Director Rebecca Carpenter’s father, Lewis Carpenter, was a World Championship running back for the Detroit Lions and Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers. As an NFL coach, he was one of the most respected football minds of his era. When he dies, her family receives a surprise call from Boston University’s brain bank requesting his brain – with shocking results. Lew becomes the 18th NFL player diagnosed postmortem with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative neurocognitive disorder that can cause episodes of rage, social withdrawal, and other unusual behaviors. In disbelief, Carpenter finds herself at ground zero of an unfolding public health controversy and embarks on a three-year odyssey across America to explore the farreaching implications of this “new” disease.
Using the diagnosis as an opportunity to heal their troubled relationship, Carpenter travels through time zones and generations to piece together her father’s story. But as her road trip progresses, CTE starts to permeate the national airwaves, and Carpenter realizes that hers is not the only football family shaped by a little-known disease. This simple road trip turns into a cacophony of competing sound bites and complicated family stories, ending with one question: When one in three former players will have these problems, why do we still play football?
Carpenter approaches her subjects with refreshing humor, manic curiosity, and a huge heart as Lew’s former teammates, scientists, and historians offer their insights and support. Through quirky and poignant visits with Dr. Bennet Omalu and player advocate Mike Ditka, neuropathologist Ann McKee and NFL Hall of Famer James Lofton, headline stealing NFL retiree Chris Borland and hellraiser Dave Meggyesy, Rebecca obsessively pursues every available avenue to understand her dad, including interviews with families living in the aftermath of brain damage: Ray & Mary Ann Easterling, Greg Lens & his daughter Sarah Lens, Mike & Candy Pyle and Mike’s daughter Samantha, and Penny and John Hilton.
Ultimately Carpenter must confront her own complicity in missing the signs of her father’s brain disease as she begins to understand his depression, obsessiveness, forgetfulness, and unpredictable temper were common side effects of repeat blunt force trauma to the brain.