The Concussion Diaries: One High School Football Player’s Secret Struggle with CTE — (GQ)

SSRI Ed note: Young football player given Zoloft, Adderall, possible CTE, unsurprisingly feels very "messed up", suicidal, dies by suicide. Meds not suspected.

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By Reid Forgrave

January 10, 2017

Zac Easter knew what was happening to him. He knew why. [or maybe not – SSRIstories Ed] And he knew that it was only going to get worse. So he decided to write it all down—to let the world know what football had done to him, what he’d done to his body and his brain for the game he loved. And then he shot himself.

My Last Wishes

It’s taken me about 5 months to write all of this. Sorry for the bad grammar in a lot of spots.

I WANT MY BRAIN DONATED TO THE BRAIN BANK!! I WANT MY BRAIN DONATED TO THE SPORTS LEGACY INSTITUE A.K.A THE CONCUSSION FOUNDATION. If you go to the concussion foundation website you can see where there is a spot for donatation. I want my brain donated because I don’t know what happened to me and I know the concussions had something to do with it.

Please please please give me the cheapest burial possible. I don’t want anything fancy and I want to be cremated. Once cremated, I want my ashes spread in the timber on the side hill where I shot my 10 point buck. That is where I was happiest and that I where I want to lay. Feel free to spread my ashes around the timber if you’d like, but just remember on the side hill is where I would like most of my remains. I am truly sorry if I put you in a financial burden. I just cant live with this pain any more.

I don’t want anything expensive at my funeral or what ever it is. Please please please I beg you to choose the cheapest route and not even buy me a burial plot at a cemetary…. I also do not want a military funeral. If there are color guardsmen or anyone else at my funerial or whatever you have I will haunt you forever.

I want levi to keep playing clash of clans on my account. I am close to max have spent a lot of time playing that game. Though you think its stupid, I ask you keep playing it for me when you can and let my fellow clan mates know what happened. My phones passcode is 111111, so that’s six 1’s….

Levi gets my car, it will need a oil change and breaks/tires done her shortly. Please take care of old red. It will need cleaned out as well because I am a slob.

Thank you for being the best family in the world. I will watch over you all and please take my last wishes into consideration. Do not do something I do no want. Just remember, I don’t want a military funeral like grandpas. It is my last wishes and last rights.

I am with the lord now.

-Look, Im sorry every one for the choice I made. Its wrong and we all know it.

November 13, 2015

Zac Easter texted his girlfriend shortly before 10 A.M.

“Can you call me when you get out of class? I’m in hot water right now and idk what to do”

He typed as he drove, weaving Old Red, his cherry red 2008 Mazda3, down the wide suburban boulevards of West Des Moines. He’d already been awake for hours, since well before sunrise. At 5:40 A.M., he texted Ali an apology: “Sorry about last night.” Then he started drinking. By now he was shitfaced and driving around the suburbs. She called as soon as she got out of class, and he was slurring his words. Ali was scared. She wanted him off the road. She talked him down and into a gas-station parking lot, and then he hung up.

“Do not leave,” she texted back at 11:27 A.M.

Ali Epperson was nearly 700 miles away, at her contract-law class at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland. In football terms, Zac had outkicked his coverage: Ali was an ex-cheerleader but no vacant princess. She had a diamond stud in her left nostril and a knifing wit. They were a pair of scrappers whose jagged edges fit. Zac loved Trump; he kept a copy of Trump: The Art of the Deal in his bedroom. Ali was a budding progressive: a first-year student at a good law school who’d interned at Senator Tom Harkin’s D.C. office. They were just friends in high school; she used to cut fourth-period music class to hang with Zac. After they graduated, they became more than friends.

Sometimes he called her Winslow, her middle name, and only Winslow knew the full extent of Zac’s struggles in the five and a half years since high school: the brain tremors that felt like thunderclaps inside his skull, the sudden memory lapses in which he’d forget where he was driving or why he was walking around the hardware store, the doctors who told him his mind might be torn to pieces from all the concussions from football. She knew about the drugs and the drinking he was doing to cope. She knew about the mood swings, huge and pulverizing, the slow leaching of his hope.

“I’m not leaving,” he texted back.


He pulled into a Jimmy John’s and ate something to sober up, sending Ali Snapchats every so often to prove he wasn’t driving. Then, a couple of hours later, he texted her again:

I’m home now.  Don’t worry about it.

Zac.  You promised you weren’t gonna drive.

Ok sorry Alison. For everything. Idk what’s happening to me, but I’m sorry I brought you into it.

Don’t be sorry you brought me into it.  I told you I’d always be there for you  I just want you to be better.

Idk if there is better for ppl like me. Like I said before.  If anything happens to be just by a chance of luck.  Telll my family everything.

Zac Easter went inside his parents’ house, past the five mounted deer heads on the living room wall, past the Muhammad Ali poster at the top of the stairs (“Impossible Is Nothing”), and into his room: Green Bay Packers gear, bodybuilding supplements, military books bursting from the shelves, a T-shirt he got from his high school football coach with the words BIG HAMMER.

His laptop was open to a 39-page document titled “Concussions: My Silent Struggle.” “MY LAST WISHES,” it began. He’d created the document five months ago, and the final revision was made today.

Zac Easter grabbed some ammunition, packed up the .40-caliber pistol he’d given his dad as a Father’s Day gift, and drove a few miles down the road to Lake Ahquabi State Park. It was a place where he’d gone swimming throughout his childhood; he and Ali liked to go there and lie on the beach and look at the clouds. “Ahquabi” is from an ancient Algonquian language. It means “resting place.”

Around sunset, Zac took a picture of the lake, then he posted a status update on Facebook:

Dear friends and family,

If your reading this than God bless the times we’ve had together. Please forgive me. I’m taking the selfish road out. Only God understands what I’ve been through. No good times will be forgotten and I will always watch over you. Please if anything remember me by the person I am not by my actions. I will always watch over you! Please, please, don’t take the easy way out like me. Fist pumps for Jesus and fist pumps for me. Party on wayne!!;)

Growing up, his nickname was Hoad. On Saturday mornings, the three Easter boys—Myles Jr. was the eldest, then Zac, then Levi—would crowd around the TV to watch Garfield and Friends. Odie was the mutt—impossibly energetic, tongue wagging, ears flopping. Friends with everyone. That was Zac. “Zac never stopped running. Everything he did was at full charge,” says his mother, Brenda. Over time the name evolved, the way nicknames do—Odie morphing into Hodie, Hodie shrinking to Hoad.

He was a sweet, curious kid, and seemingly programmed to destroy. He went through four of those unbreakable steel Tonka dump trucks—broke the first three and disassembled the fourth, trying to figure out how it worked. He was 7. One winter, the family couldn’t figure out why the lightbulbs on the Christmas tree kept bursting. Faulty wiring? It turned out Zac was taking swings at the bulbs with a baseball bat. As he got older, the blast radius got bigger. He was Tom Sawyer reborn: unleashed, unbound midwestern middle-class American boy. The Easter family’s acreage was off a dirt road, surrounded by cornfields, just east of where The Bridges of Madison County was filmed, and Zac and his brothers would go on hikes to the creek, bringing along an artillery of Black Cat fireworks to blow up minnows and bullfrogs. As a teenager he graduated to the family’s Honda Recon ATV, his first taste of real adrenaline and real recklessness. He’d fly through the woods, build jumps and hurdle over them. “GODDAMMIT!” his dad, Myles Sr., would yell from the porch as he shot by.

Zac was fearless, certain of his invincibility, confident he could push his limits to the very edge yet always stay in control. He was perfect for the one thing that mattered most in the Easter family: football.

When Myles Easter Sr. talks about his own football career, there’s a joyful worship of the sport’s violent side: “I just wanted to knock the fuck out of somebody.” He was a safety at Drake University, a small school in Des Moines. He and Brenda got together in 1982, soon after his football career ended, and they married two years later, which meant she was now married to football, too. Before Zac was born, Myles took a job as defensive coordinator at Simpson College, a Division III school in Indianola, Iowa, a town of 11,000 known for an annual hot-air-balloon festival. He never made his boys play football—it was more like it was just assumed. “I loved football,” he says. “I was getting to the point where I loved it more than the kids did back in high school.” Not that the boys didn’t love it, too. They’d come to practice every day and hang off to the side with the kickers. On Saturday afternoons in the fall, they’d sneak up to the overhead track at Simpson College’s century-old gym and listen to their dad’s halftime pep talks.

The Easters were a Minnesota Vikings family, but early on Zac defected and chose the Green Bay Packers. Zac loved Brett Favre—he had the same swagger. Zac’s elder brother, Myles Jr., was taller, faster, talented enough to earn a college football scholarship and a spot in his high school’s sports hall of fame. Zac was shorter and slower, but he was the toughest son of a bitch on the field. “He was out there to fuck people up,” says Myles Jr. “He was there to do some damage.” He had a lot to live up to, and he wasn’t born with what he needed, so in high school he secretly began taking prohormones, a steroid-like supplement banned in many sports.

It worked. “Zac was a thumper,” his father says, standing in the family kitchen. “Of all the boys, he was the one who wouldn’t show pain, who’d be fearless.… He’d throw his head into anything. He was the kind of guy I like on defense.”

Myles Sr. pauses, takes a heavy breath, and shrugs. On the mantel behind him is a picture of Zac sitting in the back of a pickup, cradling the ten-point buck. When he speaks again, his voice is a stew of pride and guilt: “He was my type of guy.”

From “Concussions: My Silent Struggle”

I started playing youth football a year early in 3rd grade because my older brother was on the team and my dad was the coach. I started off playing the two positions that I played throughout my career, linebacker and full back. I remember being one of the hardest hitting linebackers ever since I started. You could even go back and ask some of the old players on the 49ers if you don’t believe me because I’m sure they only remember me leading with my head. I even remember Austin Shrek’s dad offering to buy him a PS2 if Austin would learn to hit as hard as me on game days….

I learned around this age that if I used my head as a weapon and literally put my head down on every play up until the last play I ever played. I was always shorter than a lot of other players and learned to put my head down so I could have the edge and win every battle. Not only that, but I liked the attention I got from the coaches and other players. I can look back and remember getting headaches during practice. Of course by now, I had gained the reputation from my coaches and classmates about being a tough nosed kid and a hard hitter so I took this social identity with pride and never wanted to tell anyone about the headaches I got from practices and games. In 6th grade, I really became a road grater as a fullback and running back. I was short and chubby, but I would try to run over the linebacker’s every time I got the ball. I’m sure my parents still have the game tapes to prove it….

I won’t lie I look back now and always felt like I had something to prove to my dad and trying to fill my older brothers football shoes…. I was tired of teachers and even Principal Monroe comparing me to my brother and asking me why I wasn’t as good of a student as my older brother. I guess I got to the point then where I just didn’t care and realized the only way to fill adequate to fill the Easter family shoes was to play football…. There was also the “Easter Mentality” stereo type that I had to live up to. This “Easter Mentality” is the name that all the other coaches and kids in sports called us because the Easter family was such a tough nosed football family and the reputation was that football was our lives and we would play through any pain. My dad was an intimidating hard ass football coach and the Easter mentality meant that we were supposed to always be tough as nails, show no weakness, and never get taken out of game for being hurt…. [From another journal around the same time] I’ve never really felt good enough for him. I know the remarks he will say. Im sure he loves me but he’s always had a hard time showing it. I feel like all my concussions were for him in the first place because I just wanted to impress him and feel tough. I regret all that now and wish I never even played sports.

Zac’s football career ended in October of his senior year. The team at Indianola High School was a perfect fit for Zac: They were always smaller, always scrappier, and always played like the chips were stacked against them. Indianola had the lowest enrollment in a conference filled with schools from Des Moines’s suburbs, but they took pride in not playing like it. When their head coach, Eric Kluver, had arrived years before, he quickly realized there was a gem in his own backyard: Myles Easter Sr., a veteran college coach who had three sons coming up in the Indianola youth football system and was eager to help. Myles was tough. So were his players. Kluver hired him.

At first Kluver tried to innovate with a speedy spread offense, but he quickly realized that wouldn’t fly here; he simply couldn’t get the type of athletes to make it work. So instead he went old-school: a smashmouth I-formation offense. Pound the ball and wear out bigger, faster, stronger—but softer—teams. It was catnip to Iowa country boys like Myles Easter Sr. Soon, things began to change for Indianola. Local fans would come to games just to watch the special teams tee off on opponents during kick returns. Kluver handed out a big hammer T-shirt for the most crushing hit in that week’s game; Zac earned one his junior year and another his senior year. The Easter Mentality had become the Indianola football mentality.

By his senior year, Zac had become an anchor of the team’s defense. On this chilly Friday night, the seventh game of the 2009 season, Zac was taking the field for the first time in a month. A concussion had knocked him out in the season’s fourth game, but Zac was determined to be back for the game against league rival Ankeny High School. Ankeny was much bigger than Zac’s school, one of the largest in the state, more affluent, and most obnoxiously, they were good. “We just thought they were kind of rich pricks,” says Nick Haworth, Zac’s best friend since preschool and an offensive lineman on the team.

Zac was fired up. Indianola’s athletic trainer, Sue Wilson, was not. She’d been hired in 2005, and her focus was concussions; this was the same year that Bennet Omalu, a neuropathologist in Pittsburgh who studied the brain of deceased Pittsburgh Steelers star Mike Webster, had published his groundbreaking paper “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a National Football League Player.” Even now, in 2009, she was a mostly unwelcome presence on the sidelines. Parents yelled at her when she took away their sons’ helmets in the middle of a game; they wanted them to play. So did the coaches.

One psychologist even told Zac that he would—not could, would—end up penniless, homeless, and in a mental institution.

On this Friday night, Wilson was already focused on Zac. He’d always played through pain. He’d already suffered two concussions in as many months: one in August, before games started, during a tackling drill at a full-contact football camp, and then another during a game in early September—the one that sidelined him for a month. By now, Myles Sr. had grown concerned enough about the repeated head injuries that he’d ordered a special Xenith helmet. The helmet was supposed to reduce the risk of concussion, but it kept falling off Zac’s head during games. He was also wearing a cowboy collar to protect his neck. He was armored up, like a soldier heading into battle.

Prior to the game, Zac had passed Wilson’s concussion protocol, but if she’d known what was really going on inside his brain, there’s no way she would have let him near the field. After the concussion during the game in September, a teammate told Zac that he was looking at him cross-eyed. Later that night, he would write in his journal, “I saw a doctor and lied about all my concussion symptoms.”

Of course he lied. It was his senior year. He wanted to play.

From “Concussions: My Silent Struggle”

Something changed in me after that last concussion against Ankeny. My depression kicked into full gear and I started having symptoms of anxiety. My emotions have never been the same after the last football concussion either…. I love my family to death, but I felt like I was snapping on them for no reason some days and I could see that somethings I said were hurting them. It just seemed like anything and everything would want to set me off…. [At college] I kept going out on the weekends and drinking my ass off though and using any drug I could find…. I started drinking and getting so shitfaced I often started pissing the bed and started to have my drinking problem come back. Some nights I would tell my friends and roommate I’m busy and sit in my room and drink alone. Before my senior year [of college] started I also got a prescription of Adderall because I thought I had adhd. All I did was start abusing the Adderall right away. When I picked up my first prescription I went home and snorted several lines…. It seemed the only I could get myself to seem smart and outgoing was to be high on amphetamines from the Adderall.

I feel like I’ve started to become delusional or I’ve been kind of hearing and seeing things. A few times I’ve gone down stairs and have asked the guys what they wanted because I sware I heard someone calling my name. A lot of this freaked me out because I’m not sure if I was going schitzo or not. I’ve felt like some days I’ve just been out of it. Over the years I’ve been starting to forget peoples names and just forget daily things. My roommates even joked about an alzhiemers commercial about an old lady losing her shit because I’ve felt like I’ve lost mine slowly.

My impulse control problems have been killing me a lot lately to. I can’t seem to get a grip with my money spending habits. I used to be a tight ass and all about money, but now I just find myself spending all my money and money that I don’t even have. I think I’ve spent about 10k in the past three months and nothing to show for it. I cant seem to stop binge eating unless im on Adderall. I don’t know if I have that brain decise that people talk about or if I really am crazy.

On the night of his 24th birthday, Zac Easter and his cousin met at the Sports Page Grill in Indianola, ordered Coors Lights, and waited for Zac’s parents to arrive. Zac was nervous. His cousin could hear it in his voice. By this point, June 2015, not quite six years since his final football game, he’d become convinced that his five diagnosed concussions (plus countless more that weren’t) across a decade of using his head as a weapon had triggered his downward spiral.

“I’ve noticed I’m relying on drugs to try and be who I want to be,” he wrote in his journal around this time. “I need to stop, but at the same time I’m like Fuck it. I won’t lie, I feel kind of scared and depressed bout my future. I found some info online about CTE and got scared. I’m not looking at that stuff again.”

Meanwhile, Zac’s parents believed their son was on top of the world. He’d just graduated from college with honors. He was a star in the Iowa National Guard—he won a Soldier of the Year award for his unit and was short-listed for Army Ranger school. He turned it down because the war in Afghanistan had become so dangerous. Inspired by The Wolf of Wall Street, he’d made a get-rich-soon pact with his elder brother, Myles Jr. They’d pound their fists on their chests, like Matthew McConaughey in the film. He’d grown closer with Ali, their on-again-off-again relationship inching toward something real and special. A full life awaited him.

But what his parents saw—the degree, the girlfriend, the job, the stability—was a mirage. Yes, he had just graduated from college, but he’d also just told his first employer, an annuity-and-insurance marketing company, that he needed time away from work. When he was making sales calls, he would forget what he was talking about mid-sentence. It got so bad that he even wrote himself a two-page script to get through a call.

They knew some things were off. Sometimes on the phone it sounded like Zac was talking with marbles in his mouth. And they’d noticed that his bank account was suddenly hemorrhaging money.

When his parents arrived for his birthday dinner, Zac took an anxious swig from his Coors Light, gathered himself, then told them he needed to talk. “Something’s been going on with my head,” he began.

From there, he laid it all out: He was quitting his job because he needed to focus on his health. He was often tired and dizzy and nauseated. During college he used to set his alarm for 3:30 A.M. to work out and run for hours; now he would go for a jog, feel sick, and only make it 1.4 miles in 20 minutes. He got headaches all the time. Sometimes while driving, he’d go into these trances; he’d snap out of it when he drove his car into a curb. Panic attacks came without warning. He had started writing down a long list of questions for his doctor; one of them was “Do you think I’m showing signs of CTE or dementia?”

In fact, he already knew the answer to that one. He had just visited a doctor who specialized in concussions and who told him that, yes, he very well might have CTE. He had started seeing a speech pathologist to help him manage his cognitive struggles and improve his memory, attention span, language-processing abilities, and problem-solving skills.

His parents were stunned. They knew some things were off. Sometimes on the phone it sounded like Zac was talking with marbles in his mouth. And they’d noticed that his bank account was suddenly hemorrhaging money. But mostly they just assumed their son was a young man grappling with adulthood and independence.

But now he was telling them that he might have a mysterious brain disease that afflicted NFL players, haunting them for decades after their careers had ended. One psychologist even told Zac that he would—not could, would—end up penniless, homeless, and in a mental institution. Zac had walked out of that guy’s office terrified.

Myles Easter Sr. had seen the news reports of ex-NFL stars whose lives unraveled post-retirement and ended in suicide. Mike Webster, Andre Waters, Dave Duerson, Junior Seau—the Sunday gladiators who once were the apotheosis of all that he worshipped about the game of football. But Myles never really believed the disease existed. To be honest, even the mention of it kind of disgusted him. CTE was an excuse, he had always thought: a bunch of millionaire athletes who had it made, blew through all their money, fell out of the limelight, got depressed, then killed themselves. But now, hearing his own son—still just a kid, no jaded pro, someone who had never played a day of football above the high school level—say that he might have CTE?

“It just caught me so off guard,” Myles Sr. says. “I was honestly dumbfounded.”

The dinner table went quiet. Then Brenda, Zac’s mom, broke the silence.

“Well,” she said, “let’s fix it.”

Zac Easter’s Journal

June 2015

Even with two 30 mg Adderall in me about another 10 mgs I poored out and snorted, I still got lost all around Menards and the dollar store.… IDK what it was but I felt like I kept walking all around the store and passed what I was looking for several times. I straight up felt confused on what I was looking and kept forgetting even right after I looked at my list.… I only went for like 3 things to. I guess [my speech pathologist] is right, I only have about a 3 minute memory after that I’m fucked. I even took three wrong turns on the way home. Shit happens I guess.

July 2015

I wish I could put a finger on what is wrong with me. Its either from the concussions or Im just bat shit crazy. Im tired of feeling emotionless or too many emotions. Im trying to find a new hobby but nothing really quite makes me want to do it. Tomorrow I meet w/ Spooner [the concussion specialist] about everything to me, theres just NO way those concussions didn’t change me. I think I might just donate my brain and let them figure it out.

August 2015

I still havent been working or looking for work. I got put on Zoloft and my new psychiatrist seems to know his meds. I’m still fighting the side effects. Sleep has been dismal and I’ve still been going to speech therapy and PT. It sounds like they really arent on my side anymore and they want me to be focusing on my mood disorder. I cant really blame them. I have been fucked up with depression the past few weeks. I’ve been going out more but using more drugs. Smoked pot a few times, rolled on Molly and now I got some coke. All that plus Adderall fuck it! Its the only way I feel normal

September 2015

Im scared if I can’t get help or feel better I may want to just end it all. As in suicide. Im just so tired of feeling so shitty and anxious. I had a job interview, two of them and its hard for me to not have panic attacks. It seems like I still cant get over my anxiety. IDK lifes just a bitch. Im try to forget about that fact that Im mentally ill and that I might have a traumatic brain disorder. I plan on going home tonight so hopefully I’ll be able to talk to my rents a little more. I might even move home next month if I cant get some income coming in.…

I just got my Adderall script and started snorting it right away! Im going to try and leave it home when I go home so I don’t use it all. Physically my heart rate is still always nuts whether I’m Adderall or not. I’m trying to work out but its just getting harder each day.

Friday, November 13, 2015. 5:30 P.M.

Zac Easter stood on the dock leading out onto Lake Ahquabi, pistol in hand, ignoring the calls that had started pouring into his cell phone a few minutes after his Facebook post. Instead, he opened Snapchat and posted a photo of the lake: “God bless America,” he typed.

The third time Ali called, he picked up. She heard terror in his voice. “I can’t do this,” he told her. “It’s never going to get better.”

A friend recognized the lake from the Snapchat photo. Deputies from the county sheriff’s department rushed to the state park while Ali tried to keep Zac on the phone. “Listen to the sound of my voice,” she told him.

“I’m losing my mind,” he replied. “This is it for me.”

Then a pause, a shift in tone: “Ali, did you send these cops here?”

His phone died. Ali sent him a frantic text at 6:12 P.M.: Baby its my Winslow jist talk to me. I need to know you’re okay.

Out on the dock, Zac pointed the gun at the sky and fired: a warning shot to tell the police to keep away.

Zac’s girlfriend, Ali, was the only person he trusted with the truth of his struggles.

Zac’s father, alerted by friends, sped his pickup truck into the park, down the hill toward the lake. The first sheriff’s deputy he saw recognized him. More squad cars raced into the parking lot. Another deputy—a former all-conference linebacker for Easter Sr. a few years back—pointed an assault rifle at his son. Lasers from police rifles danced on Zac’s body. It was past dark and getting cold. Myles Sr. peered inside Zac’s car. He saw an empty six-pack of Coors Light, an empty bottle of Captain Morgan, and a pill bottle.

Floodlights illuminated Zac. The sun had set on the far side of the lake, dropping a black curtain on the water behind him. He stood up from a picnic table and walked wordlessly down the pier toward a wooden fishing hut at its edge. A few more steps and he’d be inside, alone on the water, out of sight.

“Put your gun down!” the deputies shouted.

“Nope!” Zac yelled with an anguished laugh. “Not gonna do that!”

His father realized with a flash: Zac wants the police to shoot him. I can’t let this happen. He sprinted down the wooden pier. “Zac!” he shouted.

If he shoots me, he thought, he shoots me.

“Dad, stop!”

“Nope, I’m coming. Put your gun down.”

Zac laid the gun down, then disappeared inside the hut.

Seconds later his father reached the door. Inside, he saw a sad, sick look on his son’s face. His vibrant boy was gone. Zac looked worn-out. Beaten.

“Dad, I’m in trouble,” Zac said quietly.

Myles Easter Sr. spoke gently to his son. “I don’t know what’s going on, but we’ll get this figured out. But we gotta get through this part right now. We’re in deep shit. We can’t make it any worse.”

Back on land, the deputies surrounded Zac and eased his wrists into handcuffs. They put him in the back of an ambulance, drove him to Des Moines, and checked him into Iowa Lutheran Hospital.

Seven hundred miles away in Cleveland, Ali was still in limbo, panicked, convinced Zac had hurt himself. Before he hung up the phone, his voice had gone flat. For 62 minutes, she had no idea if he was dead or alive.

Finally, a text popped up on her phone. Zac’s elder brother: “They got him.”

December 5, 2015

They took all the guns out of the house. They took all the alcohol out of the house. They were constantly on edge. Myles Sr. and Brenda encouraged Zac to go to his therapy appointments, and he would—but then he’d sit in the parking lot and have a panic attack and never leave his car. He went to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, but then he’d wake up in the middle of the night after a bad dream and start drinking from a whiskey bottle he’d hidden in his room.

Something had shifted inside of him. No longer did he worry that he might be going crazy; now he was certain of it. Fatalism swept over him. He told his mother he’d made a bucket list: Things to Do Before CTE Takes Away My Mind. Travel overseas. Camp in the timber in winter. Hike across the country, or at least through Colorado. Go rattlesnake hunting on the family’s land.

On the sixth anniversary of the day Zac bagged his ten-point buck, Myles Sr. decided to take his son hunting. Perhaps they could recapture some of the tranquillity of those days. They got up before sunrise, ate bacon and eggs, and got in the truck.

It’s a 40-minute drive from their house to the family’s timber, a good time to talk. They sipped coffee. Myles told his son that he was proud of him, that Zac was smart and talented and successful. He said they would fight through this as a family. “I’m sorry about the concussions from football,” he told his son. “I didn’t understand it earlier.” Zac didn’t want his dad feeling guilty. He told him that he loved football. He told him he even missed football.

They got out of the truck. Zac watched his dad pull the shotguns out from behind the seat, where he’d stashed them away. Myles Jr. met them and they hiked into the woods. From the tree stand Myles Sr. was heartened by the sight of his boys together, walking down the hill, laughing. Today, at least, Zac seemed like his old self. “I thought maybe we were getting better,” Myles Sr. says.

They hunted till after sunset. On the ride back home, Myles Sr. picked up a six-pack of Coors Light tallboys for them to split. Zac’s mom wouldn’t have liked this—alcohol, she knew, only made his problems worse—but hell, Myles just wanted things to go back to the way they used to be with his son. As they rumbled home on the gravel country roads, Zac turned to his father. “This was one of the best days I’ve had,” he said.

They fell asleep next to each other in the living room, watching Iowa play Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game. It was a tough, ugly defensive battle, the exact kind of football game they loved.

December 7, 2015

Brenda Easter came home to find Zac’s car gone from the driveway. She called Ali, catching her in the middle of an exam, and Ali texted Zac.

He told her he’d been feeling cooped up at his parents’ house, thinking about losing his mind, and he needed to get away. So a few hours earlier he’d gotten in the car and just started driving. He was headed for Oklahoma, then turned around and started making his way back; after a wrong turn he wound up in Kansas City and got a hotel room for the night. He joked to Ali that he was going to hit a strip club, but all he did was sit in his hotel room and order pizza. The next morning, he made the three-hour drive back home.

Friday, December 18, 2015. 8 P.M.

Myles Sr. was in the upstairs bathroom, covered in blood. He’d taken their two dogs hunting in the woods behind the house, and Tito, the fat white rat terrier, had killed a possum. Tito was squirming in the tub when Zac walked in. He’d just gotten a haircut for family pictures the next day.

“Boy, you sure look good,” his dad said, grinning.

“You’re in deep shit if Mom sees that,” Zac said, looking at the blood-soaked dog. Myles asked him for a hand, so Zac held the dog in place while he finished washing off the blood. Then Zac disappeared into his bedroom. Ali was home for winter break and she’d invited him out with friends that night, but Zac declined. He was feeling down and didn’t want to be around people. Myles turned the dog loose, then went downstairs and fell asleep on the couch.

Five weeks had passed since Zac’s suicide attempt. Next week—the day after Christmas—Zac was heading to California for a facility that treated both alcohol addiction and mental illness. But Zac wasn’t sure he wanted to go. He didn’t see the point.

Saturday, December 19, 2015. 12:24 A.M.

Ali was still out with her friends at a bar in downtown Des Moines when a text arrived from Zac.

“Thank you for everything,” he wrote. “You’ve helped me through so much and never ever blame yourself for anything. I love you and will always be over your shoulder looking after you no matter what. Always keep having fun. Always remember me. Always keep striving for greatness or shall I say first female president. Never quit fighting for what you believe for 😉 I love you Winslow”

Ali wrote back immediately: “I love you, too babe but that sounds so past tense and is making me worried. I don’t want you to talk that way.… Are you okay. Please be honest. I can call you”

No reply. She called him, but he didn’t answer. Called again. No answer.

“Seriously zac,” she texted. “I’m worried now. I know you’re having an off day but it will be okay—I know you have the fight in you, Please talk to me”

No reply.

“Zac. Please talk to me”

Back at the house, Myles Sr.’s ringing phone woke him up. It was his eldest son, asking if Zac was upstairs. Myles Sr. went up to Zac’s room, but it was empty. He noticed a frayed piece of notebook paper on Zac’s bed and went back downstairs to get his glasses.

Ali texted Zac again: “Baby. It’s winslow. Please think of me please talk to me. I believe in you. I know you’re upset but please talk to me”

No reply.

“I need you to text me back”

Myles Easter put on his glasses and read what his son had scrawled on the sheet of paper.

“Please!” it began. “Look on my computer and print off my story and last wishes to everyone. PLEASE FULLFILL MY last wishes! My comp pass zacman (all lowercase)”

The 20-gauge shotgun that Myles had given Zac for his 12th birthday was missing from the backseat of his truck. One hollow-point 20-gauge Winchester slug was missing from Myles’s ammunition cache in the basement. Brenda’s keys weren’t in the kitchen, and her car wasn’t in the driveway.

By the time Myles got to Lake Ahquabi, a patrol car was already there. “I’m sorry,” the deputy told him. His son’s body was in the parking lot, the 20-gauge slug torn through his chest.