The Philadelphia Inquirer
Dates on a gravestone explained why the little crowd had gathered at dusk Friday inside the Berlin Cemetery. Jarred Isaiah Alwan, born Nov. 10, 1993. This was Jarred’s 30th birthday.
There was a second date on the gravestone … Jan. 18, 2023.
Jarred’s mom, Narci, wore her son’s Indianapolis Colts bucket hat. Jarred always loved the Colts. Their insignia was on his gravestone, along with a Temple “T.” Mom wore Jarred’s Temple football jacket. Alwan, a Camden Catholic star, had made big plays himself during real glory days for the Temple Owls.
“I get up. I pretend I’m OK,” Narci told the gathering, then spoke directly to her son. “You tell me to knock it off when I’m not OK.”
Narci Alwan explained what motivates her now.
“For those of you who don’t know, Jarred had Stage II CTE,” Narci told the gathering. “From taking all those hits to his head.”
After Jarred died, his sister did some quick research, seeing how they could donate his brain to the Boston University Brain Bank, “the largest tissue repository in the world focused on traumatic brain injury [TBI] and CTE.” Everyone agreed it was the right thing to do, to try and get answers — and hopefully help somebody else. The brain was delivered three days after he died.
The BU study was completed last month. A neuropathologist wrote up the report sent to the family, which they agreed to publicly share. First, there was a Zoom call sharing the findings.
“I was ready for it,” Narci Alwan said. “It actually did give me a little closure. But I’m still mad.”
The report gets to the clinical point: “Diagnoses … Chronic traumatic encephalopathy: Stage II … The features of CTE include abnormal tau present within neurons, glia, and cellular processes in an irregular and patchy distribution present at depths of sulci and around blood vessels. Neurofibrillary tangles are present throughout the frontal, temporal and parietal cortices. CTE-type perivascular pathology is present in multiple locations in the frontal cortex.”
In other words, his brain had been damaged.
Stage II, of IV stages, is noted in an overview paper for symptoms that “include behavioral outbursts and severe depression.”
“Junior Seau was Stage II,” noted Chris Nowinski, co-founder and CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, referring to the NFL Hall of Famer, who died by suicide in 2012, shooting himself at age 43. “Former football players who develop CTE are usually Stage II when they died in their 20s, 30s, and 40s.”
“I just want them to change the words from suicide,” Narci Alwan told The Inquirer of how her son died. “Because how is it suicide when you don’t know what you’re doing? I want to change the death certificate. He had no idea.”
Alwan said she is thinking of looking into legal action, trying to find out if there were concussion issues at Temple that factored in here. She’d talked after he died how she was upset that Jarred had been put on a plane after suffering a concussion in Houston. She “fussed” at the coaches, she said.
“After that, Jarred stopped telling me if he had a concussion, if he had any injury,” Narci Alwan said.
“Matt Rhule, he stepped up and he paid for the funeral,” Narci Alwan said of Jarred’s coach at Temple, now Nebraska’s coach. “But that’s not going to bring my son back.”
Alwan had been a key member of Temple’s defense, playing alongside future NFL players such as Haason Reddick and Tyler Matakevich. He had initiated his share of hits. When Temple beat Penn State in 2015 at Lincoln Financial Field, a strong candidate for the most historic win in school history, Alwan had secured the first of 10 Owls sacks on Penn State’s quarterback, Christian Hackenberg.
After graduating from Temple in 2016, Alwan had gotten his master’s degree in 2019 from Baylor, working on Rhule’s staff as a graduate assistant defensive line coach. He then taught physical education and was a football assistant and softball coach in Arlington, Texas, before coming home to South Jersey, working as the director of a before- and after-care program in Collingswood.
The day before Alwan’s funeral, his family had welcomed a reporter into their home, describing a humble and inclusive guy who didn’t have a suit that would fit for that service because he had given them away to younger Temple teammates.
What caused that CTE? The BU report doesn’t go there.
“Schools and the NCAA have been sued by families after CTE diagnoses,” Nowinski said. “They haven’t won in court yet. … The NCAA is continuing to make the false claim that football doesn’t cause CTE.”
Nowinski made the point that groups that have publicly acknowledged it include “the NIH [National Institutes of Health], the CDC [Center for Disease Control and Prevention], and the NFL.”
However, Nowinski said, “the [court] cases that have been brought have complex histories. It may be more of an issue of the specific cases.”
Nowinski added, “Concussions themselves are a risk factor for suicide and for psychiatric symptoms. The research on connecting CTE is not as robust because the work has not been done.”
After the diagnosis for Alwan was made, his family was invited to Boston last week for a yearly gathering of families impacted by CTE. They toured the Brain Bank itself, where Jarred’s brain had been studied. “When they go in, they go in blindly. They don’t know anything about the person,” Narci Alwan said.
They were shown what was being looked for through microscopes. They actually held a donated human brain. Narci and her husband Gamal made the trip and brought a photo of their son, now hung on the wall at BU.
“The kids should not be playing until at least age 14,” Narci Alwan said. “Jared was playing since he was 5. … One thing I did learn, just because you put on a football helmet, that doesn’t mean you’re safe. It doesn’t protect the brain.”
The family is starting a foundation in Jarred’s name, she said, “Concussion legacy is going to be a part of it.” They also are planning a scholarship fund.
“Now I’m part of a family that I didn’t want to be a part of,” Alwan said of the people they met at BU, the staff there, and other families going through similar ordeals. “But I’m glad I have this family to support me.”
Thirty lanterns were handed out Friday, messages written on them before they were lit and released into the South Jersey night sky. … Happy Heavenly 1st B’Day Jarred, Thanks for stopping the rain, Love Ms. Lucy.
One lantern had a little trouble getting airborne before achieving liftoff.
“Thank you, Jarred,” someone said.
The lit-up lanterns flew northeast, across the White Horse Pike, almost in formation, illuminating a dark cloudy sky, making it appear almost smoky. There was a toast with Hennessy white, Jarred’s favorite.
Friends spoke lovingly of Jarred before the lanterns were released. One longtime friend spoke as her own 7-year-old son stood next to her, how her son had never gotten a chance to meet Jarred, that he’d played football the season before but had stopped, saying he didn’t want to play. Then he went to Jarred’s funeral. Hearing about Jarred, he decided he would play. He took Jarred’s jersey number and tries to emulate Jarred.
This fall, his team was undefeated. They won the championship.