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How this AFL star lost his marriage and almost his life to concussion hell

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It was only natural that Shaun Smith, the former AFL star known for taking the mark of the century, spent 11 years literally flying high at the code’s top level.

But now the former Melbourne Demons player has revealed to 7NEWS Spotlight he is struggling to get up from rock bottom, as he continues to battle what he believes is chronic traumatic encephalopothy, or CTE, the degenerative brain condition rocking contact sport around the world.

WATCH THE VIDEO ABOVE: The severity of head trauma in contact sport.

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“That was one of the features I had in my game – my leap, the marking and then the timing, all that sort of stuff,” Smith told Spotlight’s Michael Usher as he recalled the famous 1995 mark taken against the Brisbane Lions.

“I had a fair crack during my career and landed on my head a few times, which wasn’t real flash.

“I got whacked a fair bit as well.”

Shaun Smith taking ‘the mark of the century’ back in 1995 for Melbourne. Credit: 7NEWS

Those blows to his head not only damaged him – they changed him. Now Smith is convinced he is living with CTE, a degenerative brain condition believed to be responsible for early on-set dementia in a number of former athletes in contact sports.

They include hard-hitting former rugby league star Mario Fenech, who told Spotlight’s groundbreaking report into the biggest issue in Australian sport how he forgot his own son’s wedding.

Sydney neurologist Dr Rowena Mobbs defined CTE as a type of dementia.

“Gradually the neurons wither away in the brain,” she said.

“There’s a loss of brain tissue … due to the head knocks, due to the head injuries.”

“Over time, people get worse and eventually they end up needing care and dying from it.”

From top of the AFL to rock bottom

Its insidious effects include irrational anger, mood swings and suicidal thoughts. A situation all too familiar to Smith.

“Yeah. Thoughts of jumping in front of a train,” he said.

Smith made headlines in 2020 after he received a $1.4 million insurance payout in recognition for how he had suffered “total and permanent disablement” due to the blows to the head he sustained during his career with Melbourne and North Melbourne.

But the landmark ruling only came after he nearly lost everything, and he now believes the changes in his behaviour due his head knocks go back decades.

“It’s fair to say, it did cost my marriage,” he said.

“At one stage there I was sleeping in my car. I (didn’t) know where to stay, just a lost soul.

“Now I’m really starting to analyse my behaviour.

“Getting into trouble, getting arrested, which is not me.

“But I was finding myself just getting angry at the drop of the hat … from zero to nuclear.”

Shaun reveals his struggle with the toll of his repeated concussions during his AFL career. Credit: 7NEWS

While CTE currently can only be diagnosed after death through brain analysis, Smith has undergone a magnetoencephalography (MEG) scan and, unfortunately, the results were not a surprise to the 53-year-old.

“It just adds up what’s wrong with my brain,” he said.

“The areas of the brain (that) were for behaviour, that frontal lobe stuff. There’s some significant damage there.

“All of a sudden you go, ‘I’m not crazy. I’m not stupid. I’m not a bad person. It’s just what’s going on inside your brain’.”

And it’s unsettling stuff, according to leading CTE expert Chris Nowinski, co-founder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation.

The US neuroscientist and former professional wrestler has been at the forefront of research into CTE in the NFL and other sports.

“If you showed up to the hospital with a concussion, compared to people who showed up to the hospital with an orthopaedic injury, you are 40 per cent more likely to develop a new mental health problem over the next five to 10 years,” he said.

“Anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicidal ideation, all elevated in the concussion group.”

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How women are at the forefront of the next generation’s CTE crisis

Even more concerning is the fact Nowinski now believes the rising number of female athletes involved in contact sports such as Aussie Rules, rugby league and boxing could be at even more risk of the degenerative brain condition in years to come.

“There’s evidence to suggest that women may be more vulnerable to CTE going forward,” he said.

“Women have thinner necks and less musculature to slow their brain down when they get hit in the head.

“Now that we are trying to be inclusive, we are exposing women to as many head impacts and sometimes as many hard head impacts as men.

“The signal that we should pay attention to is they’re getting more concussions and they’re taking longer to recover.”

Researchers found damage in the brain of late AFLW player Jacinda Barclay who died last year at age 29 following a battle with mental illness. Credit: Getty

While former Australian rules footballers such as Danny Frawley and Shane Tuck have already donated their brains to the Australian Sports Brain Bank for further CTE research, the first donation by a female contact sport professional made for grim reading.

Researchers last year detailed how the brain of AFLW player Jacinda Barclay, who died in 2020 aged 29, had a degradation in her cerebral white matter – which has previously been associated with contact sports.

“An elite athlete shouldn’t have those changes,” Australian Sports Brain Bank executive director Michael Buckland told The Guardian.

Nowinski was even more blunt: “I mean I’m all for equal opportunity, but equal opportunity for brain disease is not a prize.”

‘Everything just went dark for a second’

Boxer Kate Mclaren, one of the growing number of young women involved in contact sports, has suffered her first real concussion.

“One punch just came at me, bang, hit the canvas,” said the boxer, who is coached by Mario Fenech’s pal, fighting legend Jeff Fenech.

“Yeah, it was, it was scary to tell you the truth.

“I just remember everything just went dark for a second and then I saw gold stars and then I remember trying to get up but you’re completely off balance.”

Mclaren said her instinct was to get back up and finish the fight, but her coach wasn’t exactly as keen about it.

“Some of these girls (who) fight, they’re amazing,” said Fenech, who dealt out 21 knockout wins during his 23 years inside the ring.

“But, um, I still don’t like it. I just don’t know.

“You look at the ladies who play rugby league today … they tackle the same as a man, they put their head in the same position, in the wrong position.

“We need to, I don’t know, get prepared for this. Be ready, you know?”

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Source: 7News