Nearly 20 tabs were open on Kyle Krull’s computer when his family turned it on. All involved the same topic: chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
Krull was a charismatic 25-year-old navigating the trials of young adulthood. He had just graduated from Western Michigan and had a new job, new roommates and, by all accounts, a fresh start on life.
Hidden was the weight of the neurocognitive disorder, CTE, that blanketed him every waking minute of his life.
Nobody knew the extent of his suffering until his death.
“We were having a morbid conversation,” said Megan Campion, Krull’s sister. “I remember exactly where we were and how he was sitting. He said, ‘I want to donate my body to science so nobody feels the way I do and they can figure out CTE.’ “
“That was the first time I heard those three letters.”
Krull died by suicide the morning of June 1, 2019. His body was found three days later.
At that point, his family had grown accustomed to Krull being unreachable for days at a time before he’d return with understandable explanations. Over the years, Campion, her parents and those closest to Krull had noticed changes in his behavior but nothing that led them to believe he was suicidal.
One of the tabs open on his computer after his death was the Concussion Legacy Foundation’s website.
Campion’s husband reached out to the CLF, explaining how they’d come across the site. Krull’s family then donated his brain to the VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank and researchers posthumously diagnosed him with Stage 1 CTE.
One of the biggest challenges for Kyle as a child was heading off to preschool — he didn’t want to. So his parents did what parents do and came up with an answer: a Buzz Lightyear costume from the “Toy Story” movies.
He wore it often, walking into class with a charisma he eventually became known for. From those days on, his mantra became “To infinity and beyond.”
Sports were a big part of Megan and Kyle’s life growing up, but never in a demanding way. Football was off-limits to Kyle until the sixth grade. He tearfully pleaded with his parents every summer leading up to the fall football season, but they continued to say no.
Krull’s father, John, played football in college, and his mother, Jennifer, a health professional, wanted to take every precaution to protect their son.
After his first season, it was clear Krull would be a special player. He went on to be a three-year varsity starter at linebacker for Lemont High School, eventually earning a scholarship to play at Western Illinois.
After every game during his high school career, Krull had a routine. At the time, it didn’t seem odd to his family. He would return home after grabbing dinner with his dad, head to the basement or his room, shut off every light and sit in the darkness, sometimes listening to music or playing on his phone. By morning, he’d emerge with the bright personality he was known for and head to watch film with his teammates.
The post-concussion symptoms and chronic headaches were already starting.
“The biggest myth about CTE is that it correlates with or is directly related to concussions,” said Dr. Robert Cantu, co-founder of the VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank. “The reality is, although concussions count, the most important thing is repetitive head impact and the amount of it.”
Eric Michaelsen, who was the head coach at Lemont from 2002 to 2013 and coached Krull for his three seasons on the varsity team, can’t pinpoint when he first learned about CTE. Lemont has had mandatory concussion training for coaches of contact sports since 2011.
Campion believes her brother, had he known about the risk of developing CTE, still would have played football in high school. But she’s certain he would not have accepted a scholarship to play at Western.
She can recall the Western Illinois coaching staff sitting with her parents on a recruiting trip. They promised to protect and treat Krull like a son.
After playing one season for the Leathernecks, Krull quit and transferred to Western Michigan, where he focused on life after football. By then, more severe symptoms — irritability, trouble sleeping and cognitive issues — had begun to develop.
“He called me one time and said ‘Meg, I can’t do this anymore. I don’t feel safe,’ ” Campion said. “He was a punching bag the entire year.”
Cantu said doctors can estimate the likelihood of CTE being present by looking at the symptoms an athlete has (and their progression) along with the amount of exposure to repetitive head injury. But the cognitive, behavioral and mood symptoms have too much overlap with symptoms of other neurocognitive diseases to diagnose someone with certainty before they die.
Cantu relates CTE to smoking. The more you smoke and the longer you smoke, the greater the risk you’ll develop cancer. But not everyone who smokes will develop cancer.
There are also genetic risk factors that Cantu says play a role in why athletes’ response to head trauma is different.
Cantu said although doctors are not able to stop the progression of CTE, they can treat and manage the symptoms with therapy and medication. He added that starting contact collision sports later in life greatly reduces a person’s risk for developing neurocognitive disorders.
Still, there are doctors who believe the only real way to prevent the disease is to stop playing football altogether.
“It bothers me somewhat that there is a sentiment, particularly in Chicago, that life goes on and we’re just going to keep watching all our favorite sports teams,” said neurology specialist Dr. James Castle, who has been treating suspected CTE patients — early 20s through late 80s — for 10 years. “In reality, I’ve seen a lot of former players, and they look really awful and are very debilitated later in life.”
After graduating from Western Michigan, Krull knew something was wrong. He was unable to sleep at night, had begun to lose feeling in his fingers and toes and had memory loss and trouble balancing. He would have outbursts against family members and later not recall hurtful things he said.
His apologies were emotional, and he always promised it wouldn’t happen again — until it did.
For Krull’s family, there is no peace in his death, but being able to name the disease that killed him has left a crack in the door toward acceptance. Campion’s hope is there’s a continued effort to understand CTE and implement changes in contact sports that help prevent it. The NFL, for example, has largely pivoted from its earlier time of denial about CTE. More than 20 rules changes have been implemented over the last 10 years that reduce the amount of head trauma. The league has also donated more than $100 million toward concussion research.
Campion feels close to her brother — joyful — when she’s outside doing something athletic. The flip side to that joy is the crippling pain she feels when she considers moments she won’t be able to share with him, like her having kids one day or seeing him get married.
In those moments, she tries to find peace in the way he lived his life.
“Everything he did was to infinity and beyond,” she said.