well, and she went out with some friends. They continued to text throughout the evening. Shortly after midnight his texts started getting serious. When the last text he sent her was written in past-tense, she knew in her gut that something was happening so she called his family.
He was already gone. He was only 24 years old.
He left behind a hand-written note as well as a few things for them to find, including his notebooks and journals.
A month earlier, he had threatened suicide, but they had been able to talk him down. He admitted to Ali that he had thought seriously about suicide, but didn’t go through with it on numerous occasions. He was open with her that he didn’t see the point of living because he could never be fixed or get better. He was struggling every day and had a lot of ups and downs.
Zac had told Ali about his fears of CTE and the struggles that he had been dealing with. He had mentioned he was going to try to write down things every day about how he was feeling, and what he learned at doctor appointments. A few months before his death, he told Ali he was writing a longer life story narrative and that he wanted her to read it eventually. He really wanted to get it all down on paper, and the reasons became even clearer after his death.
He requested that his brain be studied so that it could help others and help with research efforts. He had only played high school football, and yet was struggling every single day from the effects of repetitive hits to the head.
He also made it very clear that he wanted everyone to raise awareness about CTE. He wanted them to talk about mental health, and how to make sports safer. He wanted to shine a light on CTE and help others going through the same journey know that they’re not alone.
Ali commented, “I’ve always thought that while I am devastated Zac is no longer here, it was in part an act of bravery because he wanted to help others who are suffering and the only way he knew how to do that was to have his brain studied and his journals out there. He didn’t want others to suffer, and wanted them to know they’re not alone.
“I think he did it for a purpose and unselfish reasons. He didn’t know who he was anymore. Before he lost every semblance of himself he wanted to die still knowing who he was. I think it would be selfish of me to have said ‘You have to stay on this earth for me.’”
CTE Hope was born to fulfill Zac’s wishes. Made up of his family, Ali, other friends, and Zac’s high school athletic trainer, CTE Hope’s mission is to provide education and awareness, and support the research, diagnosis, management, and treatment necessary to protect individuals from the long-term effects of head traumas and concussions that can lead to CTE.
Their main effort currently is saliva research to develop into a point-of-care device for sidelines and ERs — a test that can tell from a physiological standpoint if someone has suffered a concussion by measuring the biomarkers in their brain. While the testing is currently on hold due to COVID, they are hopeful that this testing will help prevent future players from CTE
They are continuously trying to develop resources and referrals for survivors and caregivers, and stay up-to-date on new research and published articles on CTE. They are also hoping to develop a support group for both survivors and caregivers.
In the newly released book, Forgrave was given access to all of Zac’s diaries and journals, as well as his family and friends. The core of the book is Zac’s story, but it is also about the history of football and how it is so ingrained in our society. It talks about the science behind CTE, the doctors Zac saw, as well as his football coach and athletic trainer.
“From the beginning, our number one reason for wanting this book written was because Zac wanted his story out there to raise awareness, and understand as best they could what he went through, what happened to his mind and brain that led to his death. All the efforts will lead to more support, resources, and research that can help create detection and management [of CTE],” stated Ali.
“The most powerful thing about this book is that while you can never be inside his mind, this is as close as we can get to hearing his words in real time as he was going through this.”
Ali remarked that the book is “relatable on so many levels beyond Zac.” She went on to say that people are so conflicted about concussions and CTE in football because it is such a large part of our society, and brain injuries are still so unknown — even to doctors. The book asks “Where do we go from here?” While it doesn’t give us answers, it gives us a lot to think about.
This post was previously published on The Brain Health Magazine.
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Photo credit: Amy Zellmer