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Walking his darkest path: Mark Rypien’s long struggle with traumatic brain injury

Mark Rypien displays his Super Bowl ring he won with the Washington Redskins in 1992. Rypien, the Redskins quarterback, was named MVP of the game. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Mark Rypien displays his Super Bowl ring he won with the Washington Redskins in 1992. Rypien, the Redskins quarterback, was named MVP of the game. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Memory loss, violence, depression and uncontrollable impulses have challenged the Shadle Park grad and WSU QB for years. Now, Rypien says it’s time to talk about CTE, a degenerative brain disease primarily found in athletes.

Early on, there were the “wait-a-minute” moments.

Like the time Mark Rypien and his wife, Danielle, were in the car, daughters in the back seat, pulling into a McDonald’s drive-thru. She wasn’t a McDonald’s eater. Didn’t speak the McLanguage. And the menu board was too far ahead for her to read it anyway, not that she’d know a Big Mac from a Quarter Pounder. So when her husband asked her what she wanted to order, she was momentarily stumped.

“A hamburger?” she offered.

And Mark Rypien lost it a little.

“Mark had never said a mean word to me the first two years we were together,” Danielle said. “Never had an argument. And he just snapped out of the blue. There was no trigger. It didn’t make sense. And later on, he was like, ‘What happened?’ He felt bad for days, to where it was crushing him that he’d done that.”

But there were other moments. Yelling at his brothers – his teammates – in rec league hockey games that went well over the edge of jockish trash talk, once causing a rift that lasted a month. Lapses in memory for someone who could recall trivial details from football games played 25 years before. Mood swings over trifles, as when Danielle would put on some music in the house.

“What are you doing that for?” he barked.

Wait a minute.

“There were behaviors that were just bizarre,” said Rypien, 55. “They didn’t fit anything.”

Until they went beyond the wait-a-minute blips. Until they became reckless, dangerous, frightening, hurtful.

Until they started to reflect behaviors which had beset multiple generations of National Football League alumni who had endured withering hits to the head over the course of careers long and brief, in a sports culture that schooled them to “shake it off” and in a professional enterprise which then ignored or dismissed the findings of researchers and medical professionals that pointed to patterns of serious mental illness beyond the physical toll.

In time, it took a lawsuit with Rypien as a lead plaintiff joined by some 4,500 former NFL players to exact reparations – but no concessions of fault – from the league, and the 2015 movie “Concussion” to crystallize public awareness about brain injury and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).

Rypien doesn’t know if he has CTE: Diagnosis can only be made with an autopsy. But both he and Danielle can identify the signposts.

“I remember thinking, ‘Oh my god, he’s going to end up in a home,’ ” said Danielle. “Mark knew every guy in that movie. I thought he was going to end up like that. I didn’t want him running around the street with a shopping cart.”

Except he’d nearly ended up dead already.

It’s about awareness

From his days as a record-shattering high school quarterback at Shadle Park to the pinnacle as a Super Bowl MVP, Mark Rypien has lived – and sometimes made a living – on his memories.

Want to talk about that touchdown pass he made at Washington State in the Apple Cup, or the clubby camaraderie of an NFL locker room? He’s happy to oblige.

Now he’s ready to have another conversation. In interviews this week, he shared details of his struggles with mental illness, suicidal thoughts and emotional control.

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He’s been prompted, he said, by a dark winter in his community. He took note of the January suicide of WSU quarterback Tyler Hilinski, and the more recent news of Coeur d’Alene High School principal Troy Schueller dying from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot. He’s learned from his brother, Tim, a teacher at North Central, of “an epidemic” of suicides among NC students, and across Spokane’s teenage population.

“Let’s address this now,” Rypien said. “Let me share my story so others can share theirs. Let’s get rid of this silence that happens when you’re caught up in this cycle and you don’t know how to find the help I’ve been afforded. There are ways to get help. There’s great work going on in our community. But we need to team up and do more.

“My story is impactful because people see me in a different light. I want them to see me in an accurate light. I’ve been down the darkest path. I’ve made some horrible, horrible mistakes. But I’ve given myself a chance to progress forward.”

That’s occurred with the help of a phalanx of counselors and doctors, a fine-tuning of a medication regimen and other strategies, as he calls them, and the “relentless support” of his family and Danielle – work, he knows, that will be forever ongoing.

The mistakes, as he called them, cover a lurid gamut. Domestic violence, though the episode was triggered, both Rypien and Danielle insist, by a “disastrous” change in medication. Sex with prostitutes at local massage parlors.

An unsuccessful suicide attempt – and a false start before that.

He’ll talk frankly about those – to a point. When he balks, the Rypiens say it’s because they have been advised that details could hurt the work of the Rypien Foundation that he began 15 years ago to aid in the treatment and comfort of childhood cancer patients, and which has seen the recent resignation of two employees, including the executive director, Katie Doree.

The Rypiens were accompanied to a KHQ television interview this week by Michelle Hege, a Rypien Foundation board member and the CEO and president of Desautel Hege, a local public relations and marketing firm.

They met with The Spokesman-Review by themselves. A friend has put them in touch with Alan Hilburg, a renowned crisis management specialist.

That might suggest simply that there’s care being taken with the message or, in this era of #MeToo revelations, there’s another shoe still to drop.

Rypien insisted there isn’t.

“Making poor decisions, poor choices, that kind of took over my life,” he said. “I was to a point where I needed to make myself feel better somehow and I did things that allowed me to do that, and then was literally more depressed and feeling even worse than I was initially.”

NFL star Qurterback Mark Rypien hears the rundown from coach Bob Haney in 1980 when Rypien played for Shadle Park. (PHOTO ARCHIVE / SR)
NFL star Qurterback Mark Rypien hears the rundown from coach Bob Haney in 1980 when Rypien played for Shadle Park. (PHOTO ARCHIVE / SR)

A football life

Rypien remains perhaps Spokane’s finest high school athlete – the passing records, pitching in the state championship baseball game, MVP of the State 3A basketball tournament Shadle won in 1981. He would become an All-Pac-10 passer at WSU, and if his NFL career wasn’t charmed all the way from draft to retirement, there was a two-year period when he was as good as any quarterback in the game – culminating in that MVP turn with the Washington Redskins at Super Bowl XXVI.

But in 26 years of organized football, he eluded few hits – beginning with “getting my bell rung in hamburger drill or bull-in-the-ring” face-offs in junior high. He recalled getting leveled on a spring-game Hail Mary pass in Pullman and, in the Martin Stadium tunnel later still in uniform, asking where his next class was.

After his peak years in the NFL, both the Redskins’ veteran offensive line and Rypien’s mobility began to disintegrate. The hits kept on coming.

Concussion protocol? There was no such thing in those days.

“People think you have to be knocked out to have a concussion,” said Rypien, who said he may have been diagnosed with three during his career. “There are hundreds of times you shake it off and get back in there. It’s all about the cumulative hits. That’s what cause brain damage.”

Mark Rypien plays for Washington Redskins in 1990. (Photo Archive / SR)
Mark Rypien plays for Washington Redskins in 1990. (Photo Archive / SR)

After parting with the Redskins, he kept his career alive as a backup with several NFL teams until his young son, Andrew, was diagnosed with brain cancer and Rypien walked away from a deal with the Atlanta Falcons. Three years after Andrew’s death at age 3 and a divorce from his first wife, Annette, Rypien returned to back up Peyton Manning for a season in Indianapolis – at age 39.

When he was finally released after training camp with the Seattle Seahawks in 2002, Rypien seemed destined to go seamlessly into retirement. He had the usual business interests, a thriving golf game and, especially, a cause. He launched the Rypien Foundation in memory of Andrew, and began a new chapter with Danielle.

But you don’t leave the hits behind.

“All you have to do is watch the hits in a football game to realize you’re watching the destruction of people’s lives,” said Dr. Daniel Amen, the founder of Amen Clinics who has treated Rypien. “I’ve had players who were flat-out demented, who were far along in the process and I’ve had other players who because they were backup quarterbacks, they really weren’t so bad. I’d say Mark’s in the middle. Clearly, there’s evidence of trouble.”

Cries for help

Rypien’s shadows are depression, anxiety, isolation. Outwardly social and comfortable in those settings, “I can’t wait to get home and be alone,” he said. Yet there’s not always comfort there, either.

Not quite 10 years ago, his impulsive, even addictive behaviors began to escalate; aggressiveness and verbal outbursts increased. So did regret and self-hatred.

According to Spokane neurologist Dr. David Greeley, one of the doctors approved to consult with and treat former players covered in the NFL’s $765 million lawsuit settlement in 2013, it’s a common thread.

“Their self-worth just falls apart and they start thinking about suicide,” he said. “It’s just kind of a cascade from there. I think they want their respect back. Almost every player I talk to has the same story.”

One day, Rypien left a 20-minute audio suicide message at home for Danielle to find, and disappeared.

“I called the police, so there’s probably a record,” she said. “I told them I didn’t know where he is and he might already be dead because he left the note hours ago. We couldn’t find him. I called him. I called the family and they called him. The police called him. Eventually, he called back.”

Mark Rypien talks with KHQ anchor Stephanie Vigil during an interview, March 28, 2018, at the station’s studios. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Mark Rypien talks with KHQ anchor Stephanie Vigil during an interview, March 28, 2018, at the station’s studios. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Sometime later, it went beyond a message. On the birthday of his younger daughter, Angie, Rypien swallowed 150 Advil and washed them down with a bottle of Merlot.

“It was the thought that people aren’t going to miss me,” Rypien said. “My life is as shitty as it could ever be. I was shameful and guilty of poor decisions, shameful and guilty of being depressed all the time. I didn’t want to be around anymore. I didn’t look at how this would affect my kids, my grandkids, my wife, my family.”

It was Danielle who found him and saved him – pouring hydrogen peroxide and activated charcoal down his throat to get him to vomit up the pills and sitting up with him all night. And who now can’t believe that she didn’t call an ambulance that night.

“It worked out – but it was a huge mistake,” she admitted. “There was a lot of crazy going on at that time. I’d kind of gone nuts, too, because who does that? Things have happened like that with people I’ve known and earlier in my life, I would have rushed them in, made sure they were taken care of. But I didn’t. I tried to handle it myself so we wouldn’t have another …”

“Incident,” Rypien cut in. “The hard part of being a ‘figure’ – it’s not like I can just go to the hospital and have everyone learn I’m suicidal. This will be a story.”

And that it’s a story now?

“Silence is the killer,” he said. “It’s time to talk about mental health.”

But Rypien’s thoughts didn’t stop with hurting himself.

He went through long bouts of not sleeping, and days when he walked around with what Danielle called “serial killer eyes.”

“He’d be like, ‘Honey, you’ve got to keep yourself safe. Call my brothers. I’ve been thinking some really crazy, psychotic thoughts.’ He’d be himself for maybe two, three days and just float away again. And he’d warn me that he’d been thinking about hurting me, about killing me – and he didn’t know why. And then he’d be clear and would never hurt me. We’d talk about it. We got his brothers involved so we could call them, because I didn’t want to leave him alone.”

But there would be a time that he hurt Danielle, and there’s a dismissed domestic violence case file at the courthouse with her name on it, as she was the one arrested.

It dates to last November, long after they say the worst of Rypien’s issues manifested themselves during a roughly three-year period – and why they maintain this was the result of a reaction to a change in his medications.

“They had warned us when they put him on it,” Danielle said. “We’re not talking about an antidepressant, we’re talking about an anti-seizure med they added to his antidepressant, and it was the second one they had tried. The first one was also a disaster. They had warned us … maybe he’ll adjust into the medication after a rough patch, but expect weirdness.

“This is not a snapshot of our relationship. This was a unique and crazy night.”

With the help of his wife, Danielle, former Super Bowl XXVI MVP and Shadle Park High graduate Mark Rypien is dealing with a traumatic brain injury caused by the many concussions he received during his football career. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
With the help of his wife, Danielle, former Super Bowl XXVI MVP and Shadle Park High graduate Mark Rypien is dealing with a traumatic brain injury caused by the many concussions he received during his football career. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

As they prepared to go out to an event, she sensed her husband’s agitation and probed for the reasons. Triggered by too many “why questions,” he said, a verbal altercation ensued.

“I got angry, and I threw her on the bed a couple of times,” he said.

This time, the police were called. State law requires mandatory arrest in responding to domestic violence, so at least one person has to leave in cuffs.

Said Danielle, “I had some bruises. I wasn’t black-and-blue. And I don’t regret it, per se, but I did not tell the police what happened. I didn’t see any good coming from that. If they had locked Mark up, what’s that going to do? Lock up someone who’s on a medication? If he were doing this all the time, that would be different. This was a fluke thing.”

Even if medication-induced, it was still a return to the scary behavior that marked Rypien’s lowest moments, and mirror those of others with brain injuries.

“People with CTE have erratic jumps and will move from perfectly normal to erratic behavior within seconds or minutes,” Greeley said. “They know something’s wrong and they can’t control it.”

That applies as well, he said, to other impulsive behavior.

“It’s kind of like a lot of teens or people with bad decision-making,” Greeley said. “They just fall into it. Sex and food and drugs and gambling and risky behaviors become more paramount. (And) they’re embarrassed about their behaviors.”

Such as Rypien patronizing the spas that were shut down in a police sting back in 2012. His name didn’t appear with the hundreds of other men listed as customers that were published for one reason: He didn’t use a credit card to pay for the services.

“Yes, I was part of this,” Rypien acknowledged, offering no further details. “Again, I made some absolutely crazy mistakes. Terrible decisions. Poor judgment.”

Brain scans from former footballer Mark Rypien. A gray mark on the scan to the left denotes an area of low blood flow, likely the product of head trauma sustained during Rypien’s professional sports career. The right scan shows a dark area in the middle of Rypien’s cerebellum, suggesting decreased function. (Amen Clinic / Courtesy of Mark Rypien)
Brain scans from former footballer Mark Rypien. A gray mark on the scan to the left denotes an area of low blood flow, likely the product of head trauma sustained during Rypien’s professional sports career. The right scan shows a dark area in the middle of Rypien’s cerebellum, suggesting decreased function. (Amen Clinic / Courtesy of Mark Rypien)

Fighting back

In the middle of Rypien’s deepest struggles, things got worse. His cousin, Rick Rypien, a National Hockey League veteran who had struggled with clinical depression throughout his career, took his life in 2011. Shaken by it then, Rypien cites it now as part of his resolve “not to become another statistic.”

But the statistics of brain injury are as relentless as his vast support. Danielle reported that there is a space in Rypien’s brain – cavum septum pellucidum – “literally a separation of the membranes.”

“By stage 2 CTE, they see this gap in 50 percent and then more in later stages,” she said. “It’s correlated to CTE because it’s found in the normal population very rarely. The more brain injury you have, the more you see this.”

It’s news like this which seems to have brought out the competitor in Rypien. The Rypiens have been to the Cleveland Clinic’s Neurological Institute for evaluation and received access to counseling. Amen Clinics has provided help with psychiatrists, psychologists and nutritionists. EXOS of Phoenix has been a source for more nutrition and exercise plans. He’s dabbled in Reiki and energy massage. He takes mega-doses of Vitamin D, in addition to his list of mood stabilizers and antidepressants.

The bulk of this has come out of pocket. Only the Cleveland Clinic services have been covered by the NFL’s trust, which to date has paid out roughly half of the settlement amount – and approved only 28 percent of 1,260 claims to the most extreme and urgent cases.

When the settlement was reached, Rypien was among those who applauded it, with reservations, simply because the need for treatment was so great for many. But he despairs of the slow processing of claims and wonders if “they’re biding their time until people die.”

He has become just as soured about the game which “provided me some wonderful, wonderful things.”

“Today,” he said, “I wouldn’t put any of my kids or grandkids in a football jersey and play this sport,” he said.

Angela Rypien following dad Mark's lead. (Courtesy of Martine Gorrill)
Angela Rypien following dad Mark's lead. (Courtesy of Martine Gorrill)

But it was not that long ago that his daughter, Angela, leaped into the game with the Lingerie Football League, a quarterback like her father and, he said, also suffered concussions. The two, he said, have had a falling out during the past year or so and “it makes me sick to think that as much as my daughter wanted to play this game, I thought it was a great idea.”

He was moved by the message of Corey Widmer, who went from Montana State to an eight-year career at linebacker with the New York Giants that overlapped with Rypien’s era. This week, Widmer declined induction to the Montana Football Hall of Fame.

“I’m 49 years old, depressed to the nth degree but have a lot of money,” Widmer told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle this week, “and some people might say it’s still worth it. I just tell them to watch what they wish for.”

Uncertain future

Mark Rypien’s situation may not dissuade the most eager kids from taking up football. But he hopes he can persuade people with mental health challenges – or living with people who have them – to drag them into the open.

“It’s hard,” he said. “There’s a lot of guilt and shame just to be in front of your own family in situations like this. When I was really dark, I felt there was no hope. That’s kind of the message I want to get out – that there is hope. I’m getting help.”

His next step: treatment from TMS Solutions, a company specializing in transcranial magnetic stimulation, an FDA-approved treatment for depression that’s often used when multiple medications have failed to help.

Depression is associated with many other brain diseases and injuries, and research is ongoing as to whether TMS can help people with those conditions improve their memory, not just treat their depression.

An investor in TMS Solutions is Cowles Co. which also owns The Spokesman-Review.

Mark Rypien's NFL career included being named the 1991 National Football League Player of the Year and the Super Bowl XXVI Most Valuable player. Now Rypien says he is dealing with a traumatic brain injury caused by the many concussions he received during his high school through NFL football career. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Mark Rypien's NFL career included being named the 1991 National Football League Player of the Year and the Super Bowl XXVI Most Valuable player. Now Rypien says he is dealing with a traumatic brain injury caused by the many concussions he received during his high school through NFL football career. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

The Rypiens have reached an odd space in their struggle. They believe now they know what caused Mark’s uncontrolled behavior and have found tools, if not solutions. They weathered the kind of storm that often tears families apart and threatened theirs. They have another cause and a message.

“But I might get worse,” Rypien conceded. “I’ve got strategies to get me through the next day, the next year, 10 years. But I don’t know.”

Said Danielle, “My personal opinion is that he’s in stage 1 CTE. That’s what it looks like. We see guys all the time, eight or 10 times a year, because we go to the same events they do out of town who are sliding that way. I talk with their wives and I’m like, ‘Ah, that’s what that was. That’s what I’m seeing.’ But he has so many things he does to keep himself in line mentally, so he has those guidelines and braces, so if it gets bad again, he can last until they have some kind of treatment that’s better than what we have now.

“I do have hope. But a little more would be nice.”