LOS ANGELES (CN) — The children of a former USC linebacker told a jury Tuesday their father became impatient, irritable and violent, even abusive before his death. And though the judge would not let any of the witnesses say the words "chronic traumatic encephalopathy" or "CTE," the implication was clear: their father had suffered some malady that dramatically affected his brain.
Matt Gee died in 2018 at 49 years old, 26 years after he played football for the University of Southern California. The official cause of death was ruled to be heart failure as a result of the combined effects of alcohol and cocaine as well as underlying hypertension. But a research program at Boston University, to which Gee's brain was donated, concluded that he had been suffering from CTE, a brain disease associated with repeated head trauma, and that in the public's mind has become inextricably linked with the sport of football.
Gee's family sued the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or NCAA, claiming negligence and wrongful death over their failure to protect Gee from repeated head injuries. On the eighth day of what could be a landmark civil trial, the jury heard emotional testimony from Gee's childhood friend Corey Yeager, daughter Malia and son Tanner.
Tanner Gee, now 26, recalled being close with his dad while growing up.
"I would have considered him my best friend since the day I was born," said Tanner, who repeatedly became choked up on the stand .
He remembered seeing a change in his father during the summer before his junior year of high school. In one incident, Tanner had to meet his dad at a gas station. After being kept waiting for 10 to 15 minutes, Matt was enraged.
"He struck me in the face two or three times," Tanner testified. "He had never been physical with me. It made zero sense."
In another incident, Matt confronted his son in the kitchen and asked him "Why are you a drug dealer?" Tanner denied being one. After a long interrogation, Matt grabbed Tanner by the neck and pushed him against the refrigerator. Later, Matt became remorseful, Tanner said.
"That was the one where he realized what he did," said Tanner. "He was crying. He said, 'I don’t know why I did that.'"
His father, he said, began to grow paranoid and delusional. He kept a shotgun by his bed and spoke of someone being "after him." Once, he mentioned seeing his brother's long-dead wife walking down the hallway. Another time, while watching football on television, Matt began to grow irritated at one team's defense. His anger then turned to Tanner, seated on the couch next to him, whom he appeared to blame for allowing another player to catch the ball.
He lost weight and appeared as if he was deteriorating
"He looked terrible," Tanner testified. "He would always tell me he was gonna die soon. He would say something was wrong with his head. He didn’t know what. He said he was going crazy, like Junior Seau."
That last remark drew an objection by the NCAA's lawyers, one that was sustained by LA County Superior Court Judge Terry Green, and the comment was stricken from the record.
Seau was a former teammate of Matt Gee's at USC, a linebacker who went on to have an illustrious 19-year career in the National Football League. Seau died in 2012 after shooting himself in the chest. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (part of the National Institutes of Health) Seau's brain had definitive signs of CTE. Seau's family sued the NFL, one of many CTE-related lawsuits. They reached a settlement in 2018.
The Gee trial is only the second wrongful death lawsuit brought by a former football player against the NCAA to go to trial, and could potentially be the first one to reach a jury. The first one settled on the third day of trial in 2018.
Throughout the Gee trial, Judge Green has been strict about only letting expert witnesses talk about brain trauma and CTE. Other fact witnesses have been admonished not to diagnose Gee in any way.
For example, Yeager recalled Matt saying at some point, "Corey, I think I might have this CTE thing." A defense attorney objected and Judge Green sustained.
Following Tanner Gee's testimony and mention of Junior Seau, with the jury out of the room, Judge Green reminded the plaintiff's lawyers to keep their witnesses on a tight leash.
"At some point, let’s not be shocked and dismayed if there’s a motion for a mistrial," Green said. The NCAA lawyers suggested they were considering such a move.
Earlier in the afternoon, Malia Gee, now 21, took the stand. She too recalled seeing an abrupt change in her dad's personality. He became impulsive.
"His brain was wired, he was buying Amazon packages every day," she said. "He would randomly buy me makeup or stuff for soccer. He just bought things every day." And he was quick to anger. "He got irritated all the time. It was so out of character. He would yell at me a lot, yell at my brothers. Just for nonsense."
Though she was not allowed to say her father had CTE, she was allowed to say how she felt when she'd been told about his diagnosis after his death.
"Very relieved," she said. "I knew there was something going on. He knew there was something going on. We all knew that that’s what it was."
Matt's childhood friend, Corey Yeager, now a licensed therapist who also played football throughout high school and college, recalled getting phone calls from Matt at 3 and 4 a.m.
"It sounded like he was off," Yeager testified. "It wasn’t like he was drunk or under any influence. He wasn’t the Gee I knew."
The last time he saw his best friend, Yeager said, "He didn’t look well. Matt usually had like a vibrancy about him that was absent the last time we saw him."
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