Former USC football captain dies at 31, brain donated for CTE research

After Kevin Ellison died Thursday, his family decided to donate his brain to the Boston University Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center for researchers to study the effects that CTE may have had on him. He had mental health problems that may have been caused by CTE. (Photo courtesy of USC Athletics)

Former USC football captain and defensive back Kevin Ellison, who won three Rose Bowl games while at USC from 2005 to 2008 and had a brief NFL career with the San Diego Chargers, died on Oct. 4 while walking the I-5 freeway in the San Fernando Valley. He was 31.

His mother, Judy Reisner, confirmed his death and said that he died after being hit by a car. The Los Angeles County coroner’s office did not release a cause of death.

Ellison’s brain will be donated to Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center to study  CTE, according to  Reisner.

Kevin had dealt with mental health issues in the past, which his mother said may have caused him to be walking on the freeway where he died.

Reisner said her son’s mental health issues may have been caused by CTE. The degenerative disease, caused by repeated traumatic brain injury,  is common among NFL players, the CTE Center found. Some families of football players have filed wrongful death suits against the league because of CTE.

According to the CTE Center, 110 of 111 NFL brains that they studied were found to have CTE. They also said the disease caused symptoms including memory loss, dementia and depression, even years after head injuries stop occurring.

In 2012 Kevin was put in a mental health institution for several months after being arrested on federal arson charges when he caused an apartment fire in Spokane, Wash. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

“He got gradually worse, just because he wasn’t taking care of it,” said Chris Ellison, Kevin’s brother. “He had stopped taking his medication, and it was hard for him too.”

However, Kevin’s life was also marked by happier memories. Reisner said Kevin had a “loving and magnetic” character.

“Kevin had a personality where he was so accepting and loving of all people,” Reisner said. “He had a smile and eyes that were just engaging and drew you in. He cared about everybody.”

Chris Ellison commented on Kevin’s passion for football.

“He wanted to be the best,” Chris Ellison said. “He really believed that … he would know what everybody was supposed to do on the defense, and what everybody was doing on the offense. That’s just how he was.”

Kevin started playing for USC football in 2005, and eventually became a captain for the Trojans.

“He died with a Trojan sweatshirt on,” Chris Ellison said. “He was a Trojan for life. He loved [the] campus, he loved the University, he loved the people there.”

Kevin’s mother said USC was always the school he wanted to attend.

“It was really not a choice of other schools … he wanted to go to ’SC, so he took extra classes and graduated early from Redondo [Union High School] so he could start in January,” Reisner said. “He enjoyed playing at ‘SC, he enjoyed being in that school and that environment.”

After attending USC, Kevin was drafted in the sixth round of the 2009 NFL Draft by the San Diego Chargers. He was also briefly part of the Seattle Seahawks during their off season.

Chris Ellison said Kevin had a tattoo that read “Be the Best,” a mantra that Kevin lived his life by.

Chris Ellison is planning a memorial service for Kevin on Oct. 27. No location has been set yet.

Kevin is survived by his mother, Reisner, his two brothers, Chris and Keith Ellison, and his sister, Camille Ellison.