I’ve been wracking my brain all week, trying to remember the details of my last conversation with Bruce Murray. It took place December 2021, when he was gracious enough to spend a bit more time talking to me about Generation Zero — about Chuck Blazer, his Olympic Development Program days, former teammate and lifelong friend John Kerr Jr., and his time training with the Swiss club Luzern, among other things. I’ve just gone through my notes. The subject matter ranged all over and he seemed to luxuriate in the detail, in the act of recall. He even remarked upon it himself, upon dredging up the name of contemporaneous ODPer Sadri Gjonbalaj: “Now there’s a name some folks might remember.”
Last week, in the Washington Post, Murray, 56, went public re. his diagnosis with CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the progressive brain condition thought to be caused by repeated episodes of concussion. This news arrived six months after former Major League Soccer defender Scott Vermillion was similarly diagnosed — following his death in December 2020. He was just 44.
Murray retired as the leading scorer in U.S. Men’s National Team history. Yet he hung ’em up in 1995, at just 29 years of age, on account of serial concussive events. His diagnosis, and Vermillion’s, continue to catch the soccer world somewhat flat-footed, especially those former player who have, for the last decade, reflexively cordoned off such concerns inside a compartment reserved for American football.
I started playing competitive soccer at the age of 8 and didn’t quit until I was 40 years old. When CTE was first alleged as a futbol hazard, well into the 21st century, I’ll admit to having scoffed a bit. Surely the old timers in England — who logged decades of aerially intensive soccer with remarkably heavy, leather balls — would have exhibited dire, observable affects by now, I skeptically reasoned.
The first time I interviewed Bruce Murray for GZ, we did discuss his relatively early retirement, which he has long and openly attributed to concussions. This framing made sense to me at the time: The heading of soccer balls wasn’t the issue; it was and remains the head-to-head collisions that occur during contested heading events that produce the trauma. I can think of a several terrible instances of this during my own playing days, though there is one that I don’t remember at all. Only the before and after.
Well, in 2022, it’s a both/and world. Turns out heading is likely a contributed factor, along with concussions, over an extended term. What’s more, there is long-term historical evidence. In 2019, Britain’s National Health Service conducted a study that investigated the causes of death among 7,676 former Scottish professional footballers, all men born between 1900 and 1976, and compared them with more than 230,000 individuals from the general population.
According to a report, relayed via sportsgazette.co.uk, “Their findings revealed that former professional footballers had been three times more likely to die of a neurodegenerative disease than the general population… Jeff Astle, scorer of the winning goal in the 1968 FA Cup Final (also known as ‘The King’ by West Brom fans), is remembered as being the first British professional footballer to have died from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in 2002.”
All this context makes following soccer, as a fan, a bit more complicated, to say nothing of exactly how to perceive those short-term memory issues encountered by my fellow 50somethings, former futbol/football players and otherwise.
Bruce was a such generous and candid interviewee during the researching of Generation Zero. But we first met back in 1976, when he and his brother Sterling — in town to play my U-12 team, during a tournament — billeted in my parents’ house. This joyful shot below of Bruce (left), Sterling and younger brother Cameron was taken at about the same time. Note the cheeky bumpers sticker bottom right: The Murrays’ coach, John Kerr, Sr., still played for the NASL Diplomats at this time. Lord only knows what hardware Bruce is holding here. When I later billeted in the Murray house, during a tourney down in Maryland, the place was already full of trophies. One I remember quite vividly: 1976 Orange Bowl Juggling Champion. The kid could juggle indefinitely, and he demonstrated at one point, chatting idly and pointing things out in the surrounding landscape of his backyard. Eventually we got bored with this skill of his and moved on to something else. These were simpler times…