Writing about . . . Joseph Chernach

Dr. Pellman and Dr. No Casson had already set the precedence for that position. I had no reason to believe the next guy wasn’t just another place holder for the owners as the other two clowns were. Especially Pellman.

A Guadalajara trained rheumatologist, who just happened to be commissioner Pete Rozell’s personal physician?

You’re kidding me, right?

As I got to know Ellenbogen more, I found out that he was the real deal. At least as much as he could be. Despite his sharing the role as the head of the Head, Neck and Spine Injury Group with Dr. Hunt Batjer, the NFL owners still had say in many of the policies regarding head injuries.

But for the most part, they had delegated most of those decisions to professionals for a change.

What a novel idea.

But with the new guard, the tide began to change. The owners were already feeling the pressure from years earlier. After Dr. Bennett Omalu conducted the study on Mike Webster’s brain, the next three NFL brains Omalu studied were from former players who had committed suicide:

  • 9/30/04 Former Pittsburgh Steeler Justin Strzelczyk drove head on into a tanker truck while being pursued by police at an estimated 90 miles per hour. Omalu’s autopsy showed Strzelczyk had tau proteins and amyloid plaques in his brain. Tell tale signs of an insidious neurological disease that Omalu would ultimately name Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. CTE for short. Twenty three of the first 24 NFL brains Omalu studied all showed the same problems. Tau proteins and amyloid plaques.

Chernach4-e1392317194895-300x213The aftermath of Justin Strzelczyk’s 90 mile per hour head on collision with the tanker truck.

Friends and team mates of Strzelczyk stated his behavior had been getting more and more bizarre before his life ended so tragically. Was he asking for help?

Did anyone hear his calls?

Were there any calls?

  • 6/7/05 Another former Pittsburgh Steeler, 45 year old Terry Long killed himself by drinking antifreeze. Omalu studied his brain. Again tau protein and amyloid plaques. More CTE. Several other Drs believed his football damaged brain led to the suicide. The NFL’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee disagreed.
  • 11/20/06 Andre Waters, the hard hitting safety for the Philadelphia Eagles shot himself. This was the first brain that former Harvard football player turned WWE wrestler, turned battered brain collector, Chris Nowinski approached the family to study. Nowinski had hooked up with Omalu on the brain studies after having his own brain rattled while wrestling. Nowinski was the vulture collecting the brains and Omalu conducted the studies. Another case of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE.

While the carnage continued, the NFL intensified their assault on Omalu and his work.

But Omalu stayed true to his work as the bodies piled up during Casson and Pellman’s watch;

  • 1/21/09   Shane Dronett, a defensive tackle and 2nd round pick of the Denver Broncos in 1992. He played with Denver from 1992 – 1995, with both Atlanta and Detroit in 1996, and back with Atlanta from 1997 – 2002. In 2000 he signed a 5 year, $20 million contract. In 2006 he began exhibiting signs of paranoia, confusion, fear and rage and was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor in 2007. The removal of the tumor didn’t help his symptoms and on January 21 of 2009, he chased his wife with a gun before turning it on himself. His brain tested positive for CTE.
  • 9/20/10 Kendrick L McKinley, a 5th round wide receiver pick in 2009, played his only season with the Denver Broncos that year before he shot himself. His brain tested positive for CTE.
  • 2/17/11 Dave Duerson. One of the more shocking suicides, Duerson shot himself in the chest leaving a note that his brain be donated to The Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University in order for it to be studied. He tested positive for CTE.

As if his suicide was not disturbing enough in itself, what was even more disturbing was the fact that in 2006, Duerson had been appointed by Gene Upshaw to the NFL Disability Board. The same board that heard claims of active and retired players whose injuries prevented them from working. The NFL Disability Board was composed of six trustees, three from management and three union members. The several hundred million dollar NFL Disability Trust was nearly entirely funded by the owners, who fought to ensure as little as possible was paid out. That was understandable. What wasn’t understandable was the fact that Duerson denied access to those funds to player after player. If the player wasn’t outright denied, he was forced to negotiate a seemingly endless journey of doctors evaluations, second opinions and mountains of paperwork.

If their brains weren’t damage before they attempted to file, they were surely damaged after.

“They made it real clear that they’d fight me to the death, like they did with Mike                             Webster,” says Brent Boyd, a Vikings guard in the ’80s. Boyd suffers from clinical depression related to brain trauma.

Hall of Fame center Mike Webster of the four time Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers during the 70’s with whom Boyd made reference to, was impaired by CTE and lived out of his truck off and on before he died at age 50.

Webster never lived long enough to see a penny of his earned benefits. He died in 2002. The last few years of his life spent flailing between reality and delusional darkness, unable to find his way home, at least times when he wasn’t homeless.

Using a stun gun on his head in order to sleep. He lived on Twinkies at times. The times his son Garrett didn’t have to remind him to eat. But eating was tough on the rotten teeth he had Super Glued back in his mouth.

“They were supposed to push for us, but were in the owners’ pockets. You had to live in a wheelchair to collect,” said Boyd.

Shortly after being appointed to the NFL Disability board, Duerson began to exhibit bizarre behavior concerning the players. He disparaged former players in their claims for benefits,

got in a shoving match with two former NFL greats Sam Huff and Bernie Parrish at a Congressional hearing in 2007, questioned whether Brent Boyd’s injuries were actually

football related, and bad mouthed his former coach, NFL Hall of Fame player Mike Ditka, whose Fourth and Goal Foundation raises money and pays bills for former players who are no longer able to support themselves. All at no cost, or repayment from the player.

Duerson’s final, uncharacteristic shot was his demeaning of Brian DeMarco, a former player crippled with several crushed vertebrae. Duerson shredded him on a call-in radio show, calling DeMarco a liar and insurance fraud.

Says Cy Smith, the lawyer who won a landmark lawsuit on behalf of Mike Webster’s estate: “I get dozens of these files coming across my desk – stark, sad cases of guys really banged up – and the vast majority of these judgments are 6–0 against the players. That’s a gross breach of practice by the board and a clear pattern of bias against paying.”

John Hogan is an attorney who has assisted numerous former NFL players with their disability claims. When speaking of Duerson, John he stated: “He really could’ve changed the story for vets, and done it from the inside without saying mea culpa. He didn’t have to indict the system. All he had to do was say, publicly, “I’m sick, and I need help like these other guys.” [131]

Unfortunately, Duerson didn’t ask for help.

The demons wouldn’t let him.

They filled his mind with twisted ideas.

“Come on Dave. Don’t be a wimp.”

“Real men don’t ask for help. Suck it up.” 

“Better yet, end it. You’ll be better off dead.”

When Duerson took his own life on February 17, 2011, he was the 11th former NFL player to do so since 1987.

Six more would follow…………

In 2012 alone.

Paul Oliver, a former San Diego Charger, succumbed to his demons in 2013 and took his own life bringing the total of known NFL suicides since 1987 to 18.

The list doesn’t include active college football players who committed suicide and were diagnosed with CTE postmortem, such as University of Pennsylvania football player, Owen Thomas. Nor does it include former college players who killed themselves and were never tested.

It also doesn’t include active and former high school football players who took their own lives, including Honor student and All State wrestling champ, State pole vault champ and All-State high school football player Joseph Chernach.

Chernach4-e1392317194895-300x213JOSEPH CHERNACH

Joseph Chernach’s story is without a doubt the most horrific, heart wrenching, gut ripping story I’d ever heard. Unfortunately, I am sure there are many more unheard stories out there. Joseph’s story is a horror beyond my imagination and will speak for all those who can’t. Joseph’s mother, Debra Pyka, reached out to me via our Traumatic Brain Injury Facebook page in September of 2014. Renee Shull of Integrated Play (www.integratedplay.org) and the Marketing Director for The Visger Group manages our Facebook page and blog and Renee forwarded me Debra’s call for help.

Joseph was a near perfect honor student while he attended Forrest Park High school in Hixton, Wisconson. He was the U.P. State Pole vault champ, a U.P. State wrestling champ and played football. Joseph was never diagnosed with a concussion while playing sports. Debra relayed to me Joseph’s last few years prior to his suicide in 2012 at age 25, were a constant battle with depression. His last night he left the house upset and told his mother he didn’t know if he could go on and was going to hang himself. When he didn’t return home later that night, Debra and her family drove the streets for hours looking in trees for his body.

Looking in trees for your child’s body! 

Can there possibly be a worse nightmare than that for a parent or loved one?

I don’t see how.

I relay this nightmare and horror, not to sensationalize Joseph’s death, but to try to comprehend the torture and anguish Debra and her family must have felt those hours they spent in hell looking for Joseph. And the hell a young man in the prime of his life must have felt prior to taking his own life. The same hell 18 of our NFL brothers have felt in the last few years, and hopefully, HOPEFULLY, with God’s help we can make something positive out of all this pain.

Debra’s daughter found Joseph the next morning hanging in their shed. They were best friends. Joseph had been dead since leaving the house the night before.

Debra and I spoke for well over an hour after our first email exchanges in September of 2014. I was beyond livid after we talked. I can feel her pain and anger as much as anyone can. As part of the so-called NFL Brain Injury lawsuit settlement in September of 2014, the NFL was not required to divulge any information on what they knew and when they knew it.

It was basically, “Here, take $765 million, now get the hell out of our way so we can make another $10 Billion this season. By the way, we’ll only give you this money if we don’t have to admit to anything.”

Thus, the League of Denial, as the Wainura brothers so eloquently produced for the PBS Frontline documentary of the same name, The League of Denial; The NFL ConcussionCrisis, which aired on October 8, 2013. [186] 

Had the NFL stepped to the plate, and released the information they’re withholding regarding what they knew and when they knew it, maybe Joseph would still be alive today.

How much of their $9.5 billion was Joseph’s life worth to the NFL?

As Debra told me, she is on a mission to have all young, former high school football players who commit suicide tested for CTE.

What if this is an epidemic which has been going on for years?

Below are our first, unedited communications Debra and I had.

From: Debra Pyka <[email protected]>

Subject: NFL research

Date: September 16, 2014 at 10:46:40 PM EDT

To: George Visger <[email protected]> 

Message Body:

My son died 2 years ago from suicide at the age of 25, later to be diagnosed with CTE stage 2 to 3 by Dr. Ann McKee. I have written letters to all my federal senators/ congress in my state of WI, Michelle Obama, the White House and last week sent a letter to John Conyers (House Judiciary Committee). I requested that congress force the NFL to turn over the research they have been hiding and denying re: head trauma and concussions, in my letter I explained the NFL sponsors our children who play pop-warner through high school football and the parents had a right to be informed of this research, the dangers and brain diseases playing football can cause. Our government oversees our schools and our children are playing sports on school property. I have not received a response from any of these politicians and the letters were sent in April 2014. They have all turned their backs on my dead son and not even acknowledged his death or our grief and loss. I’m still waiting for a response from John Conyers. What can I do, no one will listen to me?


I am so sorry to hear of your son’s death. Please keep in mind that CTE in the frontal lobe impacts your judgment. I’m sure your son would never have gone through with his suicide had he been able to think things through and thought of how painful it would be for you and your family.

I have met with several of our Congressional representatives regarding traumatic brain injuries, particularly in the NFL. As a survivor of 9 NFL caused VP shunt brain surgeries and no NFL benefits, I’ve been forced to become an expert on the subject.

I will pass on your email to Terry Wardley of Senator Ted Gaines office and Congresswoman Linda Sanchez, with whom The Visger Group sat down with last year regarding this issue,

After forwarding Debra and Joseph’s information to Terry Wardley of Senator Ted Gaines’s office in Sacramento, Terry replied back that the Senator wanted to meet with me two weeks later on October 28th, 2014.

My Senator Gaines meeting happened to be the day before Debra was to be featured on Blog Talk Brain Injury Radio with Kim Justus. Kim had featured me on a show on October 15th, and I encouraged her to have Debra on to tell her story.

———- Forwarded message ———-

From: Debra Pyka <[email protected]<mailto:[email protected]>>

Date: Thu, Sep 25, 2014 at 7:01 PM

Subject: CTE and forwarding my concerns to Linda Sanchez

To: [email protected]<mailto:[email protected]>

George: Thank you for relaying my concerns with my son and CTE. You are the only one who has listened to me so far. I am beyond pissed at my politicians for ignoring my letters. I read the enclosed stories on you and I am so shocked at all the suffering you have and will go through. If I could have only known about CTE before my sons suicide, all the signs were there and I knew nothing about CTE until after, when my oldest son asked me to have his brain sent to BU. I will not stop with making my voice heard until the day that I die. This mothers wrath will come down on someone soon. I will go to the newspaper if I don’t get a response/action from those I wrote letters to. I hope the research is made public soon and the NFL is shut down and heads roll. I would like to talk with you one day if you have time. I hope you can recover and there is a cure for this brain disease sooner than later. This is my sons story; http://www.sportslegacy.org/research/legacy-donors/joseph-chernach/

Thank you> Debra Pyka  

Debra wrote this article on Joseph and posted it in the Sports Legacy Institute’s magazine shortly after Dr. Ann McKee diagnosed Joseph with CTE in December of 2013. 

JULY 11, 1986 – JUNE 6, 2012

Chernach Joseph Chernach traveled to his next journey on June 6, 2012, with his Forest Park Trojan and Green Bay Packer Jersey, his difficulties and struggles with depression finally came to end at the age of 25.

Joseph was a competitive and talented athlete from an early age, playing summer baseball, wrestling since the age of 6 throughout high school, a pole vaulter in track and played pop-warner, JV and Varsity football in high school. He won many medals and trophies from grade school through high school.

He was the Michigan high school U.P pole vault champion, Michigan high school state wrestling champion, named all U.P class D defensive back, all State class D defensive back, MVP of football along with senior athlete. He was proud to play in the Michigan High school state football finals in 2004 with the Forest Park Trojans.

Chernach1 His greatest accomplishment was graduating with high honors from Forest Park High School in 2005.

He also attended Central Michigan University in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan with plans to graduate with a degree in Physical Therapy.

Joseph was baptized at the Northfield Lutheran Church, Hixton, WI, and confirmed at the United Christ Methodist Church in Crystal Falls, MI. His Facebook page reflects his religious views as “God Loves Me.”

Joseph was fun, active and lived for making people laugh and his sense of humor touched many. He was a fan of the Michigan Wolverines, Milwaukee Brewers and Green Bay Packers. He loved to fish and deer hunt in Wisconsin on the family farm.

Chernach Joseph leaves behind many family and friends, father Jeffrey Chernach, mother Debra (Fred) Pyka, brothers Tyler (Michelle) and Seth, sister Nicole, step-sister Samantha, Grandmother Lolly, nieces Braylee and Layla and the Forest Park Class of 2005.

A yearly scholarship has been set-up in his memory.
 Joseph Chernach Memorial Scholarship
 Forest Park High School
 801 Forest Parkway
 Crystal Falls, MI 49920

Chernach In Joseph’s final few years, he suffered with depression and unable to overcome all the struggles and difficulties with life. CTE was destroying his brain until he could no longer go on with life here. Looking at his headstone in the cemetery is very heartbreaking knowing he is gone. We will never see him graduate college, marry, become a father, and live a happy, healthy and successful life.

We will always wonder what he would have accomplished in his lifetime and we know he will be waiting to see us all again, until that time comes, we are left with the devastation of losing him and living our lives without him. We are all grateful for having him in our lives for almost 26 years. Until we meet again, our love goes with you and our souls wait to join you.

Chernach For almost 20 years, the NFL covered up and denied evidence to the connection between brain damage and football. How many people have died from this brain disease whose families are unaware? How much progress could have been made for research, a cure, and the safety and health of everyone had this evidence been made public 20 years ago?

I have contacted the news media, local congressman, senator, representative, the National Federation of High schools and the White House with my son’s story and concerns with sports, head trauma and CTE. The safety and health of our children are at risk. I hope someone will finally listen.

We love you and miss you Joseph and we’ll all be together again one day soon.

Debra Pyka


We are grateful to Sports Legacy Institute for the research and diagnosis to finally give us the answers to what caused Joseph’s depression and early death. Joseph never played college or pro-sports and we do not know of any concussions during his middle or high school years. This is the report we received from Dr. Ann McKee at Sports Legacy Institute in December 2013:

Fixed tissue samples were received from Sacred Heart Pathology Department, Eau Claire, Wisconsin on 9/6/12. There were no obvious abnormalities. However, microscopic analysis of the tissue revealed considerable pathological tau deposits as neurofibrillary tangles throughout the frontal brain regions. There were also very severe changes in the brainstem, with numerous tau neurofibrillary tangles in the locus coeruleus, an area of the brain thought to play a role in mood regulation and depression. The changes in the frontal lobes and locus coeruleus were the most severe I’ve seen in a person this age. These findings indicate Stage II, possibly Stage III (with Stage IV being most severe) CTE and are particularly noteworthy, given the young age of the subject.” [186]

After our second email exchange I asked Debra for permission to share Joseph’s story and his reports from Boston University. Debra graciously opened her heart and soul and allowed me to do so. I told her Joseph’s legacy will be his story will touch and save lives for years to come. It was his role on earth, and a huge cross God gave him to bear. A cross he carried it like a man and we’ll all be better for the pain Joseph suffered.

Thank You Joseph.

You will never be forgotten.