He was a natural.
As Joseph Chernach came of age in Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula, he played four years of Pop Warner youth football, then four years of junior varsity and varsity football for the UP's Forest Park High School Trojans of Crystal Falls.
An elite athlete, he played both sides of the ball, as defensive back and linebacker, running back and kickoff and punt returner. Though just 5-foot-9 and about 145 pounds, he was named a team captain and was selected a first team all-state defensive back as a senior in 2004.
But he was proud of his grades as well, graduating with honors from high school in 2005. Chernach went on to Central Michigan University with plans to become a physical therapist. But over time, that dream faded as his family said his personality altered, darkened. He eventually quit school and grew increasingly moody, depressed and socially isolated. He had trouble holding a job.
In June 2012, Chernach hanged himself in the backyard shed of his mother's home in Wisconsin. He was 25.
A year later, Dr. Ann McKee, chief of neuropathology at the V.A. Boston Healthcare System and a professor of neurology and pathology at the Boston University School of Medicine, released results of an autopsy of Joseph Chernach’s brain.
McKee found striking evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease linked to repetitive head injuries, and often marked by depression and dementia. CTE has been found in the brains of dozens of deceased former NFL football players. McKee is a principal investigator for The CTE Center, an independent academic research center located at BU's School of Medicine that is a national leader in CTE research.
McKee's autopsy found a pattern of tau protein deposits in parts of Chernach’s brain, a key marker of CTE. Her report concluded he suffered from stage II or stage III CTE (Stage IV is the most advanced). Her report added that the findings “are particularly noteworthy given the young age age of the subject.”
In a interview last winter with the New York Times, McKee called Chernach’s autopsy “the worst example of this in someone this young.”
Tying death to football
In February, his mother, Wisconsin resident Debra Pyka, 53, filed a wrongful death suit in federal court seeking at least $5 million in damages against the Pennsylvania-based Pop Warner Little Scholars Inc., which oversees Pop Warner football in the United States.
In part, the suit accuses Pop Warner, the largest youth football organization in the country, of “failing to warn children and parents of the risk of permanent brain damage” from playing football at a young age.
Connecticut-based lawyer Anthony Corleto, one attorney defending Pop Warner, declined comment on the lawsuit. A spokesman for Pop Warner also declined comment.
The allegations won’t be easy to prove, with the family’s lawyers having the burden of making a connection between CTE and Joseph’s earlier playing days with Pop Warner. But the suit is being watched closely by youth sports leagues, which fear the potential that such cases could make liability insurance prohibitively expensive.
In court papers seeking to dismiss the suit, the Lexington Insurance Company asserts that Pop Warner cannot be held liable for Chernach's suicide because “nothing in the complaint suggests that Pop Warner could have foreseen Joseph’s decline and suicide many years after he played youth football.” The insurer contends that back in the 1990s when Joseph played in the league nobody “knew about suicides resulting from playing Pop Warner football.” Holding the league responsible would mean all nonprofit sports leagues would have to “take ruinously expensive precautions, which still could not eliminate the risk of concussion.”
Pyka said she believes football took her son from her, even though Joseph was never diagnosed with a concussion while he was alive.
“He became a completely different person. I didn't know his brain was dying,” she said.
After leaving CMU in 2009, Joseph spent time in both Michigan and Wisconsin, living with both sets of parents and other family members. Pyka and her husband, Jeffrey Chernach, divorced in 1993, and she married Fred Pyka 19 years ago.
In the final months of his life, Joseph lived with Debra, his half sister Nicole, and his stepfather in their home in western Wisconsin. He had found work as a janitor for the local school district, then lost it. His mother said he was too ashamed of himself, considering himself a failure, to go out much.
On the evening of June 6, 2012, Joseph walked out of the house in an angry mood, he told his mother he was taking a walk. He never came back. Fred Pyka found him dead, hanging in the shed the following morning.
To Debra Pyka, it is a bitter irony that the sport he so loved to play and watch took such a toll. He was buried with his high school jersey and that of the Green Bay Packers, his favorite NFL team.
“I want parents to be aware of the dangers of tackle football,” she said.