Ray Easterling, a former Atlanta Falcons defensive back who is among a group of players suing the NFL over head injuries, committed suicide Thursday, FOXSports.com has learned.
Easterling died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his home in Richmond, Va., according to police. The Falcons also confirmed the death, although the team didn’t release any specifics.
Easterling, 62, was found by his wife, Mary Ann, who contacted police at 6:14 am on Thursday. Easterling was dead, with a handgun nearby, when police arrived, Richmond police Captain Yvonne Crowder told FOXSports.com.
“Based on our investigation, we are ruling it a suicide,” Crowder said.
Easterling was a member of the Falcons' famed “Grits Blitz” defense of the 1970s. He started for the Falcons for four years (1974-77), according to a team spokesperson, and led the defensive secondary that established a team record for interceptions (26) in 1977. That same season, the Falcons set an NFL record for the fewest points allowed in a season (129 points).
Easterling was one of more than a thousand players who have sued the NFL over head injuries sustained while playing the game. In a lawsuit filed last August, Easterling's lawyer, Larry Coben, wrote that the league "continuously and vehemently denied that it knew, should have known or believed that there is any relationship between NFL players suffering concussions while playing . . . and long-term problems such as headaches, dizziness, dementia and/or Alzheimer's disease that many retired players have experienced.”
For about 20 years, Easterling had suffered through bouts of depression and insomnia, symptoms researchers have linked to repeated head trauma. Easterling, who also underwent 25 orthopedic surgeries, including a hip replacement, was diagnosed with dementia in March 2011, his wife, Mary Ann Easterling, told FOXSports.com.
“He had been feeling more and more pain,” Mary Ann Easterling said. “He felt like his brain was falling off. He was losing control. He couldn’t remember things from five minutes ago. It was frightening, especially somebody who had all the plays memorized as a player when he stepped on the field.”
Easterling joins a growing number of former NFL players who have killed themselves in recent years, including former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson and former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Terry Long.
Duerson left a suicide note telling his family to donate his brain to Boston University researchers, who discovered evidence he suffered from the debilitating brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Long's brain also showed evidence of CTE.